When Wallace Stevens Won the Robert Frost Medal

Robert Frost is so far out there when we consider where poetry is now, my English professor almost decided not to include him in a course on Modern American Poets. In the Modern Period, Robert Frost’s poetry had rhyme, rhythm, beats, feat, and profound themes and sentiment. Since Frost, and in his own age, poetry typically has none of these. OK, maybe theme and sentiment at times. I checked out a journal as a possible place to publish my own poetry. In their guidelines for submissions, they said, “No rhyming poetry.” That’s where we are.

Art, generally speaking, doesn’t rhyme. Visual art doesn’t represent recognizable objects but abstractions; morphs into performance; has become so cerebral that it emulates bare theory. Music went through an atonal period epitomized by Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system of atonality in which anything like melody or harmony is abandoned. Since then, harmony and melody stab at presence in compositions. Along with this general trend in art, abstract poetry finds a place, exemplified by the likes of Wallace Stevens. Abstract poetry is like atonal music. And, in fact, at least one modern composer set Whitman’s I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC to music. (Try finding him/her with Google if you can get past all the posts about Fame.)

Robert Frost was a retrenchment into poetic form that was slip, slipping away. Yet he is still a master poet. With rhyme and rhythm, maybe, indeed, despite rhyme and rhythm Frost’s preeminent place in literary history is firmly established. No course in Modern Poetry can omit Frost.

Beginning with Walt Whitman, poetry loosened the constraints of meter and rhyme. And despite my best efforts at appreciation, it appears to me that Wallace Stevens also loosens the constraint of meaning. In his life, Robert Frost won 4 Pulitzer Prizes, and was awarded 40 honorary degrees. Wallace Stevens won 1 Pulitzer Prize. I chuckle, no, sneer, when I think of Wallace Stevens winning the Robert Frost Medal in 1951.

But today, poetry is more like Wallace Stevens than it is like Robert Frost. Frost was a last gasp of poetic form. At one time, Frost said he would have sold his soul to modernism but for its sameness of sound. Themes created poetic variety for Frost. When one reads poets like Stevens, one can tire quickly of words that deconstruct meaning. Like reading a glossary without definitions. I know of a poet who wrote out in prose a poem about the murder of her parents, then cut it up–either physically or conceptually–and reassembled the story “abstractly.” If one has a story to tell, it is a lie to make it unintelligible in order for it to be art. Then art is a lie.

Whither art? We don’t know. Art must evolve become new;–all things new. We wouldn’t want a steady diet of Rembrandt only–even if it be Rembrandt. We want a new song to sing. But we also want to be able to sing the song.

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