Robert Ganz on Robert Frost

On Sunday February 18 2007, The Washington Post published a review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost by our own Robert Ganz. Professor Ganz is one of the few faculty members here who has earned the right to the description “beloved departmental institution.”

Excerpted below are a few (typically eloquent) paragraphs from the review.

But Frost wasn’t much afraid of clarity. He deplored the willful obscurity of some of his contemporary poets. These notebooks show that what gave his thought its life was his passionate belief in the importance of the individual person’s freedom of action. A couplet from one of his poems, “Let me be the one /To do what is done,” might have served as his motto. An entry in the notebooks asks “how far can we carry the idea of human responsibility?” The point was to carry it just as far as possible …

Frost felt that this beleaguered condition of having to hang upon unguaranteed outcomes is particularly reflected in the language of poetry. “Everything written is as good as it is dramatic,” in the sense that good words also hang upon outcomes. They aren’t merely saying, naming or describing things: “it has been my great object in poetry to avoid” the tone of “plain statement;” and while “it is the common way to think of the sentence as saying something . . . , it must do something as well.”

Good words, then, are serving the speaker’s and writer’s practical intentions or “designs” upon things and other persons. They are projected outward. Even the seeming monologues in Frost’s poetry are really shaped to constitute “my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied” …

There is a great difference between what we only think is the case in life and the way it is in practice. Things that are neatly separate and distinct in thought are jumbled messily together in practice: “life is a . . . mixture in which matter and spirit are made one by the paddle of action.”

Amid the great jostling and shaking together of things in the field of action it is a wonder that anything is accomplished. Real prowess is required, every day, along with its attendant traits of character, which include belief, hope, love, vision and preference. The modernist inveighers against the so-called “intentional fallacy” made a great mistake in assuming that the conscious intellect is the main source of our intentions . . . our acts.

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