‘…getting a little of it for myself…’
By STEPHEN WADE.
FROM HIS FARM in Franconia, New Hampshire, in 1915, Robert Frost wrote a series of letters to Edward Thomas out on the Western Front, where he was soon to die. Frost told his friend that in the ‘Queries’ section of a school newspaper, there had been an assessment of his poetry saying that he was considered ‘…perhaps the equal of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and James Whitcomb Riley. Don’t think I am bitter. You know how little I ask. Only I wish I could have the credit for getting a little of it for myself and perhaps sharing a little of it with someone else.’ He was writing from ‘a house and forty-odd acres of land’ where he and Thomas had imagined a nest of singing birds, as Sam Johnson would have put it.
His reflection provokes a worthwhile line of thought about the nature of influence in writing: not only does he want to have a distinctive voice, but he also aims to share ‘a little of it.’ Frost had certainly done that with regard to Thomas and his beginnings as a poet back in their days at Dymock, surrounded by poets in a cluster of creative sociability with writers such as Eleanor Farjeon, Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater, alongside the resident poets in their homes near Ledbury.
Frost’s appeal to be known by his original ability is there beneath the humorous comment to Thomas, and it relates to my current project of enquiring into the nature of influence in writing. If I had to develop a full thesis, I would have to assert that my quest is for the joy and delight of influence, as a creative impact on the writer’s work. This would leave aside the notion of the ‘anxiety’ referred to in Harold Bloom’s influential work, The Anxiety of Influence.
In my own poetry and its discernible influences, I can see only positive elements; my first collection, Churwell Poems (Littlewood Arc, 1987) I know for sure that Heaney’s work had surely had an impact, but in my last collection Stretch (Smokestack, 2021) I have no clear idea of what intertextual strands lie mixed in the lines and images. All I do know for sure is that writing, in all its forms and conventions, is in some way performative. The writer adopts a voice and a stance. Now, this is easily attacked as having a degree of insincerity.
When I started writing in the 1970s, poetry readings were regular events. Arguably, the fundamental appeal of these readings was the revelations of emotional involvement in experience: sometimes bare instances of empathy and sometimes accounts of internal Angst. This required a projection, a fusion of the words of a poem and the poet’s own (supposedly genuine) emotional experience.
Putting together some thoughts on this, I needed an enlightening case study on influence in this context. Of course we have Wordsworth and Coleridge or Byron and Tennyson. But I wanted to look at what I considered to be a strong individual voice that had emerged from a documented source, and something that had influenced my writing too. I found this in Frost and Thomas. In Frost’s New Hampshire, his fourth collection, published a century ago, I have the perfect case study. Here was a collection in which the various constituents of this emerging true voice of the poet becomes evident. By ‘true voice’ I mean the one which the poet himself appears to be easily and smoothly known and which he uses, like a tool. In this collection, packed with images of art and craft, Frost draws this parallel, in ‘The Ax-Helve’ where we have these lines:
He showed me that the lines of a good helve
Were native to the grain before the knife
Expressed them, and its curves were no false curves
Put on it from without. And there its strength lay
For the hard work.
Here, the feeling of certainty that, in Heaney’s words, ‘the nubbed treasure’ of the poet’s material is understood to be genuine, to be the real thing, and that understanding is evident to the craftsman/poet. A poor ax-helve would be soon recognised. In a letter to me, Seamus Heaney wrote, ‘Not that the meaning can be put into an articulated set of propositions; it’s more that in the tone of writing or in its undervoice one picks up an attitude to life, a disposition, a temperament, and its seems to me that here is where the ‘poetry’ often resides.’
It would not be a hard task to see this process happening in Frost’s responses to Thomas’ prose and the ‘undervoice’ waiting to be revealed. In fact, New Hampshire is a very complex proving of Frost’s originality, and in that collection, he includes a warm, intimate tribute to Thomas, avoiding any reference to that poetic encounter except to state that Thomas showed his admiration for Frost’s work. New Hampshire is –in one of many productive readings – a gathering of themes covering working life, material fulfilment, local myth, self-deprecating humour and sheer fun with words. Yet running through the poems is an assertion about the importance of poetry as an art that has to be perceived through a prism of many colours, rather than as a monochrome block of words to be praised. From the beginning, there is a determined effort to undermine the art:
I met a poet from another state,
A zealot full of fluid inspiration
Who in the name of fluid inspiration,
But in the best style of bad salesmanship
Angrily tried to make me write a protect(in verse I think) against the Volstead Act.
Several poems in the book include a humorous negativity, sometimes even turning against the local theme that title invites: ‘ Anything I can say about New Hampshire/will serve almost as well about Vermont’ In the lengthy opening title-poem, Frost really demolishes and Wordworthian sentiment about place and imagination, offering some riotous fun that Garrison Keillor would surely admire: prompted to expand on ‘the glorious bards of Massachusetts’ he goes on:
…………..‘How are we to write
The Russian Novel in America
As long as life goes so unterribly?
There is the pinch from which our only outcry
In literature to date is heard to come.
We get what little misery we can
Out of not having cause for misery.’
There is a trickle of such delight in humorous themes through the collection, but if we want to evidence of the ‘true voice’ he had insisted that Thomas had but failed to see, then it is in the enmeshed and sometimes adventurous accounts of people, work and the human integration into nature. In Thomas’s prose he had found this, and in the now celebrated account of the influence of Frost on Thomas, it is plain to see that the influence in question was exciting and rewarding in its development. Matthew Hollis, in his exemplary group biography of Thomas and friends, explains this situation brilliantly, referring to Thomas’s ‘Up in the Wind’ – the first work to emerge from the influence: ‘It was an extraordinary first effort, full of character and good phrasing; tonally, perhaps, it borrowed from his friend Robert Frost… but in places it soared with an energy and confidence that showed glimpses of the promise to come.’
That verdict could equally be applied to New Hampshire, and to reinforce the point that the collection is a completely admirable achievement for Frost, we must turn again to the metaphor running through all the words, art, craft and the struggle for authenticity. For me, the best work is seen in ‘The Grindstone’ which not only plays with the notion of the least pleasant attitude to work, but brings together most of Frost’s preoccupations, all built around an anecdote. At the very heart of his writing, there is an appeal for the reader to share in the making of the poem, and this happens in the assembly of details and actions around the focal image of the item itself with its human connection: ‘These hands have helped it go, and even race.’ Then it is brought to life, a workmate, sometimes uncannily human-like: ‘For months it hasn’t known the taste of steel/ washed down with rusty water in a tin/ but standing outdoors hungry…’
It might not have been something open to fluent explanation, this true voice Frost wanted. Realism has always been open to sentimentality, and imagery can at times run away from any logical, designed basis, shooting on to be, for instance, a disappointing final couplet in a sonnet. But for Frost creates in New Hampshire, a template for his beliefs regarding the endless search of the writer for the visible, satisfying nature of the honesty in the work.
Finally, what of the actual groundwork of belief and knowledge which might form and become evident in any collection, acting rather like a design plan through a mansion? Frost allows this to peep through, and sometimes boldly: ‘…. Men hate to die/ and have stopped dying now forever/I think they would believe the lie.’
Poetry, like the experience of mystifying reality, might be open to interpretation, but it might also, as these lines from ‘In a Disused Graveyard’ assert whimsically but with provocation, lie in an acceptable way. New Hampshire begins with playful lies, and moves towards a more philosophical teasing. How could it fail to influence me, emerging from Heaney’s influence into a condition in which my ‘true’ voice seemed to be essential?
STEPHEN WADE is the author of Rejected! Literary Failure and My Contribution to It (Odd Volumes). His most recent books are a poetry collection, Stretch (Smokestack) and a novel, The Lovers on Asphodel Way (Inky Lab).