The trouble with Robert Frost & Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost in Key West, Florida, ca. 1940.
“Key West, unfortunately, is becoming rather literary and artistic.”—Wallace Stevens. Photo of Robert Frost and Stevens at the Casa Marina Hotel in Key West, ca. 1940, reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

“Robert Frost was on the beach this morning and is coming to dinner this evening.” So did Wallace Stevens write to his wife Elsie in February of 1935 from the Casa Marina, a hotel on the Atlantic Ocean where he spent part of each winter in Key West for nearly 20 years. Frost and Stevens today are broadly acknowledged as literary peers, but in 1935 the two poets’ reputations were leagues apart. Frost had won the Pulitzer Prize twice, while Stevens had published only a single volume, Harmonium, more than a decade earlier. While Stevens had earned the approval of influential readers including Poetry editor Harriet Monroe, Frost was not among them, once complaining that he didn’t like Stevens’s work “because it purports to make me think.”

While he craved the sort of literary acclaim that Frost routinely garnered, in Depression-era Key West Stevens would have seen his fellow Harvard alum as an equal. After all, Stevens was a highly successful businessman and a familiar semi-resident of the town where Frost was but a first-time tourist. Welcoming Frost to the neighborhood, Stevens presented him with a bag of sapodillas, the sweet tropical fruits of which he’d grown fond in Cuba and Key West, and planned to share conch chowder, another local staple, with Frost that night.

Before the dinner could take place, Stevens and his friend Judge Arthur Powell hosted a cocktail party. As he sometimes did in Key West, Stevens had too much to drink. He later wrote to Monroe, saying “the cocktail party, the dinner with Frost, and several other things became all mixed up, and I imagine that Frost has been purifying himself by various exorcisms ever since.” The two poets apparently argued, and Frost was so scandalized by the evening that he gossipped about Stevens’s drunken behavior to a lecture audience at the University of Miami.

When Frost’s gossip got back to Stevens later that summer, he apologized, insisting he was only being “playful,” and would “treasure the memory” of their meeting, which, he reminded Stevens, “I was in a better condition than you to appreciate.” Eager to smooth things over, Frost continues, “Take it from me there was no conflict at all but the prettiest kind of stand-off. You and I and the judge found we liked one another. And you and I really like each other’s works. At least down underneath I suspect we do. We should. We must. If I’m somewhat academic (I’m more agricultural) and you are somewhat executive, so much the better: it is so we are saved from being literary and deployers of words derived from words.”

Frost’s easy disdain for “words derived from words” and poetry that “purports to make me think” suggests how far apart were the sensibilities of the two poets. For Stevens, the author of poems like “The World as Meditation” and “Men Made out of Words,” Frost’s presence had begun to spoil the “paradise” where Stevens once relished a freedom to “do as one pleases.” “Key West is no longer quite the delightful affectation it once was,” he wrote to Philip May from the Casa Marina. “Who wants to share green cocoanut ice cream with these strange monsters who snooze in the porches of this once forlorn hotel.” To Monroe, he wrote “Key West, unfortunately, is becoming rather literary and artistic.”

Against his better judgement, Stevens was back at the Casa Marina five years later. The place had become “furiously literary,” with the comings and goings of literati so well known that a young Elizabeth Bishop went to “the ‘fancy’ hotel” one day looking for him, she wrote, “almost provided with opera glasses.” Frost was there again, too, traveling with his official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, who set down for posterity the argument between the poets. Echoing Frost’s letter to Stevens five years earlier, Thompson’s account further caricatures the divergent poetics of these incongruous masters:

“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you’re too academic.”

“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you’re too executive.”

“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about– subjects.”

“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about– bric-a-brac.”

Stevens never again returned to Key West. In 1954, not long before Stevens died, he rebuffed an invitation to attend Frost’s 80th birthday celebration at Amherst, saying coolly “I do not know his work well enough to be either impressed or unimpressed.” It is hard to imagine that Stevens had not read Frost, and Jay Parini suggests instead that the two “worked from such contradictory, even exclusive, aesthetics that neither could really read the other with much satisfaction.” And so Frost, who wanted “to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over,” and Stevens, for whom “Reality is the beginning not the end,” would share sapodillas and conch chowder but remain isolated from one another’s poetry, in which each was the other’s only peer.

Sources: Letters of Wallace Stevens, selected and edited by Holly Stevens; Letter from Robert Frost to Wallace Stevens, July 28, 1935, from The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938, by Lawrance Thompson; Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963, by Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick; Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini; Secretaries of the Moon: The Letters of Wallace Stevens and José Rodríguez Feo, edited by Beverly Coyle and Alan Filreis; Wallace Stevens: The Later Years, 1923-1955, by Joan Richardson; and One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux.

13 thoughts on “The trouble with Robert Frost & Wallace Stevens

  1. Makes me want to make a pilgrimage to Key West. Maybe in the dead of the coming Winter. Hope it has gotten mostly over being “too literary and artistic.”

    • I am sitting in a bed and breakfast in Key West right now. The Key West so frequented by WS and the one visited by RF is long gone. Personally, “literary and artistic” sounds far better than the gross debauchery exhibited daily in Old Town today–but then again, the place retains its beauty in other ways, namely in the local people. Tourism keeps Key West from economic ruin, but sadly, many tourists tend to trash the place. Just this morning I went snorkeling, and though I did see some nice marine life, I was also met with a few empty beer cans. If you ever made it here, perhaps you know what I am talking about. I like Key West, but I find myself somewhat jaded by the place after only one week.

      I came here with the intention of finding what Stevens saw when he wrote “Idea of Order…”, and for Hemingway, too. I was amused to learn that the two men thought ill of one another, to put it simply.

      • Arlo Haskell says:

        Matthew: you’re right, of course, about the crassness on display in parts of KW (lower Duval Street, I presume?). That form of lowest-common-denominator tourism is something many of us here fight against. But what you were looking for is certainly still here, and I hope you were able to catch a glimpse of it. For me it’s walking the docks late at night or early in the morning, where the glassy lights Stevens saw on the fishing boats still tilt in the air, “arranging, deepening, enchanting night.”

    • Arlo Haskell says:

      Hi MK– actually, Frost attended both Dartmouth and Harvard (1897-99). He failed to graduate from either, but both universities later awarded him honorary degrees (Dartmouth twice).

  2. I have trouble with their disagreement: Escape from the world and then return to begin anew – Frost; and reality is the beginning – Stevens.) I don’t really think Stevens was a man who really beilieved in beginnings and ends – only repetitions diminishing the importance of perfection OR completion. It would be interesting to see how both related to W. B. Yeats and the verum factum of Giambattista Vico. Is the truth part of anyone’s past, the feeling of nostalgia that comes up again and again in Frost? Or is the truth to be made by the individual as with Stevens? How would each react to the proposition that time is a continuous loop destined to exhaust all possibilities because nothing(ness) is impossible? “Until merely going round is a final good.”

    • Arlo Haskell says:

      Good thoughts, Michael. I think it’s ironic that they didn’t adore each other’s work. Both yearned for something larger than this life and knew the imagination was the only way to get there. For me the Frost of “Birches” (which I quote) is so Stevensian. I suspect Parini is right in that Frost and Stevens both had a sort of blinders on — they just couldn’t do what they did while enjoying the other, no matter how parallel some of the work actually is.

  3. Alexander Jablánczy says:

    Neither is my favourite that being of course WB and TS. Or Hulme or Hopkins. These two WS and Frost are distinctly 2nd rate which aint bad if one considers 1st rate only say Dante or Vergilius. But they are fabulously divergent even more than say WCW or eec. One is indeed too cerebral without the music the other like bluegrass banjo. Popular comfortable which even the retarded can appreciate. Frost seems more genuine like Grandma Moses. But being an insurance exec is almost as horrible as being a banker. Both are unforgiveable in a poet. Being a drunk worse one who cant hold his drink can one go lower? Yes one could be a junkie.

  4. Todd Baldwin says:

    I love their work and am thankful for it… But they certainly and unfortunately are three drunken bores… Stevens, Frost and Hemingway.

  5. Richard Carella says:

    Both Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens are monumental poets. Mr. Frost, as a rule, was not a drinker of alcohol. What a photograph of two of our most remarkable bards. I have seen it before, and have long admired it- as I admire their, albeit dissimilar, work. Thank you for this article, and for all of the interesting comments.

  6. Fred McDermott says:

    If nothing else, they certainly had New Englands winters in common. Funny, maybe sad, they should meet in Florida.

  7. B. Quinlan says:

    Frost is, I think, much grimmer than his popular reputation holds; Stevens, more sensual. I imagine as poets they took the true measure of each other, and didn’t like what they saw. It’s not a trivial difference: it amounts to a disagreement between two poets over the state of poetry then, and continues for us as a question over the future of poetry. The poles would be poetry as a popular art but with pregnant with ambiguities visible to the alert and educated reader—the extreme of Frost’s position, versus poetry as a self-consciously challenging art in form and content with only an audience of those willing to directly engage those challenges—where Stevens’ readers dwell. These two approaches shouldn’t be antithetical, and maybe American poetry will right itself sometime in the future. But right now the division seems deep and I don’t care for what’s on offer from either side.

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