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Poetic Rivalry

07/15/08 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) It’s the time of year for hoeing one’s garden. Commentator and Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council Peter Gilbert tells us about a Robert Frost poem that seems to be about hoeing a garden and a roadside visit with a friend. But it may, in fact, set forth the terms of a poetic rivalry between two literary titans.

(GILBERT) I was reading a poem by Robert Frost recently and for the first time, I heard in it an echo of one of T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Here’s the first stanza of Eliot’s poem - and listen particularly for the last two lines, "Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'//Let us go and make our visit."

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

Eliot’s poem was published in the June 1915 edition of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. It really started Eliot’s career. The American poet Ezra Pound had urged the magazine’s founder to publish Eliot’s poetry. Pound was the magazine’s man in London, where Frost met him. Just two years earlier, Pound had favorably reviewed Frost’s first book in the magazine, helping to launch Frost’s career as well as Eliot’s. And so, Frost would have kept a keen eye on Poetry Magazine. Frost scholar Mark Richardson tells me that if Frost hadn’t seen Eliot’s poem earlier, he most likely would have seen it in September 1915 when he traveled from his home in Franconia, New Hampshire to New York City on literary business.

Here’s Frost’s ten-line poem, written either in 1915 or early 1916 - right after Eliot’s poem was published. It’s called, "A Time to Talk."

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

I find it hard to imagine that Frost would have been able to write a poem that concludes, in short, "I don't... shout... What is it? ...I go/For a friendly visit" and do so wholly innocent of the echo with Eliot's memorable lines, "Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"/Let us go and make our visit."

Did Frost do so with a wink and a grin? I can’t help but wonder whether the well-adjusted, sociable, hearty farmer in Frost’s poem is using his hoe to make a little dig at Eliot, with his earnest, effete Prufrock, so neurotic and self-conscious. We can’t know for certain, but perhaps very early on, Frost set forth here the contrast in style and temperament between Eliot and himself, two great poets destined to be literary rivals.

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