Robert Frost has written some of the most quoted poems ever. What writer hasn’t heard of” “The Road Less Traveled By” (“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference”)? Or “Stopping by Woods” (“But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep”)? Or “Mending Wall” (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”)?
His poetry is deceptively simple: simple because he’s easy to understand (on the surface) but deceptive because there’s a lot of undercurrents and crosscurrents going on. Lots of irony, sarcasm, paradox, and even bitter cynicism.
He created a nice grandfatherly image for himself, but some bios suggest he was far from the “nice grandfather.” But, bios aside, we’ll have a look at his attributes, ideas, and style. There’s a boatload of takeaways a writer can get from studying Frost. Here’s 5 main ones, each with many parts.
Work on finding an “appeal”—making your writing “appealing” in some way, to some audience.
Frost aimed, as you can, to appeal to the masses and not the esoteric few. In simple, unaffected language he wrote of familiar objects and the “character” of New England.
His poetry paints pictures of an idyllic America of the past. It’s an escape from the overly complex, anxious, urbanized society of some of his peers, such as T.S. Eliot.
Frost has four attributes from the 19th century
It might seem strange to suggest to a 21st century writer that looking back at and modeling some 19th century strategies and ways of seeing the world would be helpful. But some ideas are timeless, some attributes universal.
- As Emerson put it, Frost has “an original relation to the universe”
- He stressed the benefits of physical labor
- He communed with the environment
- eg. “Two Tramps in Mud Time”; “After Apple Picking”; etc.
- For other examples, read Whitman’s “To a Learned Astronomer”…
- Use your intuition. Frost seldom proceeded from reasoning or thinking. As Melville said: “I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!”
- Develop a sense of your own national identity in literature. Emerson had demanded that American poets seek independence. Frost knew he was good and knew he was carving out an American niche in his poetry.
- Be self‑reliant. Emerson enthroned the complete mental and spiritual independence of each individual. Frost’s self‑reliance manifests itself in a total immersion in the daily activities of country life.
Frost’s theories of poetry
Never interrupt a master when he’s speaking. I’ll just post these quotes from Frost without elaborating. They should give you plenty of food for thought about your own poetry or writing in general.
- “A poem must not begin with thought first. It begins with a lump in the throat.”
- “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.”
- Composition is a process of letting the poem take over: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”
- “Art strips life to form.”
- “Poetry makes you remember what you didn’t know that you knew.”
- “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
- “A poem is a momentary stay against confusion.”
- Frost composes for the ear, loving the sound of words: “They are always there, living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were. They are as definitely things as images of sight.”
- There’s a taut, muscle‑bound quality to his poetry. A real economy of expression.
- He doesn’t write in free verse, saying that’s “like playing tennis without a net.” His blank verse provides the flavor of idiomatic American speech. He transposes accents at will, adding or subtracting feet whenever he likes. Frost’s blank verse is very regular and careful but appears casual.
- He usually starts with a simple concrete event or action—such as apple picking, repairing a wall, swinging in a tree, or wielding an axe—that leads to a philosophical observation or insight.
- He’s the modern master of dramatic narratives, such as “Home Burial” and “Death of the Hired Man.” He’s been compared to Chekov in how he captures subtle changes in emotion through dialogue.
Frost’s subjects and themes
Don’t approach Frost with any preconception of his system or overall vision of reality because he deconstructs himself.
- Try deconstructing yourself:
- Be unpredictable
- Compose stories or poems with conflicting or multiple viewpoints
- Never settle for clichés or stereotypes
- Be fresh and original or don’t bother to write at all. Find another profession. Seriously.
- Read my blog on deconstruction for more details.
- Man in conflict with a chaotic world, searching for order while everything around him is changing and decaying.
- Frost called himself a “synechdochist”: by exploring one representative corner of humanity, he was probing a sample of the larger crowd (ala Wm. Faulkner).
- The individual’s relationship with himself, his fellow man, his world, and God. Man is an entity—one among many—yet alone with his fate.
- Mutability: spring and autumn; new life, dying life; everything changes: “nothing gold can stay,” he wrote. And in his darkest, most troubling poem of all—”Out, Out‑‑”—an entire family brushes off a boy’s death almost immediately: “And they, since they/Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Life goes on for those still alive.
A Modernist to the core, Frost he found new ways to be new. So should you.