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Robert Frost: A Biography.

There is a legend about Frost that Jeffrey Meyers explicates well. At the second meeting between Frost and T. S. Eliot at the St Botolph Club, Boston, in November 1932 a guest asked Eliot to read his poem, 'Hippopotamus'. Eliot agreed on condition that Frost read one of his own. Frost upped the ante and offered to compose a poem while Eliot read. But what Frost produced ('A Record Stride') had actually been written months before. 'I always mean to win,' he once told a friend.

The idea of competition was central to Frost, to whom every living poet was a 'contemptuary'. It is also very near the jugular of Meyers' biography which is positioned as a response to Lawrence Thompson's three-volume version. Crucially, Meyers claims that Thompson's intense involvement with his subject led to 'resentment', and that the work turned out to be a form of 'revenge'.

It sounds like a lover's quarrel, and in a sense it was. Thompson had not come clean on the role of Kay Morrison. The situation was far too tender even to footnote, as she was Frost's secretary, muse, and lover after the death of his wife, Elinor. She had also become Thompson's lover, and there's the rob. With such a gate open to him, Meyers pins his ears back and lucidly, thoroughly - perhaps, now, definitively - trots out the life and times of the man who arguably might be referred to as America's Poet.

The image of Frost as hayseed, hick-town sage was by and large one of the poet's own great creations. The photograph that shows him on his Vermont farm in 1954 radiates the rumpled playfulness and man o'the hills wisdom that people like to associate with him. Yet he came from San Francisco. When he finally threw his fork into North-eastern soil he proved to have a bit of a black thumb. As Meyers, points out, 'Agriculturally speaking, Frost was a loser.'

He adopted the necessary twang ('f'rall', 'presdint') and claimed that the only meal he had ever cooked was potatoes in wood ashes. All of which seem to give his verse that extra lick of authenticity. But this is where the chapters, 'England and Ezra Pound 1912-1914' and 'Gloucestershire and Edward Thomas 1914-15' help to knock some of the false stuffing out.

Frost was not just some little New Englander whittling poems out back. He met many of the great 'modern' writers (Yeats, Ford, Pound) in London at a time when the literary currents which we today remember as 'modernism' were roaring. It was no surprise, however, that he claimed that Yeats and Pound were 'always faking' and that he felt more at home with the traditional Georgian poets, especially Edward Thomas. In fact, Frost got his break abroad. Pound helped broker his stock ('Have just discovered another Amur'kn, VURRY Amur'kn'), as he did for Eliot, with the right people; while a certain Mme. Nutt published his first volume, A Boy's Will, in London in 1913.

Indeed, for all his poetic acclaim (Pulitzers, performances) and back and forth lecturing odysseys (Amherst, Michigan, Dartmouth, Harvard) Meyers reveals a man who distinguished himself on many stages. He helped secure Pound's release from the asylum; he read at Kennedy's inauguration; he met Krushchev in Leningrad on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Though he never won the Nobel, a copy of his 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' was by Nehru's bedside during that leader's last days. Not bad for a 'hick poet'.

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Author:Wong, Nicholas
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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