a poem means you're in too deep

Peppering [Robert Frost's] notebooks is the phrase "Dark Darker Darkest" standing alone, as though it were a code for something he kept working at in his mind. (The editor offers some context for it, but this doesn't explain away its perseverance.) On one occasion Frost does begin developing what he means—venturing well past the usual sparring tenor of the notebooks and touching the dangerously marshy places usually reserved for his best poems: 

Here where we are life wells up as a strong . . . spring perpetually . . . piling water on water . . . with the dancing high lights upon it. But it flows away on all sides as into a marsh of its own making. It flows away into poverty into insanity into crime. . . . Dark as it is that there are these sorrows and darker still that we can do so little to get rid of them . . . the darkest is that perhaps we ought not to want to get rid of them. . . . What life . . . craves most is signs of life. 

In Frost's poetry, of course, this flowing away and draining off of original strength is a deep, repeated thought (and fear). Think of how everything golden "goes down" in "Nothing Gold Can Stay," or even better think of Frost's dazzling and diabolical poem, "Spring Pools," where dark powers "blot out and drink up and sweep away" the freshets of life. Such a rare patch of deep probing in the notebooks, ending in a pronouncement ("What life . . . craves most is signs of life"), lets us see the greater genius of his poems. In the notebooks, Frost moves quickly to the abstract; in the poems, he steers clear of the abstract altogether and instead overloads nature until dark stuff drips out the bottom. Frost is riveting, prose or poetry, but in the poetry the rivets rust through. A poem by its nature operates beyond rational control, which is a great service to a mind as controlling as Frost's. A poem means you're in too deep. In "Spring Pools," for all its balanced, reflected imagery of pools and flowers and all its tidy buttoned-up rhyming, Frost has got himself just where he craves to be—in an elemental battle where he's not the boss. The best form can do is serve as a barricade, giving the illusion of containment to the forces he's unleashed.


- Kay Ryan, from her review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost, originally published in Poetry Magazine and included in her essay collection Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole review here.

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