Books: A Yankee laureate's own desert places

HOMAGE TO ROBERT FROST by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott Faber pounds 7.99
T error and danger: they may not be your first associations with that nature-loving, gnomic old Yankee laureate, Robert Frost. But they're at the heart of him. There stand his characters on a lonely road at night, thinking they can hear someone lurking - and it's someone they know. There is one of them "looking over her shoulder at some fear"; here's another, an old man clomping out of doors to "scare the outer world". Frost loves the word "appal". He knows the danger of the outer world, but, more appalling, he knows the dangerousness of what's inside you:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars - on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

These three big poets, making their own bows here to a poet they revere, all close in on the terror and the danger in Frost. Joseph Brodsky (in his essay, of 1994) uses words for him like "awful" and "dark", and calls his capacity for detachment "dangerously free". Heaney quotes his man on the need, in art and in life, for "getting into danger" so that we can be "genuinely rescued" - which he reads as facing without self-deception what is fearful. Walcott is fascinated by the "terror" in the poetry and by the bold technical authority which expresses it. "That sensation of danger," he says, "is the ground of Frost's technical courage."

Dark desert places are well-trodden American literary territory. Though there's an interest in placing Frost in other contexts (Brodsky draws comparisons with Dante, Walcott describes the link to Edward Thomas and Hardy), all these non-American poets ask what makes Frost so American. For Brodsky it's to be facing "outside any humanly palatable context", to be up against what man is capable of. For Heaney it's the dark side behind the "Yankee hominess"; for Walcott it's, as with Melville, the pushing out beyond parochial boundaries to "a wider and more terrifying space".

There's nothing new in reading Frost as a terrifying American poet - Randall Jarrell and Lionel Trilling both did so in the 1950s, when they wanted to make claims for Frost's complexity and depth, alongside Eliot or Stevens, and to counter his (largely self-made) image as a people's poet, an "almanack joke-cracking" public figure. Now, his popularity or lack of it isn't the issue: Frost is claimed here as a poet's poet.

All three are fascinated by, and fascinating on, Frost's technical wizardry: Brodsky on the way he can make language turn into pure sound with repetitions and words made meaningless; Heaney on his poems as performances, "events in language", which seem always to be brimming over or pushing up against some counterforce. Walcott loves his use of "personal vernacular", his wonderful writing of American (though he wrily accepts that this can tip over into self-parody, "as if all his characters were remembering poems by Robert Frost").

This isn't an ideal book for students. It has no index, no information about Frost's work, no notes or references, no introduction, no data about any of the contributors. You have to find out for yourself that Walcott's piece was a review and Brodsky's a lecture. There is something highhanded about the way it's presented. Still, there is value and excitement in this intense little book, and it comes from seeing what it is in Frost that particularly delights these three poets.

So it seems very Heaney-like for him to praise Frost's marvellously grim poem of "An Old Man's Winter Night", comparing it to Beckett for the picture it gives of "the figure of age, in all its factuality and loneliness". Both Heaney and Brodsky pay close attention to "Home Burial", that desolating and brilliant poem of the conflict between husband and wife after the death of their first child. What grips Brodsky is the poem's terrifying detachment from the battle for power between its speakers. Heaney, characteristically, is more interested in the poem's "buoyancy": "The top of the reader's head is lifted like the latch of the protagonist's tormented home, and the lifting power resides in the upsurge of language." It's left to Walcott to ask the uncomfortable questions about Frost's parochialism, his "pseudo- rusticity", his vulgarity, his racism. But the best poetry, Walcott says, goes beyond these: "A great poem is a state of raceless, sexless, timeless grace."

All three resist biographical readings of Frost - Brodsky, with the kind of fierce flourish that was typical of him, says: "One abhors literary biography because it is reductive." Yet all deduce something personal in Frost's work: Heaney "the capacity to recognise the shortcomings in his life", Brodsky a "stoic posture" towards his fate, Walcott a use of the discipline of work against "the black gusts that shook his soul". And their own temperaments and histories speak through these short essays, suggesting that the literary criticism of writers is always a form of autobiography.