New Enlarged Pocket Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems: With an Introduction and Commentary by Louis Untermeyer. Pocket Books: 1971 (29th printing):
My first introduction to Robert Frost came in high school, specifically “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” These are his two most famous poems and probably most people have some familiarity with them. I like them and both spoke to me. I wouldn’t say they inspired me or influenced my own poetry, which developed much later. In high school I was still convinced that I didn’t like poetry. I came to understand later that I didn’t like poetry with facile rhymes or that simply pointed out an observation, thought or feeling that I already knew well from my own experience. It wasn’t until I discovered Dylan Thomas in college that I began to see the possibility for poetry to transcend and expand personal experiences.
Because Frost’s poetry spoke of what I would describe as mundane reality, I just never pursued his work further. I don’t mean mundane in a negative sense here. I mean it essentially as “objective” reality. But that’s not what I want to experience in the literary works that I read. I live mundane reality. I want the poetry I read to twist that reality and surprise me. Knowing of Frost’s influence on the field of poetry, however, I did pick up this collection of his poems. I decided I needed to read them. Here are my thoughts.
First, I can certainly agree with the critics that Frost was a superbly talented poet and a keen observer of the world. His poems are typically quite simple in construction, with straightforward rhyming patterns. When they impact me, they tend to evoke quiet and contemplative moods. And now I’ll say, and hope that I won’t be misunderstood, that quiet and contemplative is not what I want from my poetry. I want disturbing. I want rawness. I want the surreal. Frost does not give me these experiences and for that reason he’ll never be as important to me as someone like Dylan Thomas.
I really hope people do not take this as some kind of “dislike” of Frost, or that I’m saying he’s not a poet worthy of study and consideration. I don’t mean it that way. I’m talking about my own very personal and visceral (or lack of that) reaction to his work. Perhaps the best way I can say it is this: I have a bookshelf where I keep copies of works that inspire my own writing, or that have in some way shaped my philosophy on life. Dylan Thomas’s poetry is on that shelf. Some of Ray Bradbury’s is on that shelf. Robert Frost will not be on that shelf, though he may well be on “your” inspirational shelf. And if that is the case then I salute you.
Moving from my general response to Frost’s work to this specific collection, I’m not sure I’d recommend it. The poems are well presented, of course, and I generally liked the overall organization of the book. However, I just did not care for, or find useful, the commentary by Louis Untermeyer. Untermeyer was a well respected poet and critic, but I found his comments about Frost’s poetry to be long on hyperbole and low on information. Here’s an example, from page 168.
“The poems of Robert Frost have a way of uniting opposites. They are casual in tone but profound in effect, teasing and intense, playful yet deeply penetrating. Even when they seem to be about a particular place, they suggest ideas unlimited by space.”
This is a good example, to me, of saying nothing while seeming to say much. I would much rather have had information about when and where the poetry was written, and information about any historical connections that the poem may have had. I bought this collection, in part, because I felt I needed some commentary to help me experience Frost. I think now that this was a mistake and I should have come to the poems without any filter. To those of you who are interested in writing poetry and want to study Frost for that reason, I’d suggest a collection with no commentary. For those of you who are making a more literary study of Frost, this collection might be useful but I don’t think it would be a good starting point. Something that places Frost’s work better into the context of his times would likely prove more useful.