Dead Poets Society Is Dead To Me Now
Ben Freeland

I realize we are for the most part not speaking of poetry in form, but Frost had a lot to say of craft that literary critics seldom if ever attend to to this day. In a 1959 interview (with Richard Poirier), he said: “Why don’t critics talk about those things — what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score. They say not, but you’ve got to score in all the realms…. I look on a poem as a performance. I look on the poet as man of prowess, just like an athlete. He’s a performer. And the things you can do in a poem are very various. You speak of figures, tones of voice varying all the time. I’m always interested, you know, when I have three or four stanzas, in the way I lay the sentences in them. I’d hate to have the sentences all lie the same in the stanzas. Every poem is like that: some sort of achievement in performance.”

Or this, from a 1932 letter to a young poet: “What your poem is all about moves me. There’s a mature positiveness in it that lifts it away above the work of the mere rhymesters we have always with us. You have something you did and something you actually thought to tell of. There’s not the least affectation of sentiment or phraseology. And I can excuse the inexpertness of the handling. I have to admit against my prejudice in your favor that what I might call your seconds aren’t as good as your firsts in your couplets. That is to say in the first of the pair where you are free from having to think of the rhyme, you are better than in the second line where you are not so free. We all have the same defect in greater or less degree. It might be said that the whole battle of art is waged to make the second lines of couplets as honest as the first lines. Second lines simply must not be left good-excuse lines. You could relieve this ailment if you cared to take the time and trouble. You’re a poet by nature. I have known that. It took this poem to make me say it out. I wish I wish — well that such genuineness could be a shade more accomplished” (my emphases). That’s pretty darn extravagant––“the whole battle of art”––but made so to drive home the point.

Or in the same year, in another letter: “You know the weakness of verse: one line of it will be strong and good and the next will be almost anything for the sake of the rhyme. That’s why some people cant stand the stuff. The ideal we are always striving for is an even goodness, so that neither line can be suspected of having been deflected twisted or trumpted [sic] up to rhyme with the other. That will make the verse as honest as the equivalent in prose. Sometimes I don’t think there is any other test of a good poem than to see that not a single rhyme in it has hurt it.” Try that out on a good 17th century poem, something by Marvell or Herbert, say, or on one of Shakespeare’s sonnets; see if you can find a rhyme that “hurts” the poem it resides in. It is good exercise.

Or for that matter, consider this 1929 letter (to a fellow poet and friend of Frost’s):

“In a poem of [Edwin] Markham’s I read yesterday I found him speaking of the robin starling and sparrow as having migrated for the winter from England. I’m no authority on English birds, but I’m very sure he chose the three that just dont migrate. The worst of such falseness to fact is that it makes all poets look as if they said anything the rhyme made them say. We wont do anything to bring our craft into such disrepute will we?” See the second stanza of “How Oswald Dined with God” in Markham’s 1915 volume The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems:

Frosty and stiff by the gray York wall

Stood the rusty grass and the yarrow:

Gone wings and songs to the southland, all —

Robin and starling and sparrow.

This is bad. Markham let rhyme lead him into serious errors in ornithology. The form messes up the science. English sparrows do not migrate; nor do most English robins, and indeed some species of starlings migrate into the UK during winter from colder climates to the east (Scandinavia, Russia, e.g.).

Anyhow, you get the general point as to care and craft.

I could hardly bear DPS when I saw the film and have never watched it since. I make my living teaching literature, or have done anyway. Never seen the act rendered well on screen. But then: I don’t think I want to see it on screen at all.