This collection has everything to recommend it to the serious poetry reader. A complexity of thought and feeling subtly winds its way into your subconscious and, like her realization of Rothko’s work, finally infuses itself into the world we see.
“The Road Not Taken,” while admittedly the most popular of Frost’s work, is not his most misunderstood poem. That honor belongs to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which appears to be a Janus-faced coin: on one side is a charming poem about a man caught up in the wonder of an evening snowfall in the woods; on the other is a momento mori poem with, perhaps, a suicide subtext. How do we reconcile the two?
The common mistake that readers and critics have made with Frost’s work is to read metaphor and symbol out of the poetry and attempt to render it as stark realism. It is Frost’s ulteriority, often revealed through the unconventional use of familiar poetic figurations, that compels us to explore the agons inherent in his work, otherwise we’d have very few reasons to return to the poems as often as we do.
Ann Marie Mikkelsen’s extensive research has yielded a very informative book on the use of pastoral themes in twentieth century poetry. Her prime exhibits are select poems by Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, but she also briefly covers works by Gertrude Stein, Lyn Hejinian and Lisa Robertson.
Notwithstanding the naive premises of the popular form of pastoral, however stretched and strained, the genre remains remarkably durable, even if it is increasingly used as a touchstone more than a framework. In modern and contemporary poems we witness the popular pastoral portrait with its cracked varnish juxtaposed to modernism’s industrial high tech, conflicted morality and garish breaches of decorum; when they are combined, we have a distinctive form of irony.
The poem exerts a magnetic attraction, largely due to its lyric intensity and the unpredictable development of its content: from a pastoral setting on Cornell’s campus in Upstate New York (where the “single creek” featured in the poem cuts through the Cascadilla gorge), to the capaciousness of its scientific quantifications of the cosmos and the apparent awe inspired by the poet’s realization of his place in the universal scheme, and finally to the surprising lament at the end of the poem.
It was on the occasion of his return from the Yucatan, when passing through Duty Free he saw the watch, or rather heard the whisper of the perfect prologue that slips beyond the monogrammed curtain of a discrete French cuff to deliver, sotto voce, a life-sustaining pulse to its audience as it anxiously waited for the grand drama of his life to proceed. This, he thought, was just the dramatis persona he needed.