Unmade words. How Robert Frost became the poet of his generation with "tones that haven't been brought to book".
Is it going to far to say that no American poet since Frost has been as good as he was? He predates the modernists in writing, but only barely in publication. He became the great new poet of America at a time when Pound, Eliot, Lowell and so on were re-making poetry as modernism. But his companions were Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of Victorian Verse and his Oxford Book of English Verse.
Why was he able to become the leading poet of his generation when he was focussing on the poetry of the past?
In 1912 he went to England, where he met and made friends with all the living poets of the time, including by his own estimation pretty much every under 50 from the Quiller-Couch Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. This included Edward Thomas, Ezra Pound, W.H.Davies, T.E.Hulme, Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie and other Georgian writers.
But he was not one of them. He talked enthusiastically about pretty much all of them in his letters, and stayed with them in their homes. He was always recommending people read The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. He says, admiringly, of Davies, that he is "Elizabethan". He thought Walter De la Mare was the greatest living poet. But he critiqued this work, he didn't simply praise it.
Alfred Noyes ("Alfred no-yes") is described as "sing-songing (as distinguished from song-singing)." And he clearly thought Davies verse lacked the musicality he would bring to his own work, comparing him unfavourably to Yeats, "the best man of the last twenty years in English poetry."
What Frost had that the Georgian and Dymock poets lacked was a sense of vernacular. So much of the poetry from the 1880s through the Georgian poets is written in a strangled, contorted diction and syntax. "Say not the struggle nought availeth" takes a little getting used to.
And he was right. The Georgians have not lasted. Lascelles Amercrombie described his own work, in the preface to his Collected Poems, as representing "unrealized ambition." Frost survived the flood of modernism when they did not because of his theory sentence sound and his devotion to technique.
What W.H.Davies lacked, Frost worked hard at. He said his collection North of Boston was written in "a language absolutely unliterary" (p.162). He did this by pursuing the sentence sounds that occur in ordinary language.
a certain number of sentences (sentence sounds) belong to the human throat just as. certain number of vocal runs belong to the throat of a given kind of bird. (p.248)
He recommended Herrick's To Daffodils and Wordsworth's To Sleep as examples of poetry where the poetry and literary structure had not obscured the natural sentence sounds (p.248). This was largely the analysis that the modernists would do: seeing that literature had become baroque and convoluted.
But his solution was to follow Wordsworth, unlike Eliot who created a whole new sort of impenetrable Miltonism. He set out his theory very clearly in a series of letters, which can be summed up like this, from a letter he wrote on March 22nd, 1915: "we much go out into the vernacular for tones that haven't been brought to book."
His Georgian friends were not good at this. They lacked his ear for language that sounded so natural it almost didn't sound like poetry. This was closely linked to his professional aim as a poet: to find himself an audience.
there is a kind of successes called "of esteem" and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But to really arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle into the general reader... I want to reach out.
This was, Frost was clear to say, the general reader "who buys books in their thousands" (p. 154). He was writing in what he thought was the right way, but he was also finding an audience for himself.
And he did this through technique. The simplicity of his poetry, the way it flows like water, never stops it being obviously his. There is something immediately Frost about classic lines like "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" or "Whose woods these are I think I know" or "When I see birches bent to left and right" or "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood".
Partly, these are distinctly Frost because he stretched the "sentence sounds" of vernacular speech over the pentameter structure that resonates so clearly a English verse. Partly, he was careful to use ordinary language in an unordinary way. Have you ever thought about birch trees quite as much as Robert Frost?
In poetry and under emotion every word word used is "moved... from its old place, heightened, made, made new. See what Keats did with the word alien in the ode... He could never have used it again with just that turn... If I want to deal with that word I must sink back to common useage. I want the unmade words to work with not the familiar ones that everybody exclaims Poetry! at.
This is hugely important. Frost had the art of making ordinary actions into metaphors. Think of "good fences make good neighbours" or "The only way out is through". It is telling that Frost uses Pound's term, "make it new", but not about forms of poetry, just about the language.
Modernism has not retained the large audience poetry used to enjoy. But Frost has. He didn't want to make everything new, just find a new way of making vernacular language work. He was bringing the spirit of Wordsworth to a particular juncture of poetry that lacked it and needed it.
And the quotations from Frost's letters are from the excellent and highly recommended Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I: 1886 - 1920 (US link). That book is what the page numbers refer to as well. If you don't own a copy of Frost, I recommend the Penguin edition introduced by C. Day Lewis (US link). It's old but has pretty much all the best work in, selected by Frost. And it's cheap.