Monday's book: Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott

Robert Frost has passed into the poetic pantheon as the apotheosis of Yankee values: crustily cynical and dry, but with long roots in a source of homespun wisdom earthed deep in the landscape of the American north- east. Frost himself, during his long career, did much to propagate the myth. Here, three major poets set out to reclaim his work from the grasp of the authorial persona.

None of the pieces was intended for this book, having previously appeared elsewhere (Brodsky's has just been republished by Penguin in his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason). Hence it feels slightly contrived as Faber cleverly "repurposes" some casual work by three star writers. But that's a quibble: all these essays are tremendously valuable, not just for what they reveal about Frost, but as object lessons in the art of reading.

Brodsky was a master at the close reading. He reminds us that "poetry is a dame with a huge pedigree and every word comes practically barnacled with allusions and associations". He examines each barnacle with great gusto.

His brilliant examinations of "Come In" and "Home Burial" locate Frost far from the homely whittler of verses, laying bare the terror of immense space, undefined wilderness and silence that lurks behind much of his finest work.

Such interpretations are not wholly new, but these essays don't primarily concern themselves with thematics. Rather, they focus on the poet's necessary obsession with language. All three authors display their acuity in sounding out the tonality of a line, or a word. And since it is reading that teaches us how to write, there is a great deal to learn from the way good poets read good poems.

Heaney stresses Frost's musicality, exulting in his poems as "events in language, flaunts and vaunts full of projective force and deliquescent backwash, the crestings of a tide that lifts all spirits". Frost's own theory of "the sound of sense" is a frequent reference-point in appreciating how he managed to force the straitjacket of pentameter verse to fit his New England vernacular as comfortably as an old coat.

Walcott, great technician that he is, is particularly skilled at anatomising a stanza. He explains the exact location of a vital caesura, showing how lines articulate around the joint of an end-stopped rhyme, and how Frost's tightly sculpted rhythms work to animate the whole frame.

Whatever Frost's personal shortcomings - vanity, vindictiveness, provincialism, racism - they become irrelevant here. "Poetry," Walcott writes (and his dictum could be applied far beyond the present case), "is its own realm and does not pardon. There is nothing to forgive Frost's poetry for. There are instead many poems to be grateful for... since poetry pronounces benediction not on the poet but on the reader." The reader of these essays, too, will find much reward.

Faber & Faber, pounds 7.99

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