The first book we read for my 20th century poetry “by the book” class was Robert Frost’s “North of Boston.” I found it surprisingly excellent; Frost is quite a good writer. I do think some clarification is needed, though; in most of the poems in this volume, Frost isn’t writing lyric poetry; he’s more writing short narratives in verse form. This doesn’t mean it’s not poetry, but it’s very different from the lyrics of Shakespeare or Keats or Hopkins or Eliot, to name a few of my favorite lyricists. He’s working more with characters than images. (Note that this applies to varying degrees to the rest of his poetry; A Boy’s Will, for example, contains a great deal of lyric, and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a very imagistic poem. Not that they’re distinct categories anyway, more different qualities that can be possessed to greater or lesser degrees.)
Indeed, the subtitle to North of Boston, “this book of people,” demands we approach it as a dialogue between Frost’s characters not participated in by Frost himself. We must find Frost’s meaning in the complex interplay between different speakers’ perspectives. This dialogic approach (c.f. Bakhtin for a more detailed explanation) is more characteristic of the novel or short story than of lyric poetry. For example, the second poem, “Mending Wall,” repeats twice two aphorisms through the mouths of two distinct characters: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and yet “Good fences make good neighbors.” The naïve reader reject one of these sayings or the other or both, but Frost rejects such an easy solution; he finds each view valuable but inadequate alone, and his own view must be sought in the sum of all of them.
This dialogic informs even the arrangement of poems within the book. The last responds to the first, the second-to-last to the second, and so on, in a manner reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. If we leave out “The Pasture” and “Good Hours,” in which Frost himself gives the keys to the book as a whole, we find seven pairs of poems and the lone, central, enigmatic “A Servant to Servants.” That poem discusses one who “was crossed in love, / Or so the story goes.” This bizarre juxtaposition of insanity and love forms the theme of the book; from there, it moves out concentrically, taking as its subject at every level the absurd yet lovely nature of our shared human condition. It focuses on original sin (“Blueberries,” “After Apple-picking”); human dignity (“The Black Cottage,” “The Code”); family life (“Home Burial,” “The Generations of Men”); societal perceptions (“A Hundred Collars,” “The Housekeeper”); poetic inspiration (“The Mountain,” “The Fear”); mortality (“The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Self-Seeker”); and humanity in nature (“Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile”).
Consider the use of dialogic in the last of these poems. Its counterpart “Mending Wall” suggests that building walls, though an act of violence against nature, is necessary to establish a community, for men define themselves by division. In “The Wood-Pile,” the speaker recognizes nature, by itself, as generalized and anonymous; it offers only “tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by.” These trees remind us of the pine and apple in “Mending Wall,” but are different because homogenous; they represent man by himself in nature, where he is nowhere in particular, “just far from home.” The wood-pile, however, an artifact akin to the mended wall, offers to connect man to nature by distinguishing him from it, through community. On seeing a pile of wood the speaker sees that though the wood-pile was made by man out of nature, it does not sit outside of nature; “what held it though on one side was a tree / Still growing.” The later poem thus recasts imagery of the earlier one to suggest a different position – though not exactly a contradictory one. It is more that they are two halves of an answer.