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Suspicious Minds, Americans, and Worser English

Who comes to mind as the most American of 20th-century American artists? (And what does American mean, when I use the word this way?) Do we think of William Faulkner? Of Elvis Presley? Of Georgia O’Keeffe? And what about William Carlos Williams? Ralph Ellison? Dorothea Lange? I’ll nominate Robert Frost and Bob Dylan, both of whom have been on my mind this week. Did you see the report of Dylan being picked up by the police recently in Long Branch, New Jersey? “He was acting very suspicious,” the officer in question told ABC News. “Not delusional, just suspicious.”

Is “suspicious” one of the things I mean by American? It’s a useful word, as it points in two directions. Dylan, this “eccentric-looking old man,” appeared suspicious to the residents of Long Branch. And Dylan himself has long been suspicious of others: military industrialists, lovers, the press. He’s been particularly suspicious of exegesis. Asked what his 1965 album Blonde on Blonde was “about,” he answered, “Oh, it’s about, uh — just about all kinds of different things — rats, balloons. They’re about the only thing that comes to my mind right now.”

Frost shared this last suspicion. Asked to explain a poem he had just recited, he replied, “What do you want me to do? Say it over again in worser English?” In his best work, Frost is suspicious of easy consolation, of spurious reasoning. For an obvious example, reread “The Road Not Taken” — especially those troubling middle stanzas. The famous “difference” in the last line is no difference at all. As Frost once said, “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem — very tricky.”

And what about “Provide, Provide”? The poem skips along in iambic tetrameter triplets, promising something light and reassuring. But Frost instead offers a hilariously pessimistic view of the life cycle: beauties turn to witches, the end is hard, “boughten friendship” awaits. This is a dirge, we realize — but one played on a xylophone. After listing ways that people may circumvent the horrors of old age (dying early; amassing a fortune; “being simply true”), Frost shrugs, “What worked for them might work for you.” We don’t believe it, and Frost doesn’t intend for us to.

Frost was suspicious, too, of the word “poet” — or at least of its overuse:

I didn’t call myself a poet until the people did. At first it embarrassed me a lot. The word “poet” is very great praise. Young people often call me up and introduce themselves: “I’m a poet.” It seems to me that’s immodest. There has to be respectful fear of that word, because, you know, it’s just the same as saying about yourself, “I’m a good man.”

I recently visited the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury, Vermont. More about that in another post — but I’ll mention one thing now that caught my attention. In a “Frost Timeline,” I read that the poet’s birth records were destroyed in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Suspicious, right? Birthers, rally round! Perhaps Frost wasn’t a real American after all.

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Suspicion. Elvis sang about it. So did Crack the Sky, from the stage of the first rock show I ever attended. (RIP, Painters Mill.) Gertrude Stein wrote about it. (“Americans are very friendly and very suspicious, that is what Americans are and that is what upsets the foreigner who deals with them, they are so friendly how can they be so suspicious . . .”) Dylan doesn’t even use his real name (which, OK, isn’t his real name) on the producer’s credit of three of his most recent albums. His chilly and eyebrow-raising pseudonym: Jack Frost.