Georgics on My Mind

"Farmer-poet" is one of those hyphenated epithets that summons up a vision, and for most readers of American poetry that vision is embodied by Robert Frost, who, the legend has it, turned out memorable poems in spare moments stolen from apple-picking, wall-mending, and woods-stopping. But Frost, despite his undeniable poetic stature, was never much more than a symbolic farmer, to borrow a phrase from his biographer, William Pritchard; his unsuccessful venture as a poultryman was mercifully cut short by an inheritance that allowed him to go to England, publish his first two books there, and return home in triumph to spend the larger portion of his days as a university poet-in-residence. As great as Frost's poems about farming are (and the list is long), one gets the impression that the literal drama of farm life interested him less than its inexhaustible stores of metaphor by which he might extend and universalize the farmer's experiences.

With Frost, the hyphen between farmer and poet should be an arrow pointing toward the latter, and his case is typical: How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen the Paris Review? Farming brings with it such potential for heartbreak that it strikes me as odd that, while novelists like Gather and Steinbeck have explored its capacity for tragedy, only rarely in our poetry have the four horsemen of drought, disease, flood, and freeze made an appearance....

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