I am writing regarding Daniel E. Pritchard’s review of the March 30, 2009 roundtable discussion “Critical Contexts” at Harvard University, in the May CPR. After orienting us to the poet-critic speakers and the gist of the conversation, Mr. Pritchard writes this:

“There were many offhanded references to tradition, identity, lots of Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Tennyson, language poetry, and one entirely wrong-headed comment by (Maureen) McLane that ‘plenty of people are in the line of Robert Frost.’ But, no—they’re not. Plenty of people are poor imitators; only one living poet, to my mind, is in Frost’s line, and that is Seamus Heaney…Writing in form does not put you in any category with Frost, whose standing and category are based on the immense accomplishment of his poetry, not in the easily-identifiable trappings of his verse.”

The Frost-Heaney comparison is interesting. Both produced significant bodies of work; both wrote poems of place; both spent time at Harvard. Frost was the more insistent rhymer of the two. Heany’s one Nobel Prize might be roughly equivalent to Frost’s four Pulitzer Prizes, although I think the Pulitzers tell more about Frost’s reputation at home; we all know about the eccentric choices for the Nobel in Literature. Mr. Pritchard might have mentioned Richard Wilbur, who has quietly assembled an impressive body of work in Frost’s shadow.

We understand that verse trappings do not make great poems or poets. What bothers me is the phrase “immense accomplishment,” which suggests that Robert Frost has become a demi-god of sorts, remote and unapproachable, beyond human ken. Mr. Pritchard seems to be saying that no one among those who write in forms today can be anything but a poor imitator of the craggy master. Such poets, even if they have talent are somehow lacking: in character, gravitas? They should smash their computers and weep.

Mr. Pritchard might not have been impressed by present company at the Harvard roundtable. That, however, is not a reason to use Frost to punish or discourage those who write in the Anglo-American tradition. It’s a tough world out there, generally less literate than in the day when Robert Frost tramped through the New England woods. It is a world filled with many more distractions, many more writers striving for recognition, a galaxy of web sites emitting faint twinkles among the firmament of sensations.

All of which is to say, taking the discussion out of Harvard Yard, there is more going on out there than the “mere trappings of verse, and gatekeeper-reviewers like Mr. Pritchard, a writer and publishing professional, can do us all a favor and take notice.

Sent, but not published, to Contemporary Poetry Review. By Hudson Owen.

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