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Our Highest Liveliness (Frost, Burke, Derrida, Foucault, et al)

January 31, 2011

Robert Frost, at about the age of 40.

The academy has generated a good deal of heat but still relatively little light in its discussion of “personality” in poetry, 30 years notwithstanding. We might do better by engaging more general problems of literary “authority,” about which, as it happens, Robert Frost is quite illuminating. We needn’t confine ourselves to Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, though that is what we’ve tended to do. (Of course, Richard Poirier is the exception here, as in a few other ways.)

Frost has much to contribute to still-contemporary debates—these didn’t all end, or shouldn’t have anyway in the 1980s and 1990s—over the meaning and constitution of “authorship.” But in this respect his work has been utterly overlooked. As who should expect otherwise? I’ll take a look here at certain similarities among writings by Frost, Derrida, Kenneth Burke, and Foucault that bear variously on the matter of “authorship.” I set Frost’s remarks on the subject in this context in order to show that his concerns are really perennial. (We now hear mumblings coming out of such journals as PMLA of a “return to literature,” or of the re-birth of the author that Barthes declared “dead” so many years ago, in whatever sense.) And into the bargain Foucault’s work helps us see how, in thinking about his own writing, Frost often relies, in an intriguing fashion, on what we used to speak of (after Foucault’s manner) as the “author-function.” Such is the diction of bureaucracy—which is part of Foucault’s point in so phrasing it. But I really mean to trace out the path by which Frost diverged from the kind of thinking (and prose) we associate with Derrida and Foucault. Along this divergent path, Frost’s more immediate connection to Burke, Dewey and Emerson become clear. One more remark before getting on with it all. Because I’m writing more about a concept in Frost’s writings (“authorship”) than about any single work, and because Frost nowhere considers this concept at length, I’ll draw together a number of passages from lectures, essays, letters, and poems, the better to arrive at a composite sense of his thinking about “authorship.”In a talk at Kenyon College in 1950, Frost says:

A Modern bust of Gaius Valerius Catullus in Sirmione. Done by Schorle.

[A]ll through the years I’ve been confronted with the idea whether I say more than I know myself. A poet builds better than he knows. You might say there may be an exactness in the statement but there may be an inexactness in the implication and people can run off in different directions with the implication. I’m always re-examining a phrase in somebody’s poetry with this idea. And then I hear people speak of teen-agers. That comes to me from various quarters, “teen-agers.” And I think, did the person who gave them that name know what he was saying? Shall I assume that he didn’t? Got to be careful about what you assume people don’t know. Matthew Arnold uses the word teen. He speaks of using our nerves with bliss and teen. It means with grief and pain. They’re pain-agers. Maybe. Maybe that’s in it, I don’t know. That question’s always there and then there’s two words if I may bring them out. Two words in Latin that I’ve turned over in my mind for years with this question in mind, “Did Catullus know what he was saying when he said that?” And I said that to a Latinist a little while ago and he said, “You may pretty safely say he did.” He believed in Catullus, but I rather think Catullus hadn’t thought it all out. He said two words, mens animi, and I’ve seen translations of it this way, poetic translations—look out for them. It said “the thoughts of the heart.” Mens—mind, and animus—the spirit, see. And it was very arresting to me so I went back to see it again, why I’d been arrested by it—mens animi. And I suppose that’s what we’ve been talking about today. The order—mens is the order—mens, the order of my wildness. See, that’s the way I translate enterprise of the spirit; that’s the animus, that’s the enterprise, that’s the spirit that breaks the form.

Must we “believe” in Catullus as Frost’s “Latinist” does? Is Catullus responsible for the meaning Frost derives from the poem in which this phrase appears? Can we even determine the boundaries of his “intelligence,” the point beyond which Catullus forfeits responsibility for the meanings of such a phrase as this to some other agency? We might assign responsibility to Frost’s own genius as a reader. But that seems unsatisfactory. After all, Frost means that it’s impossible to know precisely whether he (or any reader) is responsible in this way. The uncertainty interests him. Frost’s remarks suggest that the aim of “literary theory,” as we have learned to call it, is to investigate, however skeptically, the extent of a writer’s “authority,” not to haggle out a false dilemma of whether “authority” is either total, or totally absent. What’s the point of that now largely abandoned enterprise?—Bob Dylan not excepted.

The better question posed in Frost’s Kenyon College speech is whether an author can “mean” something of which he is unaware—whether he “says more than [he] knows [himself].” In what sense does a poet “build better than he knows?”—to use the phrase Frost borrows from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “The Problem.” I guess some “unconscious” agencies of the self constitute forms of “authority,” insofar as we are always imperfectly aware of what we’re up to. But if the poet builds better than he knows, should our attentions properly be devoted to the building rather than to the builder, as some of the New Critics seemed to maintain under the older dispensation, the pre-1968 dispensation? At what point exactly, and for what reasons, does the builder become irrelevant, as if we are bound strictly by the dictates of the “intentional fallacy,” so-called? For his part, Frost suggests that we should be wary of dismissing the categories of intention and authorship altogether: “Got to be careful about what you assume people don’t know.”

Appeals to sincerity, intention, and especially to “authorship,” involve arguments from fitness to design. That’s Frost’s point with regard to Catullus’s mens animi. The phrase is susceptible of the meaning he assigns it; it is fit to accommodate an idea of “the spirit that breaks the form.” But does this fitness warrant attribution of design? Think that it does, and you “believe” Catullus into existence, as Frost’s Latinist does—not Catullus the historical figure but “Catullus” the “author” of a particular “work,” as we typically say in English Departments. Close reading of the sort Frost valued—and the Kenyon College lecture offers one example of it—rumples our brains as to what “authorship” actually means.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Especially in its careful attentions to tone of voice, and to the figurative values of language, this kind of reading discloses possibilities of meaning and irony, as well as possible incoherences and fractures in meaning, that always promise a diminishment of authorial presence, at least insofar as “authorship” implies integrity of intention, and unity and coherence in the work itself. (As Foucault has it, “the author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning” [my emphasis, and may god bless the translator].) This instability of authority is what leads Frost to raise questions about Catullus. The more “fit” a poem or any other utterance is to sustain complexity of meaning, the more anxious becomes the question of “design.” The difficulty is compounded when, as with Catullus, we must imaginatively bridge a chasm of historical and linguistic distance. And yet it may be that linguistic and historical distances of this order differ more in degree than in kind from the distances we must bridge in reading any poem at all.

Frost raises, let’s say, the following questions: Did the poet reach the same conclusions about his poem that we have reached in reading it closely? Could he possibly have reached the same conclusions? How did we go about reaching them? In considering these and cognate problems, Frost confronts the same questions Foucault addresses in his well-known essay “What is an Author?” The “author-function,” Foucault argues—that inaptly apt phrase again!—

does not develop spontaneously as the attribution of a discourse to an individual. It is, rather, the result of a complex operation which constructs a certain rational being that we call an “author.” Critics doubtless try to give this intelligible being a realistic status, by discerning, in the individual, a “deep” motive, a “creative” power, or a “design,” the milieu in which writing originates. Nevertheless, these aspects of an individual which we designate as making him an author are only a projection, in more or less psychologizing terms, of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize, or the exclusions that we practice.

Roland Barthes, 1970.

Frost’s “Latinist” constructs “a certain rational being” called “Catullus,” and, in his name, licenses a range of meanings to the poem, or anyhow to one phrase in it. Working from philological, historical and interpretive evidence to which Frost’s anecdote gives us no access, he has “forced” Catullus’s poem to “undergo” a particular set of “operations,” setting up “exclusions” determining what the phrase mens animi could and could not have meant to Catullus. Frost’s Latinist performs an action described by Roland Barthes in “The Death of the Author,” the 1968 essay that set the terms of subsequent debate in these matters, and to which Foucault’s essay is a response: “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” In his engagements with Catullus’s poem, Frost himself remains more or less open and agnostic. He is not quite sure how to manage the proliferating possibilities of meaning in the poem. “I rather think Catullus hadn’t thought it all out,” he says. Of course, neither Frost’s rather vague version of Catullus nor the Latinist’s rather more clarified version is really “present” in the poem. Catullus’s consciousness, intention, and design—traditional attributes of “authorship” according to Foucault—are instead the “psychologizing” projection of readers more, rather than less, inclined to faith in his integrity as they engage the words associated with him. And yet as Frost seems to acknowledge—and here he is to be distinguished from Foucault—the fact that it is an enterprise in faith does not necessarily make it an enterprise in fiction: “Got to be careful about what you assume people don’t know.”

Frost’s skepticism about Catullus’s authority calls to mind—to mine, anyhow—his 1946 essay “The Constant Symbol.” His sketch therein of a “presidential” career leads us to speak of intention almost in a corporate sense, or at the very least as a volatile factor (a “succession”) in the total equation of an act or utterance. Consider now Jacques Derrida’s description, in Limited Inc, of how difficult it is to name the “author” of John Searle‘s contentious Reply to his own essay “Signature Event Context.” He writes:

Why did I say `société plus or moins anonyme,’ `a more or less anonymous company or corporation’? The expression `three + n authors’ [which Derrida had earlier used] seems to me to be more rigorous for the reasons I have already stated, involving the difficulty I encounter in naming the definite origin, the true person, responsible for the Reply: not only because of the debts [to other writers] acknowledged by John R. Searle [in a note] before even beginning to reply, but because of the entire, more or less anonymous tradition of a code, a heritage, a reservoir of arguments to which both he and I are indebted. How is this more or less anonymous company to be named? In order to avoid the ponderousness of the scientific expression `three + n authors,’ I decide here and from this moment on to give the presumed and collective author of the Reply the French name `Société à responsibilité limitée’—literally, `Society with Limited Responsibility’ (or Limited Liability)—which is normally abbreviated to Sarl.

With the same satirical aims, Derrida essentially (and ingeniously) says of Searle what Frost says of the “President in the White House”: “behold him now . . . so multifariously closed in on with obligations and answerabilities that sometimes he loses his august temper.” His individuality—his personality—has become somewhat difficult to locate. And in Frost’s reckoning, motive and meaning are best accounted for in terms of Derrida’s “limited corporation,” wherein the intelligence of a poem (or of a career) is too dynamic and too social a function to be situated exclusively in the personality and desires of its assigned author.

We speak of the “integrity” of someone’s actions or ideas. But, as Frost and Derrida suggest, we seldom have a clear sense of what that integrity consists of or in. Probably not in “personality.” “Commitments” vitiate that, as action comes to consist more in a constellation of what Frost calls “answerabilities” than in a single personality. We are all partners in “a more or less anonymous company or corporation” of such “answerabilities.” If our subject is a writer, the imperatives of convention and tradition vitiate his personality still further, whether it is the tradition of philosophy, in Derrida’s and “Sarl’s” case, or of poetry. These imperatives led T.S. Eliot to speak, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” of the poet’s “surrender” to forces more valuable than his own personality. Frost points out, in the introduction to The Arts Anthology of Dartmouth Verse, that the poet “has to begin as a cloud of all the other poets he ever read. That can’t be helped.” This is simply to make the Emersonian point that “authorship” may be a “diffuse” phenomenon, more a matter of the “condensation” in the poet of other, already extant factors than of the origination of a new, and altogether personal one. Frost goes on to argue, in the Dartmouth anthology preface, that only by extraordinary effort of will can a poet understand and overcome the influence of other poets into his work; only by extraordinary force can he individualize his writing. “The Constant Symbol” makes clear that Frost fully understood how “trans-individual” motives specific to language and to literary form undermine the integrity and “freedom” of the writer yet again;—until the condition of authorship is precisely what he describes in a talk at Dartmouth College that served as the basis for “The Constant Symbol”: an “unfolding” of “kept or lost intentions” within “deepening commitments” or “answerabilities.” As he points out in the passage quoted above: the “intemperate” President in the White House might just as well have got himself into a “sestina royal”—a poetic form characterized by manifold and peculiarly strict “answerabilities.” Frost certainly understood that writing is as much the experience of self-expenditure as of self-assertion. Derrida succinctly expresses the difficulty in “Signature Event Context” when he speaks of the “relative specificity of effects of consciousness” in language (my emphasis); he has in view the same impure ratio of “kept” to “lost” intention within deepening commitments to language and form that interests Frost in “The Constant Symbol” (and elsewhere). Among the corollaries of this view is the impersonalist conception of authorship associated with “post-structuralist” thought so-called—a conception which, I suggest, Frost also entertained.

Cover of the University of California Press paperback edition.

But this brings us to the point where Frost differs from Derrida, and from Foucault. Perhaps the most intriguing and ambitious aspect of his poetics is his aspiration to transcend the difficult conditions of authorship I’ve just described: he “believes” himself into existence as the “author,” rather than merely the writer, of his own works. This is why comparison to Foucault and Derrida is in this case profitable. In short—to adapt Foucault’s words in “What Is an Author?”—we are now in a position to see how Frost ultimately lends his own “authorship” a “realistic status” by tentatively discerning in himself “a `deep’ motive, a `creative’ power, or a `design.'” This follows from a suggestion in his early poem “The Trial By Existence” that “life has nothing for us on the wrack” but what we “somehow” choose. He imagines a kind of authorship in which the intention of the poet “somehow” governs the entire scene of his poem. This marks a “tragic” dignification of authorship, in which the force of individual personality significantly reappears. And in the balance of this entry I pursue an analogy between Frost’s account of the “figure a poem makes” in the essay of that title and Kenneth Burke’s analysis of “the dialectic of tragedy” in A Grammar of Motives (1945). I use the term “tragedy” in a conventional sense: the “tragic” hero undergoes an ordeal that somehow follows from his own initial action—from his intrinsic motives. This ordeal seems to him unjust, arbitrary and alien. Lear claims in the midst of his own ordeal: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” But the tragic resolution involves the hero’s recognition that his misfortunes are not arbitrary, but mark instead the inevitable unfolding of his own character. Character and fate are at last seen as complements, not opponents. A corresponding movement in Frost’s poetics shows that what he calls “formity” (intrinsic, personal discipline and motivation) and “conformity” (the extrinsic, impersonal “disciplines from without”) are really two opposed aspects of a single experience. In a word, Frost imagines a final transcendence of his own central, dialectical “ordeal” of “formity” and “conformity”—a matter to which I will return in concluding this entry. On Frost’s account, as the poet writes he loses his “august temper,” just as does the protagonist of a tragedy. But Frost’s poetics also holds out the promise, if only as a kind of fiction, of the poet’s recovering his “temper” and self-integrity in an affirmation of authorial power and integrity not imagined by Foucault or Derrida in the essays we have been considering.

In the section of A Grammar of Motives titled “The Dialectic of Tragedy” Burke speaks of “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” motivations. According to him there occurs in tragedy first a transposition and then a merger of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. The tragic act, issuing from the intrinsic motives and force of the protagonist, brings out and organizes the extrinsic forces that oppose him; and yet, these two forces are alike in kind insofar as they work in bitter but compensatory fashion to bring about the resolution of the tragic struggle. The extrinsic forces act upon the protagonist until he learns “to take the oppositional motives into account . . . [and so] widens his terminology accordingly,” finally arriving at a “higher order of understanding” wherein his original act is seen in light of what ensued. His action now appears potentially to have contained the suffering that seemed merely unjust as he underwent it. We realize that action and passion (doing and suffering) are two aspects of the same experience.

This pattern mirrors, on a larger scale, the “figure” a poem makes in Frost’s poetics. I begin by expressing the relation schematically, though as I proceed the pattern of this “figure” will become clearer and more fully ramified. The poem “assumes direction,” as Frost says in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” with “the first line laid down.” This initial act organizes its opposition as the grammatical and formal commitments implicit in it immediately begin to close in upon both poet and poem, as Frost explains in “The Constant Symbol.” The initial act, then, has both generative and limiting properties. Or as Burke explains: “When an act is performed, it entails new sufferances, which in turn entail new insights. Our act itself alters the conditions of action, as `one thing leads to another’ in an order that would not have occurred had we not acted.” The act itself becomes a part of the scene of action, and therefore a component of what now “opposes” continued action. If the poet or tragic protagonist is to succeed he must accept and “pitch into” these “commitments” and oppositions without getting “lost” in them, to borrow Frost’s terms in “The Constant Symbol”; he must salvage his integrity.  If he does, he arrives at something like Burke’s “higher order of understanding”—what Frost, in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” calls a “clarification of life” or “wisdom.” The idea is most succinctly expressed by Burke when he says: “The dialectical (agonistic) approach to knowledge”—which I associate with Frost’s poetics—”is through the act of assertion, whereby one `suffers’ the kind of knowledge that is the reciprocal of his act.” Consider John Dewey’s remarks on a similar dialectic in Art as Experience: “Impulsion from need starts an experience that does not know where it is going; resistance and check bring about the conversion of direct formal action into re-flection; what is turned back upon is the relation of hindering conditions to what the self possesses as working capital in virtue of prior experiences. As the energies thus involved reënforce the original impulsion, this operates more circumspectly with insight into end and method. Such is the outline of every experience that is clothed with meaning.” He might well be talking about tragedy, or about poetics in general—at least in a debate whose terms are set by Frost.

In Burke’s view, tragic resolution brings about a “conversion” or rebirth in the protagonist. At first it may seem incongruous to link these larger transformations of tragedy to what happens, according to Frost’s description, in the little theater of a poem. But in “The Figure a Poem Makes” he does speak with vague ambition of an accession to “wisdom,” which in my view corresponds to what Burke calls a “conversion to a new principle of motivation”—that is, a conversion to a larger frame of reference within which to understand previous actions and beliefs. On Frost’s account, the writing of poetry entails a continual redefinition of the self, a continual redrawing of the circles that mark its limitation; that is what I mean here by rebirth. Emerson writes in “Circles”: “The life of a man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end,” and this figure seems to motivate an interesting reference to Yeats in a passage from Frost’s notebooks:

WBY says the artist has a choice of some seven poses. One of them he must assume. Don’t believe it children. There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but it is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves. Miraculously. It is the same with illusions. Any belief you sink into when you should be leaving it behind is an illusion.

These sentences are hardly transparent. But they do suggest a specifically Emersonian experience of self. It is a volatile self, always in a state of transition and revision—what Frost calls a continual escape from “a succession of dead selves.” I will recur to this passage, but it’s interesting to note here that Frost writes out of the conviction Harold Bloom describes in Agon: “We read to usurp, just as the poet writes to usurp. Usurp what? A place, a stance, a fullness, an illusion of identification or possession; something we can call our own or even ourselves.” Or as Frost might say: We write in order to escape from a succession of dead selves—a succession of outworn stances or illusions of identity. The implications of this escape or usurpation range rather far, as Burke’s remarks on a similar process in A Grammar of Motives suggest: “We must recognize that dialectically one may die many times (in fact, each time an assertion leads beyond itself to a new birth) and that tragedy is but a special case of dialectical processes in general. In the Hegelian dialectic, for instance, the series of dyings is presented as a gradual progress toward greater and greater self-realization. For the spirit has its counterpart in objectification; and by seeing himself in terms of objects, `from them the individual proceeds to the contemplation of his own inner being.’” This transformation of the subjective into the objective becomes a process of self-realization, a means to a higher self-possession and to a deeper and renewed experience of subjectivity and identity.

Burke’s remarks call to mind—to mine, anyhow—some curiously Hegelian ideas in Frost. In “The Constant Symbol” Frost speaks of poetry as the “commitment” of “spirit” to “form”—in a word, as the materialization of spirit: “The bard has said in effect, Unto these forms did I commend the spirit.” This extends a line of thought that appears much earlier in his English notebooks, published posthumously as an appendix to John Evangelist Walsh’s Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost. There, Frost places the “sentence form”—what he elsewhere calls the “sentence sound”—in relation to the sentence proper as soul is related to body: “The sentence form almost seems the soul of a certain set of words. We see inspiration as it takes liberties with the words and yet saves the soul.” It is as if Frost were thinking of Donne’s famous description in “The Ecstasy” of the subtle knot that binds spirit to form:

As our Wikipedians have it, this portrait was done after a miniature by Isaac Oliver, ca. 1616.

As our blood labors to beget
Spirits as like souls as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot which makes us man,
So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To affections and to faculties
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.
To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love revealed may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is the book.

This “subtle knot” goes to the very heart of Frost’s poetics, since for him the sentence is itself a fusion of “soul” to “body,” while the animating desire of the bard (his spirit) haunts the forms of poetry: the poem is a subtle knot within a subtle knot. Furthermore, the poet writes and publishes because—to adapt John Donne’s language—he must bring his “soul” down into “faculties which sense may reach and apprehend.” For Frost, “correspondence” in poetry was all, as he explains in the preface to E.A. Robinson‘s King Jasper: love must be revealed. And he writes later in “The Constant Symbol”: “The ultimate commitment is giving in to it that an outsider may see what we were up to sooner and better than we ourselves.” Among all the commitments to form and to the “harsher disciplines from without” to which the poet must accede, Frost places this one to audience first. This is consistent with his emphasis on the two “answerabilities”—to the highest in the self, and to one’s “constituents”: there must ultimately be a “confluence,” as he says in the early manuscript of “The Constant Symbol,” “of the flow of the spirit of one person with the flow of the spirit of the race.”

In his view the archetypical example of man’s materialization of spirit is the Fall. He considers it an imitation, on the part of man, of God’s original gesture of creation, the moment when spirit was first bound to matter—when the first “subtle knot” was tied. The figure of “God’s descent” into flesh also looks forward to the incarnation of the Word in Christ. Frost writes in “Kitty Hawk,” a long philosophical poem published late in his life:

Pulpiteers will censure
Our instinctive venture
Into what they call
The material
When we took that fall
From the apple tree.
But God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation. . .

Spirit enters flesh
And for all it’s worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
Ever fresh and fresh.
We may take the view
That its derring-do
Thought of in the large
Was only one mighty charge
On our human part
Of the soul’s ethereal
Into the material.

By this account, self-realization—our “instinctive venture” into the material–necessarily involves self-surrender, or something like the series of dyings and rebirths Burke describes in A Grammar of Motives. It works through our “charge into earth / In birth after birth,” what Frost calls later in the same poem our “design [as Westerners] for living deeper into matter.” Or to recur to Burke’s summary of Hegel: “Spirit has its counterpart in objectification; and by seeing himself in terms of objects, `from them the individual proceeds to the contemplation of his inner being.’” Frost points to God’s act of creation and to the Incarnation of the Word in Christ as authorizing principles for our own “descent” into matter; he seems to have associated the act of divine creation with the act of poetic creation, which differ only in degree. Both tie a “subtle knot” of soul to body; both commit spirit to form; and, to complete the trinity, both mark a fusion of Frost’s “two answerabilities.” A precise analogy holds between the commitment of spirit to form and the figure of the will (the first answerability) braving “alien entanglements” (the second).

Detail. From the first American edition of "A Boy's Will" (1915).

Already in one of Frost’s earliest poems, “The Trial by Existence,” this pattern of the “substantiation” of spirit is evident. He imagines that the dead ascend to heaven only to discover that their fate is to descend once again into the material—into an “obscuration upon earth.” The “more loitering” and cowardly souls in heaven turn “to view once more the sacrifice / Of those who for some good discerned / Will gladly give up paradise” and return to their “trial” on earth. Frost also spoke of the “trial by market everything must come to“—even poems. I borrow that line from “Christmas Trees,” written in 1916 at about the time Frost first became secure in his career as a published poet. The trials by existence and by market are, for him, associated: both “substantiate” spirit in the “alien entanglements,” respectively, of matter and of audience. I recalls as well a 1915 letter to Louis Untermeyer. Speaking of his efforts to establish his work in the literary marketplace, Frost writes: “Do you know, I think that a book ought to sell. Nothing is quite honest that is not commercial.” The remark initiates his career-long effort to defend the “materialization” of spirit, in both the economic and the philosophical senses of the word, quite as if he had it in mind to lend new meaning to the Hegelian idea that “spirit has its counterpart in objectification.” Poetic “capital” no less than the financial kind is meant to be substantiated, spent, invested; such is Frost’s idea, in any event. And here we can see the aesthetic, moral and fiscal significance of his often-quoted adage in “The Constant Symbol”: “Strongly spent is synonymous with kept.”

Elsewhere in “Kitty Hawk” Frost redeems Western Civilization, and by implication capitalism itself, in much the same terms of providential “expenditure”:

Westerners inherit
A design for living
Deeper into matter—
Not without due patter
Of a great misgiving.
All the science zest
To materialize
By on-penetration
Into earth and skies
(Don’t forget the latter
Is but further matter)
Has been West Northwest.
If it were not wise,
Tell me why the East
Seemingly has ceased
From its long stagnation
In mere meditation.
What’s all the fuss
To catch up with us?
Can it be to flatter
Us with emulation?

“Kitty Hawk” belongs to the era of the Cold War and ought to be read in connection with a number of poems collected in Frost’s last volume, In The Clearing (1962), which have to do with questions of nationalism, or with the rivalry between the US and the USSR. And as it happens, the ethnocentric theo-economy of “Kitty Hawk” (as I might whimsically call it) has an important antecedent in Western European culture. Frost’s thinking, here, bears a striking resemblance to John Calvin’s as Burke describes it in Attitudes Toward History: Calvin saw that “the spiritual futurism of `providence’ could be equated with the worldly futurism of `investment.’. . . [He] found that one could make profits for the glory of God—every trade was a `vocation’—and if one worried lest, by Calvinist doctrine, he was one predestined by God for damnation, let him attain material prosperity as a visible sign of God’s favor.” After all, what is “all the fuss to catch up with us” if our design for living deeper into matter isn’t somehow providential? Frost is practicing a kind of cultural-economic evangelism: “If it were not wise, / Tell me why the East / Seemingly has ceased / From its long stagnation / In mere meditation.” I certainly think Roger Sell overstates the point in suggesting, in an introduction to Frost’s play In An Art Factory, that Frost had a “horror at the language of commerce.” Though Frost was ambivalent about it—as In An Art Factory attests—he was no more “horrified” than Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In “Kitty Hawk” Frost may have in mind Emerson’s motto to the essay “Wealth,” collected originally in The Conduct of Life. Emerson’s poem also draws important connections between the creation of the world and the “materialization” of mind in matter:

Well the primal pioneer
Knew the strong task to it assigned
Patient through Heaven’s enormous year
To build in matter a home for mind.

How readily this language of pioneering and homesteading applied to America in the middle nineteenth century is plain enough. And the essay proper makes clear that the specifically American economic ramifications of this venture of mind into matter are the same for Emerson as for Frost: “Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer. He fails to make his place good in the world, unless he not only pays his debt, but also adds something to the common wealth. Nor can he do justice to his genius [that is, to his spirit], without making some larger demand on the world than a bare subsistence. He is by constitution expensive, and needs to be rich.” Later Emerson defines wealth as the power to “incarnate” our “designs” and to give “form and actuality” to “thought.” These passages suggest how much of Emerson there is in “Kitty Hawk,” and they provide a kind of philosophical grounding for Frost’s occasional contention that poets ought to accept the peculiar genius of the American literary marketplace: “Nothing is quite honest that is not commercial.”

With such arguments as these Frost countered charges—which he met often enough in avant-garde literary circles that America was too “materialistic” or that artists ought to purify themselves of the metaphors and standards of capitalism. By way of response, his strategy is to “naturalize” materialism by referring it, a little more whimsically than Emerson does, to God’s original example of creation and to His Incarnation of the Word in Christ. Frost’s metaphors of expenditure and materialism, then, typically embrace the full range of meanings available to them, from the economic to the spiritual. Kenneth Burke usefully remarks in “I, Eye, Ay—Concerning Emerson’s Early Essay on `Nature’ and the Machinery of Transcendence“: “Both [Emerson and Whitman] approached the conflicts of the century in terms that allowed for a joyous transcendent translation. . . [W]e might say that Emerson was as idealistically able as Whitman to look upon traveling salesmen and a see a band of angels.” With none of Whitman’s exuberance, and with much more caution even than Emerson, Frost nevertheless fashioned in his poetics a “frame” (as Burke would say) for “accepting” the consumer culture that flourished in America in the post-war years. And in this he was not at all unlike a great many intellectuals to his political left who, having abandoned the radical positions they held in the 1930s, decided to choose the West, as the saying used to go, after the onset of the Cold War.

In setting up a frame for accepting the conditions of consumer capitalism, then, Frost closely follows Emerson in “Wealth”: “Nature. . . urges [man] to the acquisition of such things as belong to him. Every warehouse and shop-window, every fruit-tree, every thought of every hour, opens a new want to him, which it concerns his power and dignity to gratify. It is of no use to argue the wants down: the philosophers have laid the greatness of man in making his wants few; but will a man content himself with a hut and a handful of dried pease? He is born to be rich.” And Frost’s Emersonian frame of acceptance also served as a way to defeat the attitude of condescension with which his own popularity—his own decision to accept the “trial by market everything must come to”—was often treated by American intellectuals. The speech accepting the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1939 provides a good example of this. Here, Frost implies that his having “fit into the nature of Americans” is something like a sign of election, possibly even a sounder sign than John Bunyan had in jail. (Frost’s remarks in the Gold Medal speech may betray the special Calvinist sense of election Burke describes in Attitudes Toward History.) In “The Pod of the Milkweed” (a late poem) and “On Extravagance” (a late lecture), Frost frames the American capitalist political economy for acceptance by drawing an analogy between the lavish “waste” and “expenditure” of natural fertility and the material “fertility” and luxury of consumer capitalism. He writes in an especially Emersonian passage in “On Extravagance”: “I was thinking of the extravagance of the universe. What an extravagant universe it is. And the most extravagant thing in it, as far as we know, is man—the most wasteful, spending thing in it—in all his luxuriance.” In short, there is clearly a consistency among the metaphors on which Frost depends in describing the whole range of issues from the philosophical and the theological to the aesthetic and the vocational: his poetics is an effort to harmonize all these things.

N.B. This entry is adapted, with some changes, from a book of mine now out of print. For other entries on Frost in these pages click here. For another entry bearing on literary theory, click here.

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