A Poet with a Doctor’s Handwriting
Posted by: Keir Graff
I’m a little slow getting around to this story (“Editing of Frost Notebooks in Dispute,” by Motoko Rich, New York Times), but I can’t resist it: last January, Harvard University Press published The Notebooks of Robert Frost, by Robert Faggen (not to be confused with Mr. Dickens’ Mr. Fagin). The hefty tome, which provided transcriptions of 47 notebooks and various loose pages, was widely praised by Frostians (Frovians? Frosties?).
Last October, however, the excellently named James Sitar, in an essay in Essays and Criticism (where else, really?), declared that, ahem, Mr. Faggen couldn’t read Mr. Frost’s writing.
(Last January? October? I’m not that late compared to the Times.)
Mr. Faggen defended himself.
In a forthcoming review to be published in March in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, an American poetry journal, Mr. Logan writes: "Obliged though readers must be for this unknown Frost, the transcription is a scandal. To read this volume is to believe that Frost was a dyslexic and deranged speller, that his brisk notes frequently made no sense, that he often traded the expected word for some fanciful or perverse alternative."
But Mr. Faggen suggests that Frost, who died in 1963, did often employ "odd spellings" in the notebooks. He disputed one reading by Mr. Logan in which he accused Mr. Faggen of failing to make note of a biblical reference when he had done so. In Mr. Faggen’s version a phrase from the notebooks is rendered as "Sog Magog Mempleremagog," and is footnoted for its source in the Book of Ezekiel. Mr. Logan regards the phrase as a misreading because "Gog and Magog" are the actual Biblical names and because there is a real lake between Vermont and Quebec that is spelled Memphremagog. Mr. Faggen argues that Frost changed the "G" in "Gog" to an "S" as a jest about the lake and says the misspelled lake’s name is what Frost wrote.
Jay Parini provides, alliteratively enough, perspective.
Jay Parini, a Frost scholar and professor at Middlebury College, also described the difficulty of reading Frost’s "chicken scrawlish" handwriting. But he added that niggling over the exact wording in notebooks Frost never intended for public consumption did not seem as important as, say, settling punctuation disputes about the published poems. The notebooks, Mr. Parini said, are "fun to read, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything about Robert Frost."