"THE ART OF ROBERT FROST," by Tim Kendall, Yale University Press, $35, 408 pages (nf)
“The Art of Robert Frost,” the joyous new book from Frost scholar Tim Kendall, is both an insightful glimpse into 65 of Frost’s most notable poems as well as homage to another era.
The period during which Frost achieved international acclaim was a very different one than the times in which we now live. Arts and letters generally and poetry specifically were at the heart of American cultural life. Poetry was a central part of the national dialogue, and Robert Frost was at the forefront of the conversation.
Unique in format, “The Art of Robert Frost” is an exploration of the bones of Frost’s most renowned works. Kendall cites the full text of each selected poem, following which he then explores the origins of the words while providing a delightful glimpse into the poet’s mind and mood over the course of his career.
Kendall works chronologically, starting with Frost’s first published text, “A Boy’s Will,” and concluding with excerpted poems written at the pinnacle of his poetic life. All of the favorites are here, including “The Road Not Taken,” “Mending Wall,” “Fire and Ice,” “The Death of the Hired Man” and of course “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
In his discussion of this seminal piece, as with each poem he includes, Kendall provides both a scholarly analysis of the work while also capturing the poignancy of the text itself. Especially welcome are his citations from Frost himself about the poem. For instance, Kendall reveals the poet’s frustration with readers who demanded that he be explicit in stating what the poem “meant.” “It means enough without it being pressed,” Frost is quoted as saying. “I don’t say that somebody shouldn’t press it, but I don’t want to be there.” Or this, “What can you do with a poem besides read it without offending against the refinement of feeling?”
“The Art of Robert Frost” is an elegy for an earlier time. Not merely a repackaging of the poet’s work, it is a both a surgical and respectful study of how each poem came into being. It is scholarly without being obtuse or self-important. In the current discussion regarding the soul of America, it is a welcome reminder of an country at once vibrant, hungry and engaged in a quest for meaning through the nourishing bread of letters. This book is a hymnal of grace, worthy of our finest yearnings.