Robert Frost / "A keen ability to appeal to an audience's humanity"

My enchantment with slightly—or completely—off kilter writers persists. Robert Frost was a Dartmouth then Harvard drop-out, a four time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and writer who recognized and named the disadvantages of an elite education much earlier than the rest of us. He had an envious command of language, but moreover, a keen ability to appeal to an audience’s humanity using just a handful of bare and barely linked words. Eccentric. Complicated. Distinct. Relevant. Swag personified, indeed.

Robert Frost, The Art of Poetry No. 2
(SOURCE: The Paris Review)

Mr. Frost came into the front room of his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, casually dressed, wearing high plaid slippers, offering greetings with a quiet, even diffident friendliness. But there was no mistaking the evidence of the enormous power of his personality. It makes you at once aware of the thick, compacted strength of his body, even now at eighty-six; it is apparent in his face, actually too alive and spontaneously expressive to be as ruggedly heroic as in his photographs.

The impression of massiveness, far exceeding his physical size, isn’t separable from the public image he creates and preserves. That this image is invariably associated with popular conceptions of New England is no simple matter of his own geographical preferences. New England is of course evoked in the scenes and titles of many of his poems and, more importantly, in his Emersonian tendencies, including his habit of contradicting himself, his capacity to “unsay” through the sound of his voice what his words seem to assert. His special resemblance to New England, however, is that he, like it, has managed to impose upon the world a wholly self-created image. It is not the critics who have defined him, it is Frost himself. He stood talking for a few minutes in the middle of the room, his remarkably ample, tousled white hair catching the late afternoon sun reflected off the snow in the road outside, and one wondered for a moment how he had managed over so long a life never to let his self-portrait be altered despite countless exposures to light less familiar and unintimidating. In the public world he has resisted countless chances to lose himself in some particular fashion, some movement, like the Georgians, or even in an area of his own work which, to certain critics or readers, happens for the moment to appear more exotically colorful than the whole. In one of the most revealing parts of this interview, he says of certain of his poems that he doesn’t “want them out,” the phrase itself, since all the poems involved have been published, offering an astonishing, even peculiar, evidence of the degree to which he feels in control of his poetic character. It indicates, too, his awareness that attempts to define him as a tragic philosophical poet of man and nature can be more constricting, because more painfully meaningful to him, than the simpler definitions they are designed to correct.

Frost was seated most of the time in a blue overstuffed chair which he had bought to write in. It had no arms, he began, and this left him the room he needed.

ROBERT FROST: I never write except with a writing board. I’ve never had a table in my life. And I use all sorts of things. Write on the sole of my shoe.

INTERVIEWER: Why have you never liked a desk? Is it because you’ve moved around so much and lived in so many places?

FROST: Even when I was younger I never had a desk. I’ve never had a writing room.

INTERVIEWER: When you started to write poetry, was there any poet that you admired very much?

FROST: I was the enemy of that theory, that idea of Stevenson’s that you should play the sedulous ape to anybody. That did more harm to American education than anything ever got out.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever feel any affinity between your work and any other poet’s?

FROST: I’ll leave that for somebody else to tell me. I wouldn’t know.

INTERVIEWER: I wonder about your reaction to such articles as the recent lead article by Karl Shapiro in The New York Times Book Review which praised you because presumably you’re not guilty of “Modernism” as [Ezra] Pound and [T.S] Eliot are. [Telephone rings.]

FROST: Is that my telephone? Just wait a second. Halt! [Interruption. Frost leaves for phone call.]

FROST: Where were we? Oh yes, you were trying to trace me.

INTERVIEWER: I wasn’t trying to trace you. I was—

FROST: Oh, this thing about Karl Shapiro. Yeah, isn’t it funny? So often they ask me—I just been all around, you know, been out West, been all around—and so often they ask me, “What is a modern poet?” I dodge it often, but I said the other night, “A modern poet must be one that speaks to modern people no matter when he lived in the world. That would be one way of describing it. And it would make him more modern, perhaps, if he were alive and speaking to modern people.”

INTERVIEWER: I’ve been asking a lot of questions about the relationship of your poetry to other poetry, but of course there are many other non-literary things that have been equally important. You’ve been very much interested in science, for example.

FROST: Yes, you’re influenced by the science of your time, aren’t you? Somebody noticed that all through my book there’s astronomy.

INTERVIEWER: Like “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus”?

FROST: Yes, but it’s all through the book, all through the book. Many poems—I can name twenty that have astronomy in them. Somebody noticed that the other day: “Why has nobody ever seen how much you’re interested in astronomy?” That’s a bias, you could say. One of the earliest books I hovered over, hung around, was called Our Place among Infinities, by an astronomer in England named Proctor, noted astronomer. It’s a noted old book. I mention that in one of the poems: I use that expression “our place among the infinities” from that book that I must have read as soon as I read any book, thirteen or fourteen, right in there I began to read. That along with The Scottish Chiefs. I remember that year when I first began to read a book through. I had a little sister who read everything through, lots of books, everybody’s books—very young, precocious. Me, I was—they turned me out of doors for my health.

INTERVIEWER: While we’re thinking about science and literature, I wonder if you have any reaction to the fact that Massachusetts Institute of Technology is beginning to offer a number of courses in literature?

FROST: I think they’d better tend to their higher mathematics and higher science. Pure science. They know I think that. I don’t mean to criticize them too much. But you see it’s like this: the greatest adventure of man is science, the adventure of penetrating into matter, into the material universe. But the adventure is our property, a human property, and the best description of us is the humanities. Maybe the scientists wanted to remind their students that the humanities describe you who are adventuring into science, and science adds very little to that description of you, a little tiny bit. Maybe in psychology, or in something like that, but it’s awful little. And so, the scientists to remind their students of all this give them half their time over there in the humanities now. And that seems a little unnecessary. They’re worried about us and the pure sciences all the time. They’d better get as far as they can into their own subject. I was over there at the beginning of this and expressed my little doubts about it. I was there with Compton [Karl Compton, president of MIT, 1930-1948] one night—he was sitting on the platform beside me. “We’ve been short”—I turned to him before the audience—”we’ve been a little short in pure science, haven’t we?” He said, “Perhaps—I’m afraid we may have been.” I said, “I think that better be tended to.” That’s years ago.

INTERVIEWER: You just mentioned psychology. You once taught psychology, didn’t you?

FROST: That was entirely a joke. I could teach psychology. I’ve been asked to join a firm of psychiatrists, you know [by Merrill Moore], and that’s more serious. But I went up there to disabuse the Teacher’s College [now: Plymouth State University] of the idea that there is any immediate connection between any psychology and their classroom work, disabuse them of the notion that they could mesmerize a class if they knew enough psychology. That’s what they thought.

INTERVIEWER: While we’re on things other than poetry that you were and are interested in, we might get onto politics for a moment.

FROST: In “The Death of the Hired Man” that I wrote long, long ago… I put it two ways about home. One would be the manly way: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there / They have to take you in.” That’s the man’s feeling about it. And then the wife says, “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” That’s the New Deal, the feminine way of it, the mother way. You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. One’s a Republican, one’s a Democrat. The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat. Very few have noticed that second thing; they’ve always noticed the sarcasm, the hardness of the male one.

INTERVIEWER: The difficulty of your poetry is perhaps in your emphasis on variety in tones of voice. You once said that consciously or unconsciously it was tones of voice that you counted on to double the meaning of every one of your statements.

FROST: Yes, you could do that. Could unsay everything I said, nearly. Talking contraries—it’s in one of the poems. Talk by contraries with people you’re very close to. They know what you’re talking about. This whole thing of suggestiveness and double entendre and hinting—comes down to the word “hinting.” With people you can trust you can talk in hints and suggestiveness. Families break up when people take hints you don’t intend and miss hints you do intend. You can watch that going on, as a psychologist. I don’t know. No, don’t . . . no don’t you . . . don’t think of me . . . See, I haven’t led a literary life. These fellows, they really work away with their prose trying to describe themselves and understand themselves, and so on. I don’t do that. I don’t want to know too much about myself...I never wrote a review in my life, never wrote articles. I’m constantly refusing to write articles...I don’t have hours; I don’t work at it, you know. I’m not a farmer, that’s no pose of mine. But I have farmed some, and I putter around. And I walk and I live with other people. Like to talk a lot. But I haven’t had a very literary life, and I’m never very much with the gang. I’m vice-president, no, I’m Honorary President of the Poetry Society of America. Once in a great while I go. And I wish them well. I wish the foundations would take them all, take care of them all.

INTERVIEWER: Speaking of foundations, why do you think big business, so long the object of literary ridicule for being philistine, should now be supporting so much literary effort?

FROST: It’s funny they haven’t sooner, because most of them have been to college and had poetry pushed into them. About half the reading they do in all languages will be in verse. Just think of it. And so they have a kind of respect for it all and they probably don’t mind the abuse they’ve had from our quarter. They’re people who’re worried that we just don’t have enough imagination—it’s the lack of imagination they’re afraid of in our system. If we had enough imagination we could lick the Russians. I feel like saying, “Probably we won the Civil War with Emily Dickinson.” We didn’t even know she was there. Poor little thing.

INTERVIEWER: You once saw a manuscript of Dylan Thomas’s where he’d put all the rhymes down first and then backed into them. That’s clearly not what you mean by performance, is it?

FROST: See, that’s very dreadful. It ought to be that you’re thinking forward, with the feeling of strength that you’re getting them good all the way, carrying out some intention more felt than thought. It begins. And what it is that guides us—what is it? Young people wonder about that, don’t they? But I tell them it’s just the same as when you feel a joke coming. You see somebody coming down the street that you’re accustomed to abuse, and you feel it rising in you, something to say as you pass each other. Coming over him the same way. And where do these thoughts come from? Where does a thought? Something does it to you. It’s him coming toward you that gives you the animus, you know. When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it’s mostly animus. (full text)