THE WORK OF HUNTERS IS ANOTHER THING

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

“To please the yelping dogs” ends a thought, begins an iambic pentameter line, but doesn’t finish that line, as the poet’s argument resumes in the middle: “the gaps, I mean.”

In Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall;” the poet describes the gaps in the wall which occur, strangely, because of freezing (“frozen ground-swell”) —what is ‘frozen’ moves.

The lines, as a whole, in Frost’s poem, move languidly, argumentatively, conversationally, (“The gaps, I mean”)—in case you didn’t get it, this is what I mean; the poem, flying in the face of the canon, dares to be informal, informality as slack as a poem may get: obscurity is too slack.

“I mean” is the opposite of obscurity, the poet not ashamed to add words to make himself understood better. But in pentameter!

Charm, even of the most insouciant kind, like everything else, requires context, and the canon nicely provides it. That’s what the Tradition is for: to make things more interesting as we play handball against it, not to glumly tower above us.

Pure difficulty, pure obscurity, is never charming.

I pray, before I go to bed each night, that contemporary poets understand this.

And so here is the great crossroads of Modern Poetry in this great Frost poem of the early 20th century; two types of slackness, two roads:

The informal, which bends a few rules.

And the obscure, which breaks them all.

One leads to pleasant informality, to modern charm; the other to stupid oblivion, to slack shit.

“To please the yelping dogs” is a phrase that stays in our memory and we think for a simple and mysterious reason: to us it represents that sensual, animal life which pleases those who don’t care for poetry. “Yelping dogs” perfectly describes a life without refinement, without soul, without philosophy, without poetry. Frost uses the phrase in his poem to indicate what he does not mean.

Most people are satisfied with the “yelping dog” life, and that is all they need. Everyone needs some “yelping dog” life, but those who enjoy nothing else should not stray anywhere near poetry; they will hate its simplicity, and they will spoil it. For “yelping dog” may apply to poetry, as it may apply to everything else: an eager, noisy, social, chaotic, spirited, life can, and will, invade everything, even the so-called fine arts; it can overrun them; few are able to resist the “yelping dog” life, which is why genius and truly great art is rare. How, for instance, did the wonderful poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay get trampled? Why is “yelping” poetry, rather than beautiful poetry, critically embraced today?

Dana Gioia, reviewing Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, wrote: “Keillor’s tone is obviously designed to rile anyone who holds the conventionally high critical opinion of Moore and Plath (and the conventionally low one of Millay).”

Think on it! The “conventionally high critical opinion of Moore and Plath and the conventionally low one of Millay.”

This critical ranking is true, and it happened in a few years—Millay tumbled from her perch in the 1930s.

Except for “Daddy,”—the rhyme-song of wife-anguish which emerged from Plath as she suicidally removed herself from the world of John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, the magazine of proper Modernism (be as dull and obscure as you possibly can)—the poems of Plath and Moore do not amount to very much, while Millay’s poems rock the house down (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed and Where and Why; Dirge Without Music; And You As Well Must Die, Beloved Dust; I Being Born A Woman and Distressed; If I Should Learn In Some Quite Casual Way); Moore and Plath present difficulty for its own sake.

Reading Marianne Moore’s poetry (“all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction however…”) is like peering without understanding at the complexity of a car’s engine; reading Millay’s verse is like driving that car.

So how did this happen? How did Moore and Plath gain ascendance over Millay? It had to take a lot of “yelping dog” distraction. Moore belonged to the well-connected Dial clique of Pound, Williams, Cummings, and Eliot; Plath panted after their ascendency; Millay was rudely pushed aside by that same clique, Hugh “The Pound Era” Kenner, and a few others, providing the critical hammer blows to Millay’s reputation. The point is, it only took one well-connected clique to take Millay down, because the majority of her countrymen only cared for the “yelping dog” life. The poetry garden really has but a few gardeners (critics who set the tone).

Millay is like a supersonic jet plane—it has the potential to take a lot of people on wonderful rides, but not if it is grounded. The battle for poetry will always take place among the few, because the “yelping dogs” are so distracting, and make sure that it is only the few that care enough and focus enough on poetry to truly decide poetry’s fate. Most are simply not refined enough to fight this fight. But the fight must be fought, since poetry is a door to that which truly refines the soul.

How is the soul refined? By love, of course.

And what does poetry have to do with love?

Nothing.

Which is precisely why it takes a remarkable soul to effect the marriage; most do not see the marriage as necessary; they are like those who take for granted that light and heat permeate glass—never thinking what this common phenomenon means.

The holy marriage of poetry and love, with Beauty the priest who joins them, is a radiant truth that civilizes humanity, but tumbles into obscurity and critical censure with barely a sigh, for love is socially embarrassing, and poetry, embarrassing as well, especially in the world of the yelping dog.

Only a superhuman effort can make such a marriage accepted; the poet has to court the world, not merely describe it, and this effort makes or breaks the would-be poet. Millay wrote of love, Moore, bric-a-brac. In the fashion of the hour, bric-a-brac, while the dogs yelp, is enough for the professors’ seduction, and in the Program era, ushered in by Ransom and Moore’s Dial clique, the bric-a-brac poetry professor became all-important.

One can still see contemporary poetry critics making half-hearted, half-conscious, desultory gestures in love’s direction: for instance, see Dan Chiasson’s recent review in the New Yorker of the latest book of poems by Alaska poet Olena Kalytiak Davis, which thrills to the 51 year old poet’s “sexual power” and “romance,” going so far as to say, “authentic pining in poetry, though hard to come by, is probably necessary for any poet who wishes to become a classic.”

Here is Chiasson kind of getting it, but don’t hold your breath for a Millay revival happening any time soon.  (A few poets today following Millay confuse the vulgarity for the art.)

So many are seduced by the Marianne Moore bric-a-brac school, not because they love bric-a-brac, necessarily, but because they think ‘crunchy poetry’ will leave behind the embarrassments of heart-breaking love, and allow poetry to talk about more things, to cover more ground and more moods, pushing into areas usually confined to the political essay or the long novel. Frost, gabbing casually forever.

But the bric-a-brac wish is in vain.

Like the legendary Faust, the poet tempted by verbose worldly riches—by poetry that attempts what prose is better fitted to do—leaves behind Millay and dies beneath the heavy objects of a modern bric-a-brac poetry only the very few are canny enough to know was a terrible danger, a foolish gambit, from the start.

Even as they know of the terrible danger of love—and the pining poetry, fainting for all mankind, which dies in its arms.

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