As with Hazel Hall before him, Robert Francis was a pretty good ‘classical’ poet who, although better known while still alive, is now mostly forgotten in favor of bad New Formalist writing that afflicts so much of the poetry world. Thus, he is usually known as the ‘other’ New England poet, having spent much of his life in Amherst, MA, and using Robert Frost as both a personal mentor and poetic model. It’s an interesting relationship because, while never quite hitting Robert Frost’s highs (think Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, the great dramatic poems), he didn’t share his lows, either, for even Robert Francis’s longer poems can’t be said to go on too long, with the best ones topping out at 20-30 lines, and many more under a dozen. This is because Robert Francis was a poet of moments as opposed to larger, over-arching ideas, and while this implies a ceiling that greater poets are unafflicted by, it also means that he is quite memorable, as individual lines tend to crop up in the mind long after a poem is read. No, he is not “better than John Berryman,” as the abysmal Donald Hall claims in the back matter to Francis’s Collected Poems, but this is irrelevant to the fact that he deserves a much wider readership, and the opportunity to influence younger writers.
Let us consider a few of his poems, and why they work so well on technical and intellectual grounds:
Cloud In Woodcut
Make a woodcut of a cloud.
Polish the wood. Point the knife.
But let your pointed knife be wise.
Let your wilful cloud retain
Evidence of woody grain.
Teach your knife to compromise.
Let your cloud be cloud — and wood.
Grained in the art let there be life.
This is the prototypical Robert Francis poem: short, cutting, and able to distill 1-2 ideas in a way that neither obfuscates, nor ever becomes prosaic. Just look at the first line: a well-musicked command that ‘hooks’ the reader right away, for it gives just enough to act as a spring-board for some deeper examination later. The next line refines the narrative but without really forcing the reader into a strong philosophical post just yet — an example of good pacing, which is usually seen as a way to give a reader ‘breathing space,’ but can be better defined as a way for the artist to build a little trust before doing whatever it is that he wants to do, merely by first lulling him into a sense of complacency. (Art is deceit, remember?) Line 3 finally brings the first deeper thrust: “But let your pointed knife be wise,” another hook, again, that implies this idea will be expanded upon, and subtly changing the meaning of the commands that came before. The next 2 lines mirror the poem’s first 2, yet deepens their meaning, while the next line mirrors the third — a necessary, compact touch, given the poem’s brevity. It helps, … Continue reading →