Early Poems, by Robert Frost
By the time I read this book, I was pretty irritated, for a variety of reasons. The main source of irritation was that I had just read for the third time in the course of a couple of days the same collection of poems by someone who is considered a great poet, all of which were given different titles. If someone wants to be considered as a great poet, it should not be possible that their earliest poems also be their selected poems or their best poems, not when those poems don’t happen to be very good for the most part. The first book I read was an illustrated book of these same poems without any critical introduction, and the second book was a selection of the better poems of this same body of work with a critical introduction. This book, sadly, has no illustrations that would take one’s attention off of the mediocre (at best) poetry, and has a very lengthy introduction that demonstrates the appeal of Frost’s poetry to pretentious literary critics and the problems that Frost had in being indecisive in his portrayal of himself, in his deliberate and artful ambiguity, which makes the poems even more frustrating because they cannot even be enjoyed in a straightforward fashion.
This book is more than 200 pages long, and after an introduction that runs on for thirty pages, it contains suggestions for further reading and a note on the texts. The text itself begins with the poems from “A Boy’s Will,” then moves on to the poetry of “North Of Boston,” then progresses to “Mountain Interval,” which begins with Frost’s best-known and often-parodied and anthologized “The Road Not Taken,” before looking at the poems to 1922 that were later published in New Hampshire. The table of contents is worthwhile in at least one way in that the poems of “A Boy’s Will” have short descriptions that at least point to something that the poet was aiming at, but the remainder of the poems do not have this comforting and worthwhile summary, which would make some of them easier to appreciate, at least. It is unsurprising as well that the first selection of poems is the best, largely because the poems are short and relatively straightforward, and that the miscellaneous poems at the end are almost as good for the same reasons. Where Frost is less pedantic, more honest, and more straightforward, his rhymes are not unpleasant, his scansion enjoyable, but these moments are too few and far between here.
And ultimately, these poems are barely worth reading once, for the most part, much less three times marketed under different names. If any part of the popularity of Frost’s work is in the smoke and mirrors of marketing the same books under different names, that would suggest a level of dishonesty that would make Frost (and his publishers) on the same level of morality as a John Maxwell. The fact that so much attention is given to his early poetry suggests that he peaked very early and somehow managed to stay famous for a long time afterward. As someone who reads a lot of poetry (far more than the average reader), this does not seem like a very common quality. Most of the poets I have read have careers that last for decades, and they are able to keep up a high quality of works over a long span. William Stafford, for example, wrote very good poetry in the 1940’s when he was a conscientious objector in a work camp and still wrote very good poetry consistently up to his death in the 1990’s. Frost, on the other hand, does not appear to have this quality, as all of the selections I have seen of his poetry are of a very short period, and that where many of his poems were long and rambling attempts at phony conversations. Frost is not the worst poet ever, but he just may be the most overrated.