Editorial: Chapter And Verse

Lives of Maxine Kumin, Robert Frost

It’s not often that the poetry world produces front page news, but last week it yielded two such stories. Sadly, one reported the death of Maxine Kumin, the Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate who died at age 88 at her farmhouse in Warner, N.H., on Thursday. The other previewed the release later this month of the first volume of Robert Frost’s letters, which some scholars say could produce a much-needed reassessment of his character and personal life.

Both Kumin and Frost, of course, are closely associated with rural New England, although their art brilliantly transcended mere regionalism. While both insisted on the need of being versed in country things, the apparent simplicity of their subject matter cloaked a subtlety of intellect and a mastery of technique that enabled them to penetrate the ambiguities and complexities of human life.

Those requiring a brief introduction to Kumin’s life and work could hardly do better than to begin with the fine appreciation written by Mike Pride, former editor of the Concord Monitor, that appeared in Saturday’s Valley News. There are many things to take away from his piece, not least the intimate connection Kumin and her husband, Victor, forged with their 200-acre farm in Warner and the role it played in helping her to find her poetic voice. She is supremely a poet of close observation, whose scrutiny of specific, familiar things opened the wider world to fruitful inquiry. All poems are at bottom elegies, she said, and indeed her work is suffused with that quality. In The Porch Swing she writes of her surviving brother and daring death “to squeeze onto the porch swing/where we rock away half a century/… We bask once more in our private sun,/the known astonishments of what has been.”

Pleasure and instruction await those who have not yet read Maxine Kumin; those who have should celebrate her life and gift by renewing the literary acquaintance.

Of course, almost everyone has encountered Frost at some point or another, even if it is only to have a graduation speaker mistake what has been justly called the essential nihilism of The Road Not Taken for a celebration of the possibilities of human choice. Yet the enduring popularity of his poetry lives in the shadow of a posthumous reputation of Frost as a sort of emotional monster, particularly in relation to his family. As The New York Times reported last week, this portrait emerged shortly after Frost’s death in 1963 in a three-volume biography by Lawrance Thompson, whom Frost had selected for the task. Thompson, in the words of the Times, “emerged from decades of assiduous note-taking with a portrait of the poet as a cruel, jealous megalomaniac.”

The first volume of The Letters of Robert Frost, due to be published next week by Harvard University Press, will restore a sense of balance, those involved in editing them say. “There’s been a kind of persistent sense of Frost as a hypocrite, as someone who showed one face to the public and another privately,” said Donald Sheehy, a professor at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania who co-edited the work. “These letters will dispel all that. Frost has his moods, his enemies, the things that set him off. But mostly what you see is generosity of spirit.”

That flawed character and literary genius can exist within the same individual is not exactly news. As W.H. Auden memorably put it: “Time that is intolerant/Of the brave and innocent,/And indifferent in a week/To a beautiful physique,/Worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives;/Pardons cowardice, conceit/Lays its honours at their feet.”

Yet, there is something in the work of Frost that has always seemed to us fundamentally inconsistent with the notion of the poet as private monster. Maybe it is that in the layered complexity of the natural world as rendered by Frost, self-knowledge unfolds slowly, but surely.