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.
Mrs. Someone’s been to Asia,
What she brought back would amaze ye.
Bamboos, ivories, jades, and lacquers,
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.)