Robert Frost, Grouch

Update, 2009-10-19: If you’ve come here by way of the BBC’s Justin Webb’s America piece on “Space, youth, and hope,” welcome! If you’re also here straight from the UK, , I also suggest that you skip over to the Phoenix Artist Club in London on November 3 for the London book launch event for artist Helen Couchman‘s Mrs. West’s Hats. You won’t be disappointed!

Steve King’s always-interesting daily e-newsletter, Today in Literature, reports that “Robert Frost’s Steeple Bush, his eighth and second-last collection of poems, was published on this day in 1947.”

We don’t normally think of Frost as a social commentator, but apparently he fell off that wagon numerous times in Steeple Bush. In the poem below, says King:

…he gives his take on the boom in trade, specifically the vogue for mass-produced, Asian kitsch… it shows Frost in a frisky, nearly foul-mouthed mood.

Wow, eh?

An Importer

Mrs. Someone’s been to Asia,
What she brought back would amaze ye.
Bamboos, ivories, jades, and lacquers,
Devil-scaring firecrackers,
Recipes for tea with butter,
Sacred rigmaroles to mutter,
Subterfuge for saving faces,
A developed taste in vases,
Arguments too stale to mention
‘Gainst American intervention;
Most of all the mass production
Destined to prove our destruction.
What are telephones, skyscrapers,
Safety razors, Sunday papers,
But the silliest evasion
Of the truths we owe an Asian?
But the best of her exhibit
Was a prayer machine from Tibet
That by brook power in the garden
Kept repeating Pardon, pardon;
And as picturesque machinery
Beat a sundial in the scenery —
The most primitive of engines
Mass producing with a vengeance.
Teach those Asians mass production?
Teach your grandmother egg suction.

[Text confirmed here.]

Again: wow. Robert Frost, the kindly white-haired stammerer at the JFK inauguration, wrote stuff like this? Who knew? And, um, excuse me: “frisky”? I don’t know about you, but when I think of “frisky” I think of frolicking like a flock of lambs. Or satyrs.


(Note: In looking around the Web for more about this poem, I found some suggestion that Frost meant the whole thing satirically. For instance: “…the poem ends with an ironic twist, turning a prejudiced conception of the East back on the general public that held it.” Which struck me as reaching, but whadda I know.)

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  1. Frisky doesn’t come to mind with Robert Frost. In fact, I don’t think frisky ought to be used to describe any grown man unless he’s really a cat.

  2. you know, Lisa Eudaemonia and I have this ongoing conversation about Frost. I think he was pretty crochety and dark (in a wonderful way). Cf “Stopping by Woods,” or just a slightly closer look at “The Road Less Traveled.” Yeah.

  3. marta: I regret to report that “frisky” has in the past been one of my favorite words to describe grownups of both gender persuasions. For this to work, though, you have to say it… uh… rogueishly, I guess. “Feeling a bit frisky, are we?” And then for ironic and probably over-the-top comic emphasis, do one of those Eric Idle wink-wink-nudge-nudge moves.

    moonie: You seem to have so many ongoing side conversations with so many people it’s a wonder you’ve got time for a project to fill in ONE gap in your reading, let alone a whole 100 in five years. :)

    But I understand what you mean about Frost (and I don’t think it’s just his name). Aside from the tone of the poem above, I was surprised that the book itself was published as early as 1947. Which reminds me, now — it’s not the first time I’ve needed to be reminded of this: people (especially those who were adults long before I was) are often (always?) nothing like their “public” selves. They have secret histories, and the Santa Clauses among them may have substance-abuse and personality issues, and so on.

    This week would have been Benny Goodman’s 100th birthday, and a recent newspaper account of his life tells us that many of his most loyal band members actually hated working with him, describing him as “the rudest man I know” and such. Trying to match this information with a guy whose music seems (to me) a celebration of joy just, does, not, compute.

  4. I’ve always heard that the most expressive artists are found to be either the most maudlin in real life or the real sons of bitches…Of course I can’t think of any examples right now (maybe James Thurber or Charles Schultz). But I wonder if that is the reason they can be both at the same time. If you’ve been a parent you can be the most unfair, mean and cruel person in one minute and the most compassionate of souls the next. That’s the lovely thing about humanity or the worst. Giving birth to your art is draining as so many of your contributors point out, and can leave you with a permanent case of enlightenment of your art/depression of the observation of real life. But such is life, I guess.

  5. cynth: I’ve heard that about “real” artists, too, but prefer not to believe it. It’s probably more like… Well, say your family had a beagle when you were growing up. It howled and howled, incessantly. I bet that’s the only dog’s “voice” you’d remember from back then.

    Artists may be like pet dogs. The ones with the loudest problems seem to get all the press for the falling-apart of their private lives… but are actually a tiny minority of all successful or expressive artists.

    That, plus I hate the idea that I’ve gotta be an S.O.B. if I want to succeed!

  6. Quality and adeptness of communication, whether via words or music or visual shapes, has a lot to do with both focus and sheer skill and adeptness. It does not have to be an expression of inner personal truth, just very well done.
    “I’m not a doctor; I just play one on TV!” It’s hard for an audience to separate the role from the person, but that’s exactly what makes a superb actor, for example. Some get famous and wealthy for repeating a single performance with minor variations, as one-note wonders, but its the versatile and multi-faceted ones who are the geniuses. And they may be nothing like any of those personas when they’re at home.

    So a bitter, agonized, near-martinet like Beethoven can write the inspired Ode to Joy in the advanced stages of lead poisoning and deafness. But Vienna loved him anyway.

  7. Easy enough to understand if you summarize the story:
    –Back from Asia comes Mrs. Someone
    –She has lots of “art” and a new criticism of America
    America, she says, has lost its soul to mass production while Asians do handwork.
    –It’s our way of avoiding the spiritual truths of Asia (sound somewhat like all the aficionados of Tibetan culture?)
    –America has doomed its soul with skyscrapers and other such material stuff
    –to show Asian spirituality she brings home a prayer wheel powered by the flow in her brook
    –it uses a primitive engine to mass produce what–prayers!
    –we have nothing to teach the Asians about mass production; they already do it with prayers

    All this, of course, before the Asians really got started in mass production for Nike and Walmart.

    The poem is a take off on the still fashionable praise of Asians as more spiritual and less material.


  1. […] hope. The rest of the world can seem so jaded in contrast. When people carp at America I think of the Robert Frost poem The Importer – sometimes reviled as racist and certainly not fashionable nowadays – that hits back with wit and, […]

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