January 7th, 2017

Robert Frost on “new” poetry

I’ve been reading this collection of essays about the poet Robert Frost. It’s an older book that I took out of the library, and although it was edited in 1962 the essays in it are mainly from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

As usual, the quotes from Frost himself are a combination of wisdom and humor of a special and playful Frostian sort. Here he is on the newer, and more supposedly “experimental,” poets of his time:

Frost carried on his own distinct experiments, emphasizing speech rhythms and “the sound of sense.”…In Frost’s theory of poetry, the self-imposed restrictions of meter in form and of coherence in content…[are] limitations which work to the advantage, not to the disadvantage, of new and lively poetry.

The restrictions of the experimentalists, ironically seeking liberation, have amused Frost. With pleasant banter he has teased his contemporaries by jesting about their desperate “quest for new ways to be new.”

Sounds like today, doesn’t it? The essay from which that passage is taken was written in 1942 by Lawrance Thompson (who later turned on Frost, by the way, when he wrote a biography of Frost; see this for some of that fascinating story), and the Frost quotes in it are mostly from 1935.

To continue:

Behond the fantastic variety of restrictions in their freedom, [Frost] said: “Poetry, for example, was tried without punctuation. It was tried without capital letters. It was tried without any imge but those to the eye…It was tried without content under the trade name of poesie pure. It was tried without phrase, epigram, coherence, logic, and consistency. It was tried without ability….It was tried premature like the delicacy of unborn calf in Asia. It was tried without feeling or sentiment like murder for small pay in the underworld. These many things was it tried without, and what had we left? Still something.”

I hope that “still something” is still true. We still have Frost, anyway.

More from Frost, in a lecture he gave at Amherst, published in 1931:

I had it from one of the youngest lately: ‘Whereas we once thought literature should be without content, we know l know it should be charged full of propaganda.’ Wrong twice, I told him. Wrong twice and of theory prepense. But he returned to his position after a moment out for reassembly: ‘Surely art can be considered good only as it prompts to action.’ How soon? I asked him. But there is danger of undue levity in teasing the young…We must be very tender of our dreamers. They may seem like picketers, or members of the committee on rules, for the moment. We shan’t mind what they seem, if only they produce real poems.

I don’t know that I’d be as kind to them as Frost was. I definitely know I wouldn’t be as witty.

7 Responses to “Robert Frost on “new” poetry”

  1. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “freedom without limits is anarchy, and freedom without conscience is cruelty” Rabbi Benjamin Blech

    So too with art.

  2. Ben David Says:

    wasn’t it frost who said writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net?

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Ben David:


  4. neo-neocon Says:


    Having problems with comments not loading properly.

  5. mike in ga Says:

    Just doing a test for you, Neo so Happy New Year while I’m here and kudos to you for your indefatigable thinking, and writing.

    I often think that you write and post more rapidly than I can read and process!

  6. miklos000rosza Says:

    I read poetry by younger poets now and then. It sort of refreshes my palate for reading prose. Michael Zapruder is someone I like, also Tony Hoagland, the title of one of his books being “What Narcissism Means to Me.”

  7. Angie Says:

    I remember reading an anecdote about the time after a lecture when a student approached Frost and read him his poem about people in a cocktail party. It ended with “And people talked about people who talked about people who talked about people.” Or something like that. Everyone listening agreed that was very profound indeed and asked Frost what he thought of it.

    He replied, “Son, start with the rhymey-dimey stuff.”

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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