V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Susan Mitchell and Carol Frost




Mitchell is by turns playful and biting.  Scraps of speech 
and information aren't harnessed to Latin roots. 
Mitchell locates the appeal of Milton's language as a model 
for developing a personal language which expands the self. 


[Frost's] poems are condensed without being simple, 
and luxurious in a deeply moral way.  But Frost, 
although she has published a selected volume, is a poet of possibilities.

Susan Mitchell has designated Milton as one of her poetic influences, while Carol Frost's poetry can be illuminated by that of Milton and Mitchell.  While John Milton's poetry has been the focus of debate about poetic influences since he wrote, and notable poems informed by readings of Milton include William Blake's "Milton" and John Keats' "Hyperion," twentieth century debate has focussed on the negative effect of his influence. 
     T.S. Eliot, in essays throughout his career, blames Milton for a deterioration in the practice of blank verse in poetry, although Milton helped move blank verse from drama into poetry.  Eliot decried the theological and linguistic scholarship that informs the poems, although these influenced him.  Eliot cited a failure he perceived in Wordsworth's Prelude to make his case that Milton's influence could only be detrimental. 
     Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" writes of mute inglorious Miltons:  Milton's influence forms a sort of canonicity.  Virginia Woolf's allusion to this poem in A Room of One's Own reinforces this:

          When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman 
          possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a 
          very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on 
          the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and 
          inglorious Jane Austen...

     Sandra Gilbert, following Virginia Woolf, claimed Milton inhibited subsequent female poets, tracing his influence through novels instead.  Harold Bloom also writes about the anxiety of influence.
     Susan Mitchell, then, sides with the Romantics, although she may be following Harold Bloom too:  she claims special license for poets' reading and interpretation.  Milton's influence, especially on Mitchell's language use, is problematic.  The change she notes between her first book, The Water Inside the Water, and her subsequent volumes exists and locates it in sound.  In the earlier book, dreams and memory blur and combine in a sea of "deep images." 

          The path down to the beach is narrow and brilliant white.
          This Sunday afternoon the sea is blowing
          back on itself, blue scale over blue scale.
                     ["The Beach at St. Anne's," p.23]

     However, in less outstanding passages, some of the faults are journalistic ones of sentence fragment and comma splice applied for dramatic effect. 
     In her later books, Mitchell's meaning is located in attention to language.  But Mitchell's syntax is not Latinate.  She does not use regular meter.  She coins words, such as the title of her most recent book, Erotikon, as Milton coined words.  She also revives poetic coinages which never entered into common use such as "wimble" and "wight."  There is a difference between the gilded post-sublime Mitchell intellectually identifies and the accomplishments (among them, extremely various tone) of her poems, however.
     Mitchell also lists the creative histories of William Hickling Prescott as formative.  Mitchell re-associates these non-fiction romances of colonialism with Southeastern Florida in poems including "Golden Bough:  The Feather Palm," "Golden Bough," and even poems which do not appear in Erotikon, such as "Lost Parrot":

          ... But what's 
          love compared with wild red fruit, a big 
          gold moon, and an evening that smells of paradise? 

     Mitchell touches Frazier's work with synesthesia, T.S. Eliot, and Boca Raton, but elides Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness.

           but why green should be genuine and this other
           this bleaches this platinum this gold
           oh, I can be plain I can be
           plain green in the slippery sunlight the oily --
                     ["Golden Bough:  The Feather Palm," p. 30]

     Mitchell is by turns playful and biting.  Scraps of speech and information aren't harnessed to Latin roots.  Mitchell locates the appeal of Milton's language as a model for developing a personal language which expands the self.  In this passage, from "Bird:  A Memoir," "bricoleur," a popular literary-critical term, is recognized for its crackling sound.  "Tiggy" is Teutonic.  The scraps are twigs.  "Tisket" and "tasket" refer to the nest as a basket.  "Touchwood" is kindling:

         Bricoleur is what I am.  Collector of scraps:  sappy, juicy,
          unraveling, precipitous.  Fragments I yearn together
          to build what?  A tisket?  A tasket?  No, I am not one
          to nest, not one for who the tucked-in, the tiggy, tiggy
          touchwood matters overmuch.
                     [p. 4]

     The notes clarified that the "I" in this poem is "Bird," a bird. 
     Deeply influenced by other writers, Milton wove his expressions together with a grand tone which overrode his rhetoric.  His poetry was the definition of the sublime an idea neo-classicism stole from Longinus for his time.  His poetry joined profound passion with serious thought.  It is also very energetic:  the verse is so rich it is not exhausted by the words on the page.

In her essays, Carol Frost displays her interest in neo-classical poetics as well as Romantic and neo-Romantic reactions to them.  A bit of Milton's richness is in her eleven line poems, but Frost seems to seek to resist it:

          Larry Levis told me he thought there was a lot of energy left
          over at the end of some of the shorter poems, and I wanted to 
          see where that energy, if it was there, could take me and whether 
          in a longer poem, with its greater variety of dramatic forces and 
          dissonance, I'd know how to create and sustain a newer (for me 
          newer) equilibrium.
                    [Interview at PoetryNet]

     Frost's poems are utterly unlike Levis'.  Her poems are condensed without being simple, and luxurious in a deeply moral way.  But Frost, although she has published a selected volume, is a poet of possibilities.  Frost could sustain the same questioning and passion she has in her eleven line poems over a "long poem" rather than eking them out to a few pages using more words.  Frost's tone might best sustain the variety of stories and topics within a larger scope that longer poems require.  While all of her assorted poem styles in Love & Scorn carry her tone, her tone rules the subjects, which is paradoxically human/sensual and religious/natural:  a larger unity would be feasible, and fabulous.
      The poem "Pure," the title poem of a previous book, generalizes a deer hunting tragedy in Northern New York several local poets have eloquently recorded.  It is included in a series of eleven-line poems in a section called "abstractions" in Love & Scorn.  These poems are not compact:  the poet's riding roughshod over rhetoric.  "Ecstasy" begins by recalling Issa's famous haiku, "Naked in the rain riding a naked horse":  "Her ecstasy rises like a rider on a leaping horse."  Then the rain enters the poem, "The ground falls away, the sky, precipitate, / whirls."  The poem, which also describes sex, concludes embodying the haiku, "she is within herself again, exhilarated, and strangely proud." 

          "The sun shaking open the pink and yellow sky --"
                    ["Rural Weather," p. 15]

     In a new poem such as "Rural Weather," the weather, beyond the pathetic fallacy, is the poet's body.  In fact, Frost's poetry isn't about the "other" at all.  The body is in every poem.  The poem begins with this description, but then moves to time and place, "That is now, and I am at my window a spring morning / imagining 'later on' and 'then' and 'after that.'"
     Whereas Mitchell writes, in "The Grove at Nemi," "Then and after were of no use to me, nor the desire / to make permanent the impermanent." (p. 40), Frost associates time and place.  Time and place unifies "Rural Weather," which seems fragmentary but isn't.  "My cat, delicate Satan" brings in a vole, and a decision:  "if I praise him" using words "he'll eat it, otherwise it'll rot" but still be dead.  Death is the transition to "young murderers on the news," perhaps, unnamed, the Menendez brothers, and judgement, "to mock the eternal Coming" which returns to the consideration of time and place, and leads to a return to the weather which began the poem. 
     Frost uses the biblical creation story and its symbolism in old and new poems.  In "The Snake Skins," which is in the alphabetically-ordered "selected" section, Frost metaphorically ascribes intrigue within the body, and a relationship, to the snake:  "The intrigue of this house / is a snake in the foundation." Other images in the poem repeat this location.  In "The St. Louis Zoo," in the "new" section of the book, "you are the snake, the snake coils in you," locates the snake and desire within the body more explicitly. 
      Frost's post-sublimity, her concentration on juicy bodily imagery, and Mitchell's more baroque language use display the influence of Milton.  Mitchell's newest book contains two longer pieces, the poem "Bird:  A Memoir" and the title work, which is part prose, "Erotikon."  Along with her short, sound-based lyrical work, the book (and all of her books) displays unity poem to poem.  Frost has been assembling a longer work with pieces, and her erotics help sustain a view of the pieces as a whole.

Mitchell, Susan.  Erotikon.  HarperCollins, 2000.  ISBN 0-06-055353-7  $14.00

Frost, Carol.  Love and Scorn:  New and Selected Poems.  Triquarterly Books, 2000.  ISBN 0-8101-5099-9  $16.00

Also Mentioned:

Carol Frost, at Poetry Net, http://members.aol.com/poetrynet/month/archive/frost/intro.html

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic.

Susan Mitchell, The Water Inside the Water, Wesleyan University Press, 1983.

Susan Mitchell, "Books that Changed our Lives," Publisher's Weekly, http://www.publishersweekly.com/nbf/docs/btcml2_mitchell.html

Susan Mitchell, "The Lost Parrot" at Atlantic Monthly online, http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/antholog/mitchell/parrot.htm

William Hickling Prescott, The History of the Conquest of Mexico, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/PRESCOTT/toc.html

 The History of the Conquest of Peru, http://encyclopediaindex.com/b/hcpru10a.htm

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own. 

© by Catherine Daly


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page