Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: Iambic Feet of Clay Edition

Mrs. M is at the gym, and I just got home from Wal-Mart a few minutes ago. So what say we get caught up, huh?


Classes resumed on Tuesday, and my sections are what my mom would have called “lipping full.” Indeed, a couple of them are oversubscribed, but being the soft touch that I am, I agreed to let the extras in. Some of the students are kids I’ve worked with before, but most of them — particularly in FroshComp — are new to me.

I did get a reminder that I’m being tailgated by Time’s Winged Chariot, though. One of my freshpeeps told me that she was from Cocoa Beach, FL. “Oh, right!” I said. “The setting of I Dream of Jeannie!”

Blank. Stare.

“You know, the old TV show?”

Nothing. “I’ve never heard of it.”

I’m proud to say that I maintained enough shreds of dignity to avoid humming the theme song.

Now of course, there’s no reason for me to expect this kid to know about a sitcom that ceased production thirty-some years before she was born, but gee whiz — you would have thought I was talking about Eddie Cantor.

OK, dammit. Here.

[Side note: Being from the generation that grew up with 3-5 TV stations max, it occurs to me that my TV experience was less fragmented than that of the Spawn’s generation. Consequently, my peers and I watched many of the same shows my parents had (at least in syndication), because there was really little else to watch. My daughter’s generation, on the other hand, had at least two cable channels strongly focused on her demographic, and never spent afternoons watching Gilligan, the Bradys, or the Clampetts. Fortunately, I spent enough time watching TV with her that I can make Nickelodeon references and such for a few more years, but that pop cultural common ground is eroding. End of side note.]


I finished reading the Edwin Arlington Robinson bio by Scott Donaldson earlier this week, and am now engaged with Donaldson’s bio of my favorite poet, Archibald MacLeish. In the Robinson bio, Donaldson says that E.A.R. was likely the best, kindest human being he ever wrote about. MacLeish comes off a bit less well. He seems to have been a distant father (as his own father was), and although he stayed married to Ada for 65 years, there is significant evidence that he carried on several affairs along the way. Still, MacLeish comes across as a basically good person, a child of privilege (and a bit of a snob), but with a corresponding sense of noblesse oblige and the desire to leave America and the world better than he found it. And anyone who managed to aggravate both the Communists and Joe McCarthy must have been doing something right.


Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

But someone who comes off badly in both biographies is Robert Frost. (Please note: although pre-WW-II American poetry played a vital part in my connection to literature, I have largely contented myself with the poems themselves, rather than plunging into the lives of the artists who wrought them.) Per Donaldson, Frost was competitive to the point of egomania, and hated when other poets received the attention that he saw as being his due. Because of this, Donaldson contends that Frost underrated Robinson and his work upon the latter’s death in 1935 (most notably in his introduction to the posthumous edition of Robinson’s work), and played an active role in diminishing Robinson’s reputation.

Likewise, he behaved badly toward MacLeish. Frost was, of course, the dominant presence at Bread Loaf, where he was surreptitiously nicknamed “Jehovah,” as he was a jealous god. MacLeish appeared at Bread Loaf in 1938, and I’ll let Bill Peschel pick up the narrative:

On this night, Archibald MacLeish visited to read his poems and radio plays. The gathering was held at Treman Cottage, and Frost was among the attendees, sitting in the back. It was a time when Hitler was on the ascendant, and the United States was divided between warning against the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy, and those who didn’t want to intervene in another European war. MacLeish was anti-Fascist, and Frost despised MacLeish’s support of Roosevelt.

That night, as MacLeish read from his poetry, Frost began heckling him. “Archie’s poems all have the same tune,” he said in a whisper that could be heard. When MacLeish read the single-sentence poem, “You, Andrew Marvell,” smoke could be smelled. Frost had accidentally, on purpose, set fire to some papers and was beating them out and waving away the smoke.

Most people accepted the story of the accident, and the reading eventually concluded. MacLeish was still the center of attention, and he was asked to read from one of his plays. But Frost was not done with him. As Stegner wrote:

His comments from the floor, at first friendly and wisecracking, became steadily harsher and more barbed. He interrupted, he commented, he took exception. What began as the ordinary give and take of literary conversation turned into a clear intention of frustrating and humiliating Archie MacLeish, and the situation became increasingly painful to those who comprehended it.

Even Bernard DeVoto, a scholar and friend of Frost, had enough, calling out, “For God’s sake, Robert, let him read!” Frost ignored him, but shortly thereafter, on some pretext, “said something savage,” and left.

Afterwards, Frost’s defenders tried to kick sand over the events. One friend wrote only of “unfounded allusions” and “behavior not proven by fact.” There were people there who didn’t even notice what Stegner saw that night. But baiting MacLeish had caused a permanent rift between DeVoto and Frost. At the end of the conference, when they met and shook hands, DeVoto told him, “You’re a good poet, Robert, but you’re a bad man.”

Donaldson reports that MacLeish handled the matter in a way that seems entirely characteristic:

At the end of the evening, he came over to talk with Frost. “Jesus H. Christ, Robert,” he told him. “You’re the foundation and we all know it.” That was what he needed to hear, Frost replied. He was an old man [Frost was 64, 18 years older than MacLeish — Mondo.], he said, and he wanted to be flattered. Then they chatted about less personal matters, amicably enough. “God damn everything to hell as long as we’re friends, Archie,” Frost remarked in parting. Years later MacLeish summed up his feelings about the great poet. Frost, he said, was “like a horse you could get along with if you came up beside him from the okay side” (275).

Well, he certainly seems like part of a horse, anyway. But he did fine work. Fortunately, so did Robinson and MacLeish, and through Donaldson’s own fine work, I’m learning more about all these folks than I had previously known.


Also this week, I read a couple of articles about children’s literature, and particularly the role of NY Public Library’s children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore (no known relation) as a gatekeeper/tastemaker in the field. While both articles give Moore her due as the driving force behind opening libraries to children, creating story times, and quite a few other giant steps in making libraries a resource for the entire public, they also note that she had clearly defined tastes, and wouldn’t hesitate to scorn or bury books that didn’t meet it. Moore’s disapproval (indicated by a rubber stamp that read “Not recommended for purchase by expert) could be the kiss of death for a children’s title.

Two books that felt the brunt of Moore’s dislike, however, have gone on to become beloved titles in the genre. Although she strongly encouraged E.B. White to write something for young readers, she scorned Stuart Little and tried to have White withdraw it from publication. Failing at that, she encouraged libraries not to shelve it, and was successful, for a time. (Neither did she care much for Charlotte’s Web.)

But a book Moore utterly loathed was Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon. She despised the book so much that she kept the NYPL from carrying it until 1972, a quarter-century after its publication. (Although Moore retired in 1941, she maintained what appears to have been an iron grip on the NYPL children’s section, a grip that didn’t even relax with her death in 1961.)

But as Arlo Guthrie would say, “That’s not what I came here to talk about.” In the process of reading these articles, I learned about the death of Brown in 1952, which can only be described as ironic (although grotesque might also be pressed into service):

Recovering from surgery for an ovarian cyst in a hospital in France, [Brown] playfully kicked her leg up, cancan-style, to show a nurse how well she was feeling; the action dislodged an embolism from a vein in her leg, which traveled to her brain, killing her nearly instantly.

All of this, of course, falls under the heading of “Stuff I know that will never make me any money,” but still, I found it of interest, and hope it interests you as well.


I think that’s likely enough for one post, so I’ll go ahead and play us out. The Wishing Tree was a side project of Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery. They put out albums in 1996 and 2009. This song is from the first album, Carnival of Souls, and it packs a punch belied by its quietness. This is a live version of “Starfish.”

See you soon!

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: Iambic Feet of Clay Edition

  1. Jeff S. says:

    Have been trying to find time this week to leave a comment, but this is the sort of blog post I love, full of odd connections and things worth saying. And the Robert Frost story helps explain what I recently learned about the rather nasty culture of Bread Loaf….

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