(Mitch Wertlieb) Robert Frost’s life spanned most of the twentieth century, and some think he was one of the most original poets of that time. VPR is exploring Frost’s life and work with Vermont Reads, an annual program sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council. This year people around the state are reading A Restless Spirit, The Story of Robert Frost by author Natalie Bober. I’m Mitch Wertlieb.
(Wertlieb) Until recently, if you asked someone what they knew about Robert Frost, they might describe seeing him on television, his white hair ruffled by the wind at JFK’s inauguration. In New England, they might talk about seeing him at the post office or speaking at a local college. Or they might recall a poem of his they had learned in school. And to Middlebury professor of English John Elder, that’s a good indication of Frost’s legacy.
(Elder) "His poems are in fact, memorized by early elementary school students and it’s a great thing that they are, beautiful on every level, but it’s a good thing that they are but when you come back and look more closely with years of reading them, one sees that within an apparently simple and straightforward poem, are many complexities of tone and image, if one becomes interested in natural history there are many details that actually, not only give a beautiful nature touch, but also give a very specific ecosystem in a season, so I think his great gift is to be simple and colloquial and vivid, and at the same time to be philosophical and profound,"
(Wertlieb) Frost’s poems also have staying power, because they’re widely read. Jim Schley is executive director of the Frost Place:
(Schley) "There are poets like Carl Sandberg, or Edward Arlington Robinson, or Edgar Lee Masters, who were extremely popular in their day, like Frost was, but nobody reads them, or a handful of people reads them, whereas many people read Frost. Not only for edification, and the literary experience, but for plain old pleasure."
(Mitch) There’s no doubt that the love of Frost extends well beyond of New England. Many Robert Frost sites receive visitors from around the world. Frost expert Robert Faggen gives credit to the "sheer genius" of Frost’s work:
(Faggen) "This is an understanding of the way that language works, it’s an understanding of language that few people have, it’s an understanding of what one would call the power of ordinary language, and the ability of Frost to compress complexity, to have the clarity of depth and madness, in poetry that is tremendously memorable is just a remarkable feat, a remarkable talent."
(Mitch) Author Natalie Bober was inspired to write Frost’s story because it reveals lessons on both poetry and life:
(Bober) "The poet Joseph Brodsky said, if you want to meet Mr. Frost, then read his poetry, and I think just reading the poetry can have a tremendous, tremendous influence on young people some of it is so simple, and beautiful on the surface, and then the more they read it and the older the get, the more experience they bring to the poem, the more levels of meaning they can find in it. 24:15 But I also think that the message of refusing gently and firmly to conform is important. He knew he had to follow the dictates of his heart and his mind."
(Wertlieb) Frost’s granddaughter Robin Fraser Hudnut thinks contemporary readers have much to gain by learning more about Frost and spending time with his poetry.
(Hudnut) "He has many things to say to a contemporary reader. To begin with I think it would be a person who is seeking to expand their horizon, seeking to become more alert, and that person couldn’t but become more wide awake to – not only nature – but to life itself and the discovery of what it means to be a friend, a citizen, a person of wholeness. I think one becomes akin with what it means to be alive."
(Mitch) One young, avid reader has already acquired a taste for Frost. Great-great-granddaughter Isabella Frost Renner is twelve. When she visited the Robert Frost Stone House Museum this summer with her grandmother, she recalled how Frost came to write one of his most famous poems there – and she recited it from memory.
(Isabella) " I like seeing where he lived. I think it’s funny that you can kind of picture him, like writing by candle-light, just you know freezing in the middle of New Hampshire, but he actually wrote it on a mid-June morning and just – it must be really hot out here in the middle of June and he’s writing about snow and someone stopping in snowy woods. He wrote it in the back room – it’s called the Stopping By Snowy Woods Room, and he said he was up all night thinking of what to write and then it was morning and he didn’t want to wake the rest of his family so he went for a walk, and when he came back he just said it kind of came to me and I just wrote it all in one – just one little thing and then just made a few corrections and then it was done.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(Wertlieb) When considering Frost’s genius – and his legacy – the poetry is what speaks to us most directly. And his poems can certainly be read entirely on their own. But Frost’s life and work are so intertwined that learning about Frost the man can bring fresh insight to our reading of the poems.
In The Road Not Taken, Frost speaks to the paradox that life requires us to make many important choices and decisions without certain knowledge of the consequences – and hope for the best. In "A Restless Spirit," Natalie Bober relates this poem to a life-changing decision Frost made with the actual flip of a coin.
(Bober) "For several weeks the children had been hearing their mother and father talk about leaving Derry, about going someplace where it wouldn’t matter if they were poor, and Papa could write poetry. They had heard John and Margaret Barlett’s letters read aloud, begging them to visit them on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the largest island off the west coast of North America. They knew that John and Margaret had been students of their father at Pinkerton Academy, and that they had married and gone to Vancouver to live. But their mother seemed to prefer England. "Let’s go to England and live under thatch," they heard her say.
They were all gathered around the stove in the kitchen, keeping Elinor company as she ironed, when the subject came up again. As they debated between Canada and England, their father opted to join the Bartletts in the wild, nature beauty of Vancouver, with its mountains to climb and its beaches to walk. Suddenly though, he suggested they toss a coin. He took a nickel out of his pocket, said, "Heads, England, tails Vancouver." It was heads. The coin had chosen England. And in that moment, their future was decided"
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Wertlieb) Our thanks to Middlebury College special collections for permission to broadcast their recordings of Frost reading his own work. Special thanks also to The Robert Frost Stone House Museum, the Frost Estate, and The Vermont Humanities Council. Also Henry Holt — publishers of "A Restless Spirit, the Story of Robert Frost" and of Frost’s poetry.
This week’s VPR/Vermont Reads series was produced by Betty Smith and Melody Bodette. The Production engineers were Chris Albertine, Sam Sanders and Bob Merrill, with web production by Tim Johnson. Our Executive Producer is John Van Hoesen. For VPR News, I’m Mitch Wertlieb.
Photo: Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library. Item Located in Rauner Special Collections Library.