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Homage to Robert Frost.

It is an event of international significance for three recent winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, poets from three different countries, to write in honor of what one of them calls "a quintessentially American poet," Robert Frost. Yet there is little doubt that Frost deserves such homage, if only to make up for the Nobel Prize he never won. He was too American to win it, perhaps, but his very Americanness is what each of these poets seems eager to praise. Reading their essays helps one to understand why Frost could be at the same time an American and a universal poet, and thus to agree with Brodsky that "American poetry is this country's greatest patrimony."

Frost's universality leads each poet to reach for comparisons that place Frost outside the American tradition, in the company of Dante for Brodsky and Heaney, who are reminded when they read him that his New England woods are as ominous as the selva oscura, the "dark wood" of Dante's Inferno, and his stars are as visionary as the stelle of The Divine Comedy, whereas for Walcott, "Frost and Yeats, for their rhythm and design, are the most memorable poets of the century." To put Frost beside Dante and Yeats is the highest tribute possible, but it does not seem extravagant to place this American farmer-poet in their company, since his lyrical gift and his humane insight do bear comparison with the greatest writers in world literature. The full effect of such a joint homage is to raise Frost's identity from the comfortable regional and local arena, where it has often been confined, to the international sphere where it belongs; thus the book may be as important in its way as the earlier landmarks of Frost criticism - Randall Jarrell's challenging essay "To the Laodiceans," which rescued Frost from sentimental poetry-lovers, and Lionel Trilling's dramatic banquet speech which characterized Frost as a "terrifying" poet.

Of the three Nobelists represented here, Brodsky does the most to enrich the reading of Frost's poetry, because he takes one short poem and one long poem as his texts and produces interpretations that increase the reader's sense of their subtlety and artistry. "Come In" is a familiar short lyric which Brodsky explores as a death poem about nature that convinces him "the afterlife is darker for Frost than it is for Dante." And "Home Burial" is a longer dialogue which Brodsky compares to a Hitchcock movie, with its menacing black-and-white drama on the stair, its surprise ending of a woman walking out on a man - not "a tragedy of incommnnicability," as one might think, but "just the reverse: it is a tragedy of communication," because the man and the woman understand each other all too well. In Frost's "dark pastoral," Brodsky argues, the husband and wife discover they are finally incompatible, and the poem ends, not with a period, but a dash: "I think you will agree that this is not a European poem. Not French, not Italian, not German, not even British. I also can assure you that it is not Russian at all. And in terms of what American poetry is like today, it is not American, either. It's Frost's own . . . he was no stranger to incongruity." Here is an homage every, admirer of Frost will want to read.

William Pratt Miami University (Ohio)
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Author:Pratt, William
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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