I’ve started taking an unofficial survey among poets and writers still young enough to be labeled emerging. Whenever I meet a new one, I ask if she's heard of the poet Richard Frost. Though most have answered no, a few have responded: “Didn’t he write Independence Day?” or “‘Good fences make good neighbors’? Duh.” Neither Richard Ford nor Robert Frost, Richard Frost is the author of three collections of poetry; a jazz drummer and founder of The Catskill Stompers; emeritus professor of English at State University College in Oneonta, NY; and the spouse of the poet Carol Frost (who many have heard of).
So why don’t the under-forty set read Frost? One explanation is that the staggering achievements of his peers have overshadowed his own. Born in 1929 in Redwood City, California, Frost belongs to the generation of American poets that includes such masters as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, Maxine Kumin and Adrienne Rich, James Wright and Robert Bly, Philip Levine and Etheridge Knight, Donald Hall and Galway Kinnell, as well as William Stafford, with whom Frost sustained an enduring friendship until Stafford’s death in 1993.
Another reason, equally plausible, pertains to the work itself. Frost writes in a casual, unassuming, and idiomatic style that privileges clarity over showmanship (what used to be referred to as “the plain style”). He alludes to classical mythology and literature with acerbity and humor. And many of his poems could be characterized as first-person narratives (that dirty word in Contemporary American Poetry), though not the period style of the Confessional Poets largely disparaged today for their solipsism, artlessness, and crippling subjectivity.
While Frost certainly explores autobiographical material (adolescence, fatherhood, marriage, illness, death), the poems are not without the masks M. L. Rosenthal lamented the loss of in his 1959 review of Life Studies (neither are the poems in Life Studies, for that matter, which include four dramatic monologues). Over a lifetime of experimentation with “the old forms,” as Frost referred to them in a 2009 interview, the poet has cultivated a way of speaking about events as they happen on the page, meditating on dramatic occasions while still leaving the reader with a sense of the immediacy of what he reports.
In “One Morning,” for example, the poet alternates between exposition and dramatic revelations filtered through the consciousness of a speaker who recalls the last day he spent with his only sibling who was dying of brain cancer. The poem begins:
My brother’s wife phones me and says I’d better drive over
right away for what will probably be the last visit,
so I get in my mother’s old Buick and two hours later
I’m at their apartment at Smugglers’ Village in Stockton.
These introductory lines are most remarkable for their efficiency, even expediency. With a minimal number of words, the details the poet chooses to include reveal crucial information about the narrative. From the phrase “my mother’s old Buick,” for example, we can deduce that the speaker at the time of his meeting with his brother is a young adult, that the family is likely middle class, and that the poem takes place sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. The poem is spoken with a candidness that gives the impression of a speaker who refuses to hide behind his art. It’s as if the poem has passed through Robert Penn Warren’s fires of irony and has emerged purified, free from sentiment and ornamentation. The poem disarms with its austerity, its nakedness of style, and fools us into thinking that what we are reading is not a poem at all:
No one has told him that he is going to die,
and like everyone else he believes he will live forever.
The first thing he tells me is that he has gained two pounds.
On his way back! He told his doctor to turn off the switch
if they couldn’t get the whole tumor. His doctor
let him wake up, so that means they took out the cancer,
and now he will have a long, gradual recovery,
which is all a “hell of a problem.” He is six feet tall
and weighs in at a hundred and twelve. Do I want some Scotch?
Those two pounds gained on the frame of a man who is six-feet tall are very little consolation indeed. Yet the brother (“On his way back!”) takes them as a sign of the beginning of his “gradual recovery.” And the hits keep coming:
Back in the kitchen, his wife flits to and fro,
fixing a sandwich. She has hidden her bottles
or twenty years in the laundry basket,
behind the canned preserves and under the dresser.
She can’t remember things. Their little terrier
Packy hysterically yaps, rattling his claws
on the picture window, jumping down from the couch
and skidding into the kitchen. Do I want some Scotch?
Here, exposition, observation, meditation, and memory are one. As an utterance, the poem enacts the anxiety and despair of a mind recalling a painful event with tenderness, poignancy, and even humor. But, again, it is the efficiency of these lines, the speed with which they deliver and/or imply narrative information, that makes them noteworthy. The repetition of “Do I want some Scotch?,” for example, performs at least three tasks: 1) it provides comic relief; 2) it gives the reader a sense of the brother’s personality, mood, and voice [as well as vice]; and 3) it snaps the poet out of his present-tense consciousness, from which the poem is spoken, back into the dramatic scene of the past, which the poem recollects. It also maps pivotal points in the poem, and indicates the passage of time.
After the speaker has left his brother and his brother’s wife, the poem concludes:
Then I drive home, across the bay
in the evening. It makes no sense at all.
I come home, and my brother’s wife is right
about that being the last visit.
Form and content here are inseparable. The abruptness of the poem’s close parallels the finality of the scene itself. And the medium of expression, the loose five-beat line the poem returns to throughout like the melody of a jazz composition (echoing those “old forms” mentioned above), is cut off one stress short in the final line. This elision further emphasizes the abruptness of the speaker’s loss, a loss that, like the bay in the evening and the laughter of the two brothers the poet mentions earlier in the poem, still “makes no sense” to the speaker years later.
“For a Brother” returns to this loss, expanding upon the complicated relationship between these two men in an irregularly rhyming sonnet. Here is the first of the poem’s two septets:
When I was young, there was a song that went,
“I told you that I love you, now get out.”
Last night, drunk at my party, you knocked over
the gas grill and blackened swordfish, you lout,
then tried to feel up my neighbor’s daughter.
You sick rantallion, you phone at four a.m.
with a new joke, or to brag, or to beg for a loan.
As in “One Morning,” we encounter the brother’s more unsavory characteristics, namely drunkenness and lechery. But “For a Brother” introduces a new tone. The apostrophe of the stanza’s last two lines strikes an accusatory note that Frost carries into the next and final stanza:
Young, I didn’t know what that song meant.
It just seemed funny. Today I am
bone tired of the crude fraternal weight
of your old bullying, you jackalone,
you sack of black rats’ balls, you tank of piss.
And yet I love you, and so I must wait
until you’re dead before I publish this.
The septets mirror each other structurally, proceeding in three subsections. Both begin with the poet “young” and recalling the jazz tune of his youth. The first stanza shifts to “last night” and the second to “today”: the first recounting the brother at the party, the second featuring the speaker “bone tired” of the brother’s bullying. Then both stanzas apostrophize the brother, though we don’t realize it is an apostrophe (rather than a direct address) until the poem’s final line. The acid in the tone of the second apostrophe is saved by that precarious “I love you,” and made tragic by the last line; because the poem is published, we know the brother has died. In a gesture of respect, the poet waits until the brother dies to bring out the poem. But the poem’s publication becomes a final insult to the dead brother, a way of getting even. And the reader, by implication, unintentionally colludes with the poet; every new reading of the poem augments the poet’s revenge.
In “The Standing Broad Jump,” the briefest poem in the book, weighing in at eight lines, it’s as if Frost predicted, and even revels in, the critical neglect of his work:
Good at something, I practiced till I broke
he record by a foot. And then they said
forget it. “You think you’re a grasshopper?
We haven’t done that trick for twenty years.”
Champion of the obsolete event,
I hook my toes on the board, spring forth,
and, just as I would fall, throw back my arms
and fly my whole ten feet to the measured sand.
The extended metaphor here—poetry as a currently out of favor track-and-field event—is presented in such a colloquial style and without commentary or meditation that the casual reader might miss the allusions to “foot” in the second line, “feet” and “measure” in the last, and the wit of the poet’s casting “We haven’t done that trick in twenty years” in the “obsolete” measure of unvarying iambic pentameter: We HAVE-n’t DONE that TRICK in TWEN-ty YEARS.
Without even mentioning the word “poetry,” Frost argues that the poet, or at least this poet, labors at an art that almost everyone else has forgotten, or that what he values most in his art is temporarily out-of-fashion. (I'm reminded here of another Frost's lines from "The Black Cottage": "Most of the change we think we see in life / Is due to truths being in and out of favour.") Since there are more individual volumes of poetry being published now than ever, the implication here is that these volumes are not true poetry, not the real deal. But for Frost poetry’s obsolescence even in the eyes of its poets shouldn’t deter the fledgling practitioner. Instead, this should encourage the poet, spur her on into more radical pursuits within the art, because the poet now has the “measured sand” all to herself.
As Auden claims in his omnibus “Reading” ( from The Dyer’s Hand), “the only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated.” One such poet, and one such book, is Frost’s Neighbor Blood. Whatever the reason for Frost’s lack of popularity among poets and writers either emerging or emerged, Frost’s gifts for image-making, his experimentation with received forms such as the sonnet and sestina, and his talent for storytelling deserve to be championed. If you’ve enjoyed reading this too-brief selection of his work, I encourage you to buy a copy of the book, which, thanks to the good work of the editorial staff at Sarabande Books, is still in print. That fact should reassure even the cynical speaker of “The Standing Broad Jump” as he sweats through his shorts, trying to fling himself further across the sand.