“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.