Selected Poems About Frye

Compiled by Robert D. Denham

James Merrill

From the Prologue to The Changing Light at Sandover

Saw my way
To a plot, or as much of one as still allowed
For surprise and pleasure in its working-out.
Knew my setting; and had, from the start, a theme
Whose steady light shone back, it seemed, from every
Least detail exposed to it. I came
To see it as an old, exalted one:
The incarnation and withdrawal of
A god. That last phrase is Northrop Frye’s.

[New York: Atheneum, 1984. 3]

R.G. Everson

“Report for Northrop Frye”

Opening with dynamite blast,
We grope in underground workings
To tunnel Labrador granite.
I find no fossil of igneous rock,
No curious paintings on broken walls,
No lock of hair or mythical token.
Nothing ever alive precedes man here.
If “Poetry can only be made out of other poems”
—In new space, to what may I refer?
We bring our own light to a dark place.
Crowbar, sledge hammer, pick
Pound Labrador granite.
We male sounds from Arctic silence.
Life is here and now—we bring it.
We bring men’s laughter and good sense.

[Delta (Montreal) January 1959: 28]

Ivor Tossell

“Northrop Frye”

hey northrop frye,
you’re such a funny little guy
with that shock of grey hair on your head
oh, yes it’s true
they’ll name buildings after you
but i don’t understand a thing you said

so it goes in the halls of the literate dead
where you stand beside giants of marble and dread
that your tubby-tub frame should look silly beside them
oh come back northrop frye ’cause we miss you

research revealed a code behind the sword and shield
oh the flame, the lover and the crucifix
and longing to be oh that master of taxonomy
i smile and pass your painting everyday

are you looking for visible means of support?
have you eaten your fill and looked on to the port?
is there nobody left in the ivory diner?

come back northrop frye
’cause we miss you
come back northrop frye
’cause we miss you

hey northrop frye
what immortal hand or eye
could make your gentle spirit turn away?
thy kingdom come
since the fall of nineteen ninety-one
the papers said it wouldn’t do to stay

and do you stop on your cloud when we mention your name?
do you gaze on your bust and discuss with angels
the relative merits of songs about strangers?
oh come back northrop frye

and so very far from the halls of the literate dead
there are children who wonder each night before bed
is it true, is it true all the legend and rumour?

oh come back northrop frye
’cause we miss you
come back northrop frye
’cause we miss you

[from website of Yaacov Iland at]

J. K. Halligan

“Northrop Frye”

Late one morning in the evening of his life,
Northrop Frye was waiting for the traffic to stop;
Waiting for the traffic and a gust of wind
To carry him over the road to the tulip beds,
Freshly dug beds of fluttering yellow tulips
Prostrate before the building that bore his name.

[The Belfast of the North and Other Poems. Belfast,
Ireland: Lapwing, 2005. 43]

Jay Macpherson

“The Anagogic Man”

Noah walks with head bent down;
For between his nape and crown
He carries, balancing with care,
A golden bubble round and rare.
Its gently shimmering sides surround
All us and our worlds, and bound
Art and life, and wit and sense,
Innocence and experience.
Forbear to startle him, lest some
Poor soul to its destruction come,
Slipped out of mind and past recall
As if it never was at all.
O you that pass, if still he seems
One absent-minded or in dreams,
Consider that your senses keep
A death far deeper than his sleep.
Angel, declare: what sways when Noah nods?
The sun, the stars, the figures of the gods.

[from Poems Twice Told: The Boatman & Welcoming Disaster. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1981. 42.]

Jay Macpherson

From “Notes and Acknowledgements” to Welcoming Disaster: Poems 1970–4.

This, though now in Oxford’s book,

First came forth on private hook

Friends assisted, not a few—
Bear up, Muse, we’ll list just two

In a thanks-again review
(Pausing, though, to not pass over
Picture sourcebooks pub. by Dover):
Best of readers, Northrop Frye
Cast a sure arranging eye:
David Blostein, craftsman fine,
Caught, with steadier hand than mine,
Ted, glum chum, in subtle line.

Major debts thus once more noted,
Muse, let’s jump: our boat’s refloated.

[From Poems Twice Told, 96]

[The above appeared as follows in the original edition]

Oxford let me do this book,
Kindly, on my private hook:
Hine sub regno, Poetry
Printed, some time since, Part Three:
Friends assisted, not a few—
Bear up, Muse, we’ll list just two
(Pausing, though, to not pass over
Picture sourcebooks pub. by Dover):
Best of readers, Northrop Frye

Cast a sure arranging eye:
David Blostein helped design,
Caught, with finer hand than mine,
Ted, glum chum, in subtle line.

Major debts thus briefly noted,
Muse, let’s jump: our vessel’s floated.

[Toronto: Saanes Publications, 1974.]


“Reflections on Spending Three Straight
Hours Reading Anatomy of Criticism

Northrop Frye
Whatta guy
Reads more books than you or I
Treats them with an equal eye
Archetypes are apple pie
Will she cry? Will he die?
Northrop never wonders why
Shakespeare cannot make him shy
Shylock’s just like Captain Bligh
Value judgments are a lie
Find the patterns that apply
Squeeze out Hamlet, let it dry
Presto! Catcher in the Rye.”

[Toronto October. 1986: 8. A poem that circulated among Victoria
College students.]

John Updike

“Big Bard”

O what a lark it must have been to be
Shakespeare—to face no copyediting,
to never blot a line, to spell a word
the way you wished, or wisht, just anyhow,
without a spinsterish consistency,
so future editors could spend a year
and quarts of ink deciphering what you
or swinish printers botched in a second’s lapse;
to be a happy hack, and take the plots
that Burbage thought would set him nicely off,
and make them rippling spills of golden spieling,
with buffoon bits worked in for Kempe and Armin;
to rip off homosexual sonnets, yet spend
a Stratford weekend now and then with Anne;
to be adored by crown and groundlings both;
to be profound, immortal, smooth, and quick;
to be (to quote Ben Jonson) “honest,” with
“an open, and free nature” plus “brave notions,
and gentle expressions” on top of “an
excellent Phantsie” and “that facility,
that sometime . . . should be stop’d”; to be the pet
of Harold Bloom and Northrop Frye; to sell
like mad in paperback, and outlive Marlowe,
and die scarce able to scratch your name—pure lark!

[American Scholar 70, no. 4 (2001): 40.]

Florentin Smarandache

“The Philosophy of Psychology”

The room in which I sleep has the shape of dreams.
Even Northrop Frye cannot bring order
from my goods.
I know only the inside of life.
What immense philosophy is this psychology?
When I read Sigmund Freud, I feel
a throwing out. The man turns your soul
upside down,
Gets into you and never gets out again.
O, man, do not stay alone on irelands!
O, men, do not stay alone on their own.
From the hotel, opening to the sea,
I see little:
caves of myself, corpses of me
caves of myself, corpses of me
I am working in a mine of myself.

Irving Layton

“The Excessively Quiet Groves”

I said: Mr Bucthevo Phrye
Make no mistake,
I’m the reincarnation
Of William Blake
But alas: Mr Butchevo Phrye
Was born to pry
Among old bones
And cemetery stones.

[Cerberus: Poems by Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, and Raymond Souster Toronto: Contact Press, 1952. 55]

Roger Angell

from “Greetings, Friends”

. . . Come on, everyone and Northrop Frye,
Sing ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’
For Famous Amos, Richard Leakey,
The Andersons—Cat, Joh, and Keke—
Dennis Conner and the Freedom’s Crew,
Greenpeach, and Roche and Dinkeloo! . . .

[New Yorker 29 December 1980: 35]

Richard Outram

“In Memory of Northrop Frye”

Perhaps back to the hinterlands, to the clear cold springs
that reflect everything but his image, from which rivers rise.
Perhaps to the slopes of mountains, to which he could say
with complete assurance: “Remove hence to yonder place . . .”
Perhaps to the swept meadows of perfect minuscule flowers
and thousand year-old shrubs. Not to the barren peaks.

He was known along the coast where, as he would have insisted,
he was only “. . . finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell”;
and at the deltas of tawny rivers where dugouts are clustered
he could be found in familiar discourse with the natives,
who trusted him. He would not be revered. And spent long hours
scrutinizing the great ocean all undiscovered before him.

When he departed, he left behind him elaborate maps of Terra
; the rudiments of a grammar; a code broken open;
a Sailing Directions for mariners that, if many will perish
in the destructive element immersed, some lives may be saved.
These survive him, his graceful anatomies. He was much loved.

We could mourn him. But that would be boasting.

[Globe and Mail 16 February 1991, and Northrop Frye Newsletter
3, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 36]

Ron Schoeffel

“Poem on the Occasion of the Launch of Two Collected Works Volumes, Plus Jean O’Grady’s Book on Margaret Addison and Nella Cotrupi’s on Frye”

Wonderful People are filling the sky
With the Collected Works of Northrop Frye.
Under the aegis of Alvin and Jean
The books arrive in a great long skein.
Late Notebooks, Education, Literature, Religion—
For every taste we’ve got a smidgeon.
From Bob and Goldie, and Nella Cotrupi,
The result’s always lively and never droopy.
Practical thanks to Roseann we express,
And to George, Bill, and Anne at U of T Press
So please raise your glasses to the man they call Norrie:
There are twenty-five more volumes to the end of this story.

Jeffery Donaldson


But one writes only after one has willed to renounce the will,
and the wisest of poets have always insisted that in the long
run all poetry that is worth listening to has been written
by the gods.

—Northrop Frye

Subway, in the middle of my commute,
   I found myself in a dark corner.
The line vanished into the underground
   in two directions, the clack and crow-screech

of steel wheels echoed in recession
   of the just missed five-o-nine
from the tunnel’s depths. Museum Station.
   A chilled solitude widened around me

and water-drops pooled in mimicked snips
   between the rails below. The ceiling lamps’
subdued fluorescence seemed to cast no shadows
   and were like peering through green water.

Exhibits from the ROM in glass cases
   with aboriginal wooden masks descended
like messengers from the real world above,
   whose outsize faces gestured witness and alarm

in the apocalyptic style of indigenous myth.
   Farther up, the February dusk
was tawny, the air tasteless and dull
   as pewter plate. Fog had moved in on

Old Vic’s scrubbed-stone but now vague
   turrets uncobbling upwards to the last
vanished spire, as though parting illusion
   from the epigraph above the stairway arch,

still insisting, after these twenty years,
   that the truth would set me free.
All gone up in a mist now, as far
   as I could see. I pictured them above,

the Burwash quad, Pratt, and residence,
   whose faux-gothic walls hold the city at Bay
like the brim of an empty cup, and where
   the mind-set of college years, memories

of what unwritten words, burn perpetually
   as in a crucible. I wonder now had I known,
those years hiding my fidgets, of the tics
   Touretters spend their days trying to release,

or heard of how the obsessive’s repetitions
   grind every last impulse to its death,
would I have finished more, managed
   the regimental habitus
and got things done?

Too skittish by far to do as that passage
   from Faust always roared mockingly I should,
from its perch on the cork board above my desk,
   Settle your studies! and sound the depths

of that thou wilt profess. Get real! I still
   have the welts from the nightly tongue-lashing.
But now school’s out at last, and the long ghostly
   hours of doodling, daydreams, lectures, lessen.

The students pouring from Northrop Frye Hall
   slushed in out of the fog in private directions
escalating down into the commuter scrimmage
   towards the platform. And that brought it on.

The clapping heal, nasal-snort, the lurching nod,
   the whooped-up screech and cluck.
I tried to catch the right patterns up,
   send them unfolding in dervish rhythms,

unstoppable as blinking. Suddenly,
   out of the unasked-for corporal hootenanny
I sensed a conjured presence whirled out
   in tangents from myself echoing

in the sniggers I bounced off the walls,
   until in my thinking, it appeared,
a stooped man stood apart,
   behind a pillar, unhurried, thoughtful,

neither leaving nor arriving, one I seemed
   to recognize or remember, coming through
and breaking up like a cell-phone signal
   too far from its source. The chunky glasses

and electric hair, plain, perennially ancient,
   he was there, bunched up within himself
like New Brunswick brushwood, swaying
   like a scraggly jack-pine or as a man

in thought at arm’s length from a lectern
   will rock, it seems, to captivating rhythms
for the sake of argument. Sheet folder.
   Waiting for this line to take him home.

He spoke up under my own chirps and wheens
   snickering back under the stone work,
like a cold draft working itself out.
   “Still conjuring ghosts, are you Hamlet,

from the depths of the waiting place?
   Have you forgotten my Shakespeare lecture
in ‘81, on how the Danish spook
   is not one jot less real than the made world

he rises in?” He looked himself over.
   “Not that I can say much in the matter,
but you might have made me younger.
   When you conjure someone in a dream,

(where are your manners?) it’s best to be more
   generous than time was . . . . But look at you.
Why you look as though you see a burning
   bush or a hanging disk of fire.”

“Oh no no, I see you, heavenly ghost,
   old sky father, old officer of art!
but holy company of angels
   what are you doing here? Fifteen years

have passed since we sat through the Blake
   readings at your remembrance service,
and together cracked what wine bottles afterwards
   launched you on your way across the Styx,

that second journey you once wrote about
   as having rather less to do with ego
than the first. You always looked for how
   to get past it without actually dying,

and I thought if I kept reading your prose
   you might show the way chosen ones take
to the spiritualized secular,
   and find you again, or myself at least.

But not haunting some in-transit concourse
   buried under old grounds I’ve already trod.”
“You’re still looking in all the wrong places.
   Time you saw through your own smoke and mirrors.”

“A window then? Not a thing I see?”
   “Closer, yes, but don’t get your hopes up
on clarity, too many hands and noses
   have been pressed to the glass for you to find

what you’re looking for in someone like me,
   even in this state. I was never much
for small talk, as little on subway platforms
   as on that elevator we once rode together.”

He shied away three steps and started to fade,
   searched himself as for the rumpled coat
he was still wearing. But I wanted more,
   moved to step clear of my own withholdings.

“I’ve long imagined I had missed my chance,
   had lost you to the ranks of bygone
paternal mentors, fathers in whom I planted
   the seeds of long-nursed dependencies

for the tall harvest that never came.”
   “Still stripping grafts from confidences
greater than your own? You’ve a way to go,
   and it won’t be this old crow, cocking

his eye at you under these shady lights,
   who will get you there. Don’t you know
that mine too was the ventriloquist’s thrown voice,
   and that what I spoke was a stirred echo?”

“I’ll never write as much as you did, spirit,
   the endless notebook-drafts of plumbed inklings
and the thirty odd volumes of limpid prose.
   I can’t pinch off a dozen lines in a year.”

“You could use some metaphoric roughage
   in your diet. An evacuation and purge,
as Auden said, can be a positive omen.
   But you’re the one who goes on about Whitman . . . .

You have to keep the tics down in public,
   and the vocal dirt from passing at all times,
(like kegel exercises for the mental sphincter . . . ).
   I can understand that. But your verbal

warm-ups are over-worked, if I may say so,
   too handled and pushed, too proudly shaped.
You’d rather lay off the inkpot than risk
   the odd bad sheet, won’t commit a line

not already hammered into its promise.
   You have this chiselled-phrase stuff backwards.
A poet finishes with cut gems
   for the jeweller’s eye, his sturdy maxim’s

sculpted waterfall hefted upwards
   into empyrean, he doesn’t start there.
You’re a Touretter. Why not write like one?
   Hold off the perfectionist blocking out phrases

to exhaustion, those worrying threads,
   the Penelopian back-ravellings of the unmade.
Your repetitious tics have always come first,
   and so they should, the ecstatic rhapsodist’s

St. Vitus’ Dance, slangster’s whizzle
   and conjuration, philologist’s hullaballoo.”
You think of Moses breasting the mountain top
   to find the right words already carved

in stone. But Moses too went round and round,
   ’til he found the clearing and the words came.”
My tics slowed, and he dimmed like a science fair
   light bulb, whose frail filament is

kept lit by the frantic, pumping cyclist
   ’til he tires. I cried, “But wait! What words?
Suppose I did dance circles, made off-beat
   tongue-claves my first exuberance, tell me

what I’ll find there beyond.” “No time,” he said,
   turning away, “and we’ve both said enough.
But look, you’ve waited on this line for some time,
   haven’t you. I think I hear what you need coming,”

he said, and fading, said something else I missed,
   when a shriek, as from depths within, drowned him out,
and it was then I saw, what else?, a light
   at the end of the tunnel, and heard the train’s

sliced-steel, involuntary skreak and howl,
   an offense to all, but look with how many
along for the ride! One last tic, I sounded
   my barbaric yawp. And a door opened.

[From Palilalia. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008. 18–26.]

Margaret Atwood

“Norrie Banquet Ode”

We live in interesting times; here come deplor- 
able fire and flood, hurricane, plague and war. 
We and our books feel trivial, amid the uproar 
and general chaos. Believe me, colleagues, there are mor- 
nings when I think—hell, what’s this for? 
Maybe this writing stuff is just verbal mor- 
phine. Confess—who hasn’t felt wor-
n down in the textual salt-mines, or
to use the sort of terse bad joke that Norr-
ie used to slip in, up shit creek without an oar?

Dear Norrie, if you were here with us, at the cor 
ner, more or less, of Queen’s Park and Bloor, 
pacing the overheated halls and creaking floor 
boards of rambling, many-turreted Victor- 
ia, as for how many years before, 
following your inner track, hunting the word quarr-
y through the jungles of the text, the distant roar 
of incandescent tigers hinting at glor-
y; and in your labours, loading every rift with lore; 
meanwhile, in your disguise of elderly professor, 
peering at us benignly, looking somewhat like a tor- 
toise with an overcoat and briefcase, what would your 
opinion be, of us? You didn’t suffer
fools gladly. Would you find us very bor-
ing? Too ingenious by half? Preposter-

     Well, what is done is in your honour, 
so I’m sure you’d be polite. Ignore 
the worst, accept the best, give us an encore—
as on so many occasions, say a few cheering wor- 
ds: such as: the creativity’s not in the for-
m, but in the writer. Anyway, you’d think of something to restore 
our sense that what we do is wor-
th it after all—the articulation of the central core 
of our real being, and the opening of the most impor-
tant door.

To write, to read and think, are to be mor- 
tal, but also to build a truly human structure, 
—no tyranny or bloody chamber of hor- 
rors, poisoned wasteland or for-
tress, but a city-garden, through which Nature 
too could flourish.
                          Is it we who write the story 
or perhaps, is it the other 
way around? We know one thing, dear Norrie, 
thanks to you: What keeps us going is the story.

[Read at the banquet on the final day of the conference on “The Legacy of Northrop Frye,” October 1992. Published in the Northrop Frye Newsletter 6, no. 1 (Fall 1994), 38, and in The Legacy of Northrop Frye, 171]

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