Robert Frost




Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.


My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.


He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound's the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.


The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep




After Apple-picking


My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there's a barrel that I didn't fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight

I got from looking through a pane of glass

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough

And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.

But I was well

Upon my way to sleep before it fell,

And I could tell

What form my dreaming was about to take.

Magnified apples appear and disappear,

Stem end and blossom end,

And every fleck of russet showing clear.

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin

The rumbling sound

Of load on load of apples coming in.

For I have had too much

Of apple-picking: I am overtired

Of the great harvest I myself desired.

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

For all

That struck the earth,

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,

Went surely to the cider-apple heap

As of no worth.

One can see what will trouble

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

Were he not gone,

The woodchuck could say whether it's like his

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

Or just some human sleep.






 Mending Wall


SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,

But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father's saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."



The Road Not taken



Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;



Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,



And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads to way,

I doubted if I ever should come back.



I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.








WHEN I see birches bend to left and right

Across the line of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy's been swinging them.

But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.

Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust-

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in

With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm

(Now am I free to be poetical?)

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows-

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

One by one he subdued his father's trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

 So was I once myself a swinger of birches;

And so I dream of going back to be.

It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

I'd like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:

I don't know where it's likely to go better.

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.



Friday 29 July 2011

Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the road to war

When Thomas and Frost met in London in 1913, neither had yet made his name as a poet. They became close, and each was vital to the other's success. But then Frost wrote 'The Road Not Taken', which was to drive Thomas off to war


Matthew Hollis


Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas

by Matthew Hollis


                                                           Read this article, here




30 July 2011 8:14PM

"I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained--
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you--the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?"

Such poignancy, the sure touch of a master craftsman. And such economy. The apparent paradox, exquisitely conveyed in: "The war seemed over more for you than me,/But now for me than you--the other way".

It doesn't get much better than that.






The Man With Two Brains

Whose words these are we thought we knew. But his notebooks show Robert Frost discovering himself.

By David Gates

Feb. 5, 2007 issue - From the 1890s until he died in 1963, Robert Frost wrote down ideas, homemade aphorisms and fragments of poems. As one of his jottings says (God knows in what context), "I reel them off with one brain tied behind me." As you'd expect of a man who fetishized plainness, he used cheap spiral notebooks and flip pads and school composition books. Frost wouldn't mind our looking through them: he often destroyed drafts of his poems, but gave notebooks to friends and institutions. And now that Frost scholar Robert Faggen has published them—700 pages, with all the crossings-out and [illlegible]s preserved—we can see that the notion of having two brains wasn't just a gag. "Hegel taught the doctrine of opposites," Frost wrote in another entry, "but said nothing about everything's having more than one opposite." This was a squash court of a mind, in which two Frosts—or more—whacked contradictory thoughts that ricocheted in all directions.

Frost remains America's chief celebrity poet, but don't expect his notebooks to hold intimate shockeroos, like those in John Cheever's journals. (Still, Focus on the Family may not care for the unfinished, and undated, poem about "two women on a farm without a man" who have a dairy cow named "Lesbia.") Since Frost used his notebooks to think through his poems, his essays and his teaching, they reveal only his working mind—and that's revelation aplenty. "Form," one entry reads, "is only the last refinement of subject matter"—which solves the old form-versus-content debate. Or: "An idea comes as close to something for nothing as you can get"—which uses deliberately crass language to celebrate the mind as a cornucopia of gifts freely given. Or: "Suppose we write poetry as we make a dynamo without ornament—well only the great poetry can be written that way"—which is as good a statement of function-over-frills modernism as any by Ezra Pound. Or a thought for 2007: "A nation should be just as full of conflict as it can contain ... But of course it must contain."

That last aphorism is one of Frost's many variations on his idea that "Life is a bursting unity of opposition barely held," and of the related idea that art doesn't take sides or give answers: "Artist of very high degree," one possibly self-praising entry reads. "He is neither moral religious nor patriotic." By now, nobody buys Frost's old image as a rustic autodidact or a versifying Andy Rooney. He read as widely and deeply as any American poet—the notebooks allude to the likes of Dryden, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Einstein, Santayana and Maria Montessori—and funny as he was, he could still outbleak T. S. Eliot. He was also American poetry's biggest ham (at least until Allen Ginsberg), and his poems were performances: not just in his well-known public readings but on the page. These deliberately preserved notebooks, too, might have kept one eye on an audience. But unlike the much-revised poems, they sometimes show this least innocent of men taking himself by surprise.


February 4, 2007


Frost on the Edge




No one resembles a poet so much as another poet, which is a mixed blessing for American poetry. On the one hand, this kinship helps explain why writers with divergent sensibilities often read one another’s work with surprising compassion and skill; on the other, it also explains why certain factions in the poetry world loathe each other nearly as much as “Star Wars” fanatics despise people who have a working knowledge of Klingon. Sometimes this acrimony stems from a genuine aesthetic disagreement that is serious and important and (as one might say in Poetryland) worthy of a Panel Discussion, Followed by a Short Reception. Other times, though, it’s just a matter of writers carping at each other because they realize that if they didn’t, people would have a hard time telling them apart.

The longest-running feud is probably the low-intensity border war between so-called experimental poets and their “mainstream” brethren. Since the distinctions can be hard to parse (to most people, saying “mainstream poetry” is like saying “mainstream tapestry-weaving”), it’s helpful to turn to the experts. In her book “21st-Century Modernism,” Marjorie Perloff, a professor emerita at Stanford and longtime champion of the avant-garde, claims the “dominant” mode in poetry these days is “expressivist,” whereas experimental writing involves “constructivism ... the specific understanding that language, far from being a vehicle or conduit for thoughts or feelings outside and prior to it, is itself the site of meaning-making.” She fleshes out this concept with quotations from several contemporary avant-garde poets, who argue among other things that “there are no thoughts except through language” and “as soon as I start listening to the words they reveal their own vectors and affinities, pull the poem into their own field of force, often in unforeseen directions.”

Indeed, experimental poetry “finds its own name as it goes” and “may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being,” because ultimately “the whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association.” After all, where a given poem is concerned, “what do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it?” Such poems necessarily disdain lyric sincerity in favor of what one writer calls “the pleasure of ulteriority” and are usually — no surprise — aggressively bookish (“So many of them have literary criticism in them — in them”). Admittedly, this approach may not appeal to more conservative tastes, but as a general description of much of today’s most successful experimental writing, it’s not too bad.

The problem, however, is that only the first two of those statements were actually made by contemporary avant-garde poets. Everything else, of course, was said by Robert Frost (who is, to put it mildly, rarely described as a forefather of vanguard poetics). The point here is not that our self-consciously avant-garde writers are kidding themselves, or that your ninth-grade English class was sliding along the razor’s edge of American culture by reading “Birches.” No, the point is that whenever we begin forming up teams in American poetry, we run into the problem of picking sides for such complex and hard-to-place poets as Frost, T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens (not to mention Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Lorine Niedecker). Rather than take these writers as they are — rather than acknowledge, for example, that Frost was as innovative as many poets more often considered “experimental” — we prefer to reduce such figures to a size better suited to the game we want to play. We cut the poet to fit the jersey.

This is an especially easy mistake to make with Frost, whose notebooks, edited by Robert Faggen, have now been published. Frost once said he wanted to be seen as “the exception I like to think I am in everything.” The problem with being an exception to every category is that after a while you begin to frustrate the categorizers. Consequently, Frost now occupies a position as unique as it is unstable. He’s a definitive Great American Poet, yet he’s never been embraced by the American academy as eagerly as, say, Ezra Pound. (In fact, Frost may be the only poet who is universally acknowledged to be a master but who nonetheless seems to require periodic reputation-buffing essays from the likes of Randall Jarrell and Seamus Heaney.) He’s a technician of prodigious agility, yet he generally limited himself to iambics, and favored rhymes like “reason” and “season” or “star” and “far.” And then there is the fraught matter of his popularity. Unlike almost every poet of comparable ability, Frost can claim a general reading audience, especially among readers who want poems that “make sense” — yet his aesthetic is evasive, arguably manipulative, and has at its core a freezing indifference that would make the neighborhood barbecue awfully uncomfortable. Still, as the critic Richard Poirier argues, “There is no point trying to explain the popularity away, as if it were a misconception prompted by a pose.” It’s easy to see how a poet this contradictory might suffer from the unsubtle ways in which we tend to talk about things like experimentalism and “the mainstream.” In such arguments, Frost will be simplified at best, ignored entirely at worst.

The new Notebooks of Robert Frost (Belknap/Harvard University, $39.95) won’t make things any easier. Not that they aren’t entertaining — open any page and you’ll find observations like “Seek first in poetry concrete images of sound” and “Reality is the cold feeling on the end of the trout’s nose from the stream that runs away,” as well as “Art is the last of your childhood and may be followed somewhat irresponsibly” and “An artist delights in roughness for what he can do to it.” Faggen has chosen to reproduce all of the more than 40 notebooks essentially “as is,” which is perhaps helpful for scholars but is taxing for regular readers, who will find Frost’s chronological shifts confusing (to say nothing of such unenlightening entries as “Come see kill a vase” and “Marriage Japanese Dwarf tree”). Still, any Frost reader will benefit from Faggen’s thoughtful introduction and be intrigued by the way in which concepts from these largely aphoristic journals animate the poems and vice versa. When Frost writes in Notebook 29 that “poetry is also the renewal of principles” and that “Principles have got to be lost in order to be found,” one thinks of the vision of truth from his poem “The Black Cottage”: “Most of the change we think we see in life / Is due to truths being in and out of favor.” Frost’s speaker then imagines being “monarch of a desert land / I could devote and dedicate forever / To the truths we keep coming back and back to,” a land that could be only “sand dunes held loosely in tamarisk / Blown over and over themselves in idleness.” Some poets don’t seem themselves outside their chosen medium; the Frost of these notebooks, however, is very much the Frost of the poems.

And that’s the problem (if it is a problem). Had Frost’s journals contained a study of Walter Benjamin, or a series of sympathetic and incisive observations about Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons,” he possibly could be made to fit into the American experimental lineage. Had they contained a quiveringly sensitive commentary on the flora of New England, maybe he could be seen as reliably conventional. But more than four decades after his death, this most American of American poets still fits uncomfortably into our country’s favorite aesthetic categories.

There are signs, though, that this is changing. Experimental poets like Susan Wheeler have begun to appreciate Frost’s emphasis on writing-as-performance, and to treat him as a valuable source rather than an opponent (Wheeler’s “Source Codes” contains a very funny imitation of Frost’s “Provide, Provide”). More important, Frost managed to procure the best set of supporters an American poet can have: non-American poets, especially non-American poets with jobs in American universities. A short list of these would include Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, Glyn Maxwell, James Lasdun and roughly every Northern Irish poet born after 1935. In a turn of events Frost would have relished, the Pulitzer Prize (an award he collected a record four times) went in 2003 to the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who has declared Frost to be “the greatest American poet of the 20th century.” If this is a peculiar and circuitous way for the influence of Frost’s poetry to be felt on his native soil, well, as Frost put it, “the line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight.” And for a poet who has always been a figure of curves and bends, of digressions and turnings, perhaps there is no better reward.



All the satisfactions of the well-said phrase


Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 04/02/2007

Jeremy Noel-Tod reviews The Notebooks of Robert Frost ed by Robert Faggen

'No indelicacy to be seen in public with the children you have begotten. At the same time you wouldn't want to be seen begetting them." The American poet Robert Frost was not keen on having his rough drafts inspected by posterity. Few survive for his poems. Here for the first time, however, are 47 pocket flip-pads, diaries and school exercise books that record his life as a poetic thinker.

There are some choice verse fragments to be found among them. "He rued a bloody knuckle in the street light/ As a girl gloats on her engagement ring" is a pair of unmistakeable iambic pentameters. Mostly, though, these notes show Frost begetting not his poems, but wry New England sage renowned for his pithy wisdom.

The greatest notebooks ever kept by a poet are those of Coleridge: voraciously curious and unbuttoned, they record everything from a moonlit cloud to the colour of urine. By comparison, Frost can seem impersonal, even cold, as he rehearses the same few themes among more cryptic lists and jottings. But while we may be grateful that Coleridge spent so much time keeping up his diary, there is always the regret that he didn't make more poetry of the material. Frost's notebooks illuminate the oblique concerns of his.

For a famous nature poet and countryman, these books are surprisingly bare of field notes. A rare description and line drawing of a delphinium, or larkspur, reveals why: "it looks as if the pale point of the spur were what the flower had derived from instead of from the stem, which is not flowerlike at all". To Frost, this misprision is an allegory for what happens when we try to trace "an idea" to its origin – in the end, it appears to have produced itself, out of thin air. "Why will we be looking for the bottom of things that haven't got a bottom?" he asks elsewhere. Nature poetry, as Frost knew, is always metaphorical of the mind of man, his real subject.

Although he often lived on farms, Frost taught in schools and universities. Again and again, his metaphors marry abstract concept to earthy fact in such a way as to make one think about both again: "Civilisation advances like the fire in the soot at the back of the fire place." Notebook six, from the time of his first teaching job, reveals what a sympathetic and inspiring English instructor he must have been. Of the lowly ambition of getting students to write "a good business letter", he asks, "why not make it a good friendly letter? – And that lets in everything."

What Frost prized in literature was the life of words. The opening motto of Notebook six is: "Teach all the satisfactions of successful speech." The well-said phrase was his obsession as a writer, too. Here he can be seen working out his belief that written words must have the "soul" of a lifelike formulation ("sentence sound"). Poetry is the musical tension between regular verse and realistic speech, an effect likened to rubbing one's finger on a smooth surface "so as to make it 'catch' and vibrate enough for a note".

The philosophical implication of "sentence sound" is that vitality of thought is inextricably related to expression: "the mind or spirit is not really active unless it is finding constantly new tones of voice". This principle can be seen at work when the bare aperçu "Civilisation is like a bad bed" is crossed out and refined as a conversational observation: "We lie as uncomfortably in society as in a bad old bed that rolls us together in the middle." The first is a good business aphorism, but the second a good friendly one.

Sentence sound also allows speech without thought, however, so that conversation becomes merely "voting" for ideas. Frost was profoundly sceptical about man as a political animal. Yet his doubt might better be called a poet's double-mindedness, by which all certainties can be reworded (in later life he tried to mediate between Khruschev and Kennedy). This more visionary position is well expressed by the neatly undecided note "Life is a (bursting) unity of opposition barely held".

Robert Faggen's introductory essay is excellent on the contrast between the vast and fragmentary chaos that he has transcribed and the finished poems. As a poet, Frost saw the discipline of traditional form as a way of holding life's contradictions in tension (he once likened becoming President of the United States to writing a sestina). But Faggen romanticises when he suggests that "Frost's notebooks resemble more the modernist collages of T S Eliot or Ezra Pound". Those poems are also guided by formal principles; these notebooks, only by years of chance. What is needed now is a portable selection of their clarities.


March 4, 2007



He only made it look easy

Robert Frost's notebooks were the poet's private laboratory.

By Meghan O'Rourke

The Notebooks of Robert FrostEdited by Robert Faggen
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press: 848 pp.,$39.95

Robert Frost liked to compose his poems in an overstuffed blue chair that had no arms because, he told the Paris Review in 1960, it left him "the room he needed." This sentiment may seem curious to those who know Frost best as an uptight alternative to the radical modern experimentations of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. While they were introducing the world to the innovations of free verse, the Yankee farmer-poet was composing rhyming, iambic poems about boys climbing trees; of free verse, he sniffed that he would "as soon play tennis with the net down." Frost was a man whose work relied largely on what one critic called "self-restriction" and whose poems could appear, at first glance, to deliver up predigested bits of folksy wisdom, as in "The Road Not Taken": "I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference."

But the need for "room" hints at what was always lurking behind the popular Frost — a more complex artist with a darker view than his presence on high school syllabi might lead you to expect. This Frost, whose early champion was the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, writes tragic philosophical poems (like "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep" and "Out, Out — "). His best work relies on reticence and canny evasions: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The two Frosts — the wholesome sage and the recalcitrant skeptic — are usually discussed as if they were different people, or as if the latter Frost were the real Frost and the first merely the crude misreading of a sentimental American public. But the reality is more complicated, as "The Notebooks of Robert Frost," expertly edited by Robert Faggen, drives home.

Featuring some 800 pages of musings, drafts, detritus, epigrams and ruminations, "The Notebooks of Robert Frost" underscores how entwined the two Frosts truly were. The author was a set of inconsistencies: a Romantic bent on critiquing Romanticism; a pragmatist and quasi-Social Darwinist who wasn't quite convinced of his own views. As Faggen points out in an insightful introduction, Frost returns again and again to the feeling that life "can consist of the inconsistent." Like Thomas Hardy before him, he was skeptical of the tidy categories and labels society tended to supply. He describes the public as "hasty judges." He spoke of wishing to be viewed as "the exception I like to think I am in everything."

This resistance to categorization may derive in part from his biography. It wasn't until he was 38 that he published his first book of poems. Before then, he lived in obscurity with his high school sweetheart, Elinor, raising chickens and teaching in schools outside of Boston. He had seen his father die young from drink; two of his own children died when they were young. (Another son later killed himself, and a daughter was institutionalized.) His rural life was far from bucolic, in part because he persisted in writing poems rather than taking farming seriously.

What, then, can be gleaned from Frost's notebooks? Will the "real" man be found, as he cannot be in his poems? The notebooks were written over more than six decades, and Faggen has published them essentially unchanged. As a result, the book can be hard going, since it includes what amount to grocery lists ("Milk ... Butter ... Potatoes") and private jottings ("Rubbering in Oaxaca"). But patient readers will discover plenty of the pith of which Frost was capable. Cumulatively, the fragments are almost poignant; they underscore the privacy of the human mind and remind us of the labor that goes into the apparent transparency of Frost's poetry. And while we don't learn much about his actual mode of composition — there are few drafts here — the notebooks do supply a great deal of what Faggen calls "insight into the ... ideas that became poems." Two preoccupations stand out. First, there is the poet's obsession with epigram and aphorism, which at its most condensed brings to mind Pascal's "Pensées." "Politics is an honest effort to misunderstand one another," Frost writes. "Progress is like walking on a rolling barrel." And: "To be quite free one must be free to refuse."

Second is Frost's extensively developed theory about what he called "sentence-sounds." In his view, poetry was less the craft of images — of vision — than the craft of sentences. We know this from his letters and essays, but it's explored in fascinating fits and starts here. Although poets certainly talk a great deal about aural effects, Frost meant something more complicated: the quality of intonation in song. In one notebook, he writes, "The sentence ... almost seems the soul of a certain set of words." In another, he elaborates: "The essential sentence" is a "tone of voice" that "belongs" to man as songs belong to a bird. What Frost is trying to get at has to do with the way people talk. As he explains to an imaginary listener, you can say "no" in a variety of tones; how, then, does a poem convey the specific tone it means? Frost's answer has to do with the relation between syntax and phrasing and the poem's meter (which is a way of encouraging the ear to hear certain stresses).

This preoccupation with sentence-sounds reflects Frost's distaste for adornment and poetical language. Unlike many of the poets writing in popular magazines at the time, he eschewed pretty thoughts of transcendence for their own sake. He was trying to capture the American language as it was actually used — "words that have been mouthed like a common tin cup" — rather than lose himself in a romanticized vision of "aeries" and "widening gyres." Faggen calls Frost's notebooks a "laboratory" and so they seem. What they capture is a figure bent on examining above all how to say things he considers true. "I have made a life study of what I can say," Frost writes. For "all we have learned is clouded with a doubt." If his lodestars are pragmatism and reticence, his notebooks reveal how hard-won these qualities were — how Frost struggled to combat his vanity and the scorn he sometimes felt for others. "Every human being must learn to carry his own craziness [and] confusion and not bother his friends about it. He will have clarifications but they will be momentary {flashes} like this — little shapes like poems vortex smoke rings." In Frost's poems, there is an overwhelming sense of emotions and events held in check — this is a poet who admires forms shaped by constraint. (Reading "The Notebooks," it is tempting to see this as Frost's clever way of restraining his own ego.) In his small poem "Pertinax," he writes, "Let chaos storm! / Let cloud shapes swarm! / I wait for form." Complicating this outlook is that he also hated prescriptive interpretations; he felt that need for "room." His most beloved poems rest on ambiguities that only look like conclusions, as in the end to "The Road Not Taken" or "For Once, Then, Something," about a man looking into a well:

One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

"Something" is perceived — but what? What is its nature? What is the outlook of the speaker? It is impossible to know, and it's in this rejection of the grand gesture that Frost's homely appeal lies. It is a distinctly American point of view, inherited from William James (and even from Emerson). And we detect in these notebooks how Frost wrestled profoundly with his pragmatism, holding ongoing conversations with himself.

The reader turning to "The Notebooks of Robert Frost" for clarifications and conclusiveness will not find them. In the end, Frost was never a systematic thinker. Even his epigrams and aphorisms are parts standing for a whole, not a whole built out of parts. One intuits the same fragmentary isolation in the poems, the unwillingness to reveal the poet's own stance. In this sense, he was always in search of "the room he needed." But perhaps he never knew, or wanted us to know, exactly what he needed it for.

Meghan O'Rourke is the literary editor of Slate and a poetry editor at the Paris Review. Her first book of poems, "Halflife," will be published this spring.