Sunday, September 14, 2008

Frost's Notebooks

I recently bought Robert Frost, The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Ed. Robert Faggen (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2007). I found it interesting, but less so than I had anticipated. Robert Faggen argues in his introduction that Frost's Notebooks reveal him as an aphoristic thinker, comparable to Francis Bacon, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and Friedrich Nietzsche. "in keeping with modern revivals of the aphoristic philosophical tradition, Frost's Notebooks have the probing quality of Pascal's Pensées and the wit of Lichtenberg's 'Waste Books.' Frost's notebooks, like Pascal's and Lichtenberg's, refuse easy editorial arrangement as extended, logical arguments, but that does little to diminish their inspired intensity or the focus of their thought" (x).

I beg to differ. I t is true that Frost's notebooks, like Lichtenberg's notes and Pascal's thoughts, are difficult to edit and do not offer extended logical arguments. It is also true that some of the entries have an aphoristic quality. But the difference between Pascal and Lichtenberg on the one hand, and Frost on the other could not be more striking. Frost's notes consist of an unordered "mixture of phrases, sayings, meditations, stories, topical lists, dialogues, teaching notes, and drafts of poems" (ix), Pascal's and Lichtenberg's entries have a much more finished look. The notes of Pascal and Lichtenberg are ends in themselves, while Frost's are means, perhaps even "mere means" towards another end, most notably his poems.[1]

As Faggen himself points out, "Frost drafted the poems in the same or similar notebooks to the ones presented here, tore out pages he wanted transcribed, and then destroyed early drafts. But trial lines and early drafts of a number of poems can be found in the surviving notebooks" (xi). The notebooks were working instruments, no more and no less. "A visitor to Frost during his later years, either in his study on Brewster Street, in Cambridge, or at the cabin on the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, Vermont, might find him stretched out in his armchair, homemade lapboard on his knee, his feet surrounded by a clutter of notebooks. Nearby on the floor would lie a small, well-worn, brown leather satchel half-opened, showing more notebooks and many sheets of paper covered by handwriting ... They [the notebooks] were his constant companions such that he tool one with him wherever he traveled" (xiii).

What you find in them are some of the raw materials of his poems and speeches, together with some experiments and trials. None of this means that we cannot learn from them. It just means that the 688 pages of notes yield far less to the reader who is only casually acquainted with Frost's poetry than the Introduction promises. Faggen also calls the notebooks Frost's "laboratory," and I believe that this is closer to the truth.

Frost's notebooks may provide "insight into the ... ideas that became poems." He recorded ideas and expressions with a view to later use. But much of what may have made sense to him, will makes no sense to us. His notes for himself are to a large extent inscrutable. To a lesser extent this must be true of all notes someone takes in pursuing a project or simply taking note. Some may even become inscrutable to the note-taker himself, which may or may not be a good thing.

1. This, of course, does not preclude the possibility that some of these fragments would later become the means to some other end.

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