Robert Frost, the farmer-poet of New England, actually spent his formative early years in San Francisco. His mother moved the family east after the death of her husband--a hard-living journalist from whom Robert took his willful perversity. He attended Dartmouth and Harvard, leaving both prematurely, and after putative stabs at teaching and journalism became a poultry farmer in New Hampshire. It took a trip to England in 1912 (to live "under thatch") for his poetry finally to be published, and when he returned to America in 1915 his reputation had preceded him. Until his death in 1963, he worked assiduously at consolidating his position as America's premier voice; reading at Kennedy's inauguration and meeting Khrushchev were just two of the scenes he stole. So why does Jay Parini need to reclaim him?
The answer lies with Lawrance Thompson. Thompson was one of Frost's most earnest disciples, and for years the poet, ever eager to shape his own image, allowed him a Boswellian intimacy. Unfortunately, Thompson came to despise his former mentor, and his exhaustively documented volumes portray Frost as a kind of solipsistic monster, in marked contrast to the awe with which he had previously been described. Parini, also a biographer of John Steinbeck, in a wave of perspective seeks a corrective to Thompson's bile. His writing is intelligent yet breathlessly generous, and he is at his best when considering the poems themselves. He rightly ascribes to Frost the innovation of the colloquial voice in serious verse--a legacy that appears immense today when so much contemporary poetry consists of little else. Frost's mastery lay in the freedom he found within conformity and the dark corners he discovered by probing, which contribute to a melancholic spirituality beyond the rusticity for which he is popularly celebrated. While Thompson's egg is cracked and dry, Parini prefers a softer boil, and his elegantly reverential tone is imbued with a perception that reminds readers how great a poet Frost remains. The clergyman who advised him at an early age that his verse was "too close to speech," and thus gave him his voice, deserves eternal gratitude. --David Vincent, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
March 26 marks the 125th anniversary of Frost's birth, and there could be no better tribute for a poet so often underrated, maligned and misunderstood than this sympathetic and balanced portrayal. Frost has been depicted as selfish and vindictive in biographies by Lawrance Thompson and Jeffrey Meyers, but Parini, himself a poet and novelist, sees Frost as a man who "struggled throughout his long life with depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion." Rarely has Frost's story been told this dexterously, or with a better understanding of the relation of Frost's personal crises to his accomplishment as a poet. The Yankee farmer-poet actually lived his first 11 years in San Francisco, was thoroughly schooled in Latin (was, in fact, "more of a classicist by training than either Eliot or Pound"), and nursed an early ambition to pitch in the major leagues. He was competitive, funny, smart about his own career and reputation, and throughout the height of his fame was plagued by horrible family tragedies. His father, sister and several of his children suffered from deep depression, suicide and early death, and Frost was often blamed for tragedies he was helpless to prevent. Frost fought his own bouts with what he called "the grippe" with hard work, and thrived on outdoor labor. Parini makes generous use of Frost's verse, often quoting entire poems, but avoids treating the poems as if they were mere transcriptions of the poet's experience. Instead, he achieves the more difficult task of clarifying Frost's process of composition, as he shaped his material from everyday sources and shaped his lines against the strict pattern of a metric line to achieve the natural stresses of the spoken voice. The result is a book revelatory of both the poetry and the poet. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Elaine Markson. Author tour. (Apr.) FYI: All of Frost's backlist poetry and prose is in print with Owl; last year, Holt also released the CD-ROM Robert Frost: Poems, Life, Legacy.
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