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Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

Robert Frost Talks About Poetry

By March 6, 2008

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We know Robert Frost as a New England philosopher-poet, an iconic figure with his shock of white hair, public declaimer and writer of poems so polished and so well-known they seem almost Biblical. But he also did a lot of more casual talking about poetry, and more of that talk has recently come to light. Tape recordings of his informal lectures with small groups of Dartmouth students in the late 1940s, given as part of the required Great Issues undergraduate course, have been transcribed by James Sitar, another former Dartmouth student, and are being published for the first time this year. The first to appear in print is a talk called “Sometimes It Seems As If,” and while you have to pay a fee to read the entire transcribed talk online, we have posted some interesting little nuggets gleaned from the various news stories on its publication below:

from Boston.com (Web site of The Boston Globe):
Previously unpublished lecture transcript illuminates Frost,” by John Curran (AP)
“Sixty years after he sat down with Dartmouth College students for an off-the-record lecture, poet Robert Frost’s words to them are about to be published for the first time.... A transcript of the Oct. 23, 1947, speech—one of dozens he gave at the college—will be published later this month in the journal Literary Imagination. Transcripts of other lectures he gave at the Ivy League school in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are also headed for print, thanks to a former undergrad who came across recordings of the talks and found out they’d never been heard beyond the campus.”

Quotes excerpted from Frost’s lecture in this article:

“Now there’s two ways to take the world that are safe. One is as a joke, take it humorously. Learn to take a joke and so learn to take the world by the help of jokes.”

“It’s lucky we’ve got some rich men that are fools, you see. I’ve heard them called fools, and I’m glad there are some... foolish enough to take care of fool poets. We’d lose all that when capitalism goes, you know.”

from Dartmouth.com News:
Sitar '01 unearths Frost lectures,” by Erin Jaeger
“Emerging from the depths of Rauner Special Collections library and into the hands of Frost aficionados everywhere, 20 lectures given by poet Robert Frost at the College between 1947 and 1966 will be published for the first time. The lectures, recently transcribed by James Sitar ‘01, were given by Frost as part of Dartmouth’s Great Issues course.... The first lecture scheduled to be released, titled ‘Sometimes It Seems As If,’ will be published in the newest issue of Literary Imagination, a literary journal, which will go to print later this week.... Three more of Sitar’s transcriptions—Frost’s lectures on ‘The Claims of Poetry,’ ‘The Most Dangerous Phrase in America’ and ‘The Natural and Supernatural Bounds of Science’—will be published in an upcoming issue of Fulcrum, an annual poetry journal.”

from WBUR (Boston’s NPR radio station):
Robert Frost Lectures Find Fresh Audience,” by Andrea Shea
“Robert Frost is an American icon and something of a literary ‘rock star’.... Frost had another side—a kind of folksy business-casual. Now, for the first time, we can hear that style in recordings of Frost’s lectures at Dartmouth College in the 1940s. They’ve just been published for the first time.”

Quotes excerpted from Frost’s lecture in this piece:

“Somebody will say to me, ‘I understand your poem, but...but,’ they want to know, ‘what are you getting at?’ (Laughter) I think they mean under what head does that come? ‘See under what head? How is it classified? Is it pessimistic or optimistic or something like that? I can’t find out.’ But I always say to them defensively, you know, ‘if I wanted you to know I’d have told you in the poem.’ (Laughter)”

“Somebody says, ‘why, is poetry a way of saying one thing and meaning another?’ Yeah, kind of... that’s what poetry is, as near as you want to come to it. (Laughter)”
There is another very rich source of Frost-talk online that no one interested in his thoughts should miss: the Middlebury College library special exhibit called “Robert Frost at Bread Loaf,” which includes lectures and readings dating from 1936 to 1962 (many of them with audio files as well as text), plus photographs, copies of his handwritten letters and drafts of poems, and a section of journal entries entitled “Robert Frost Verbatim,” in which Breadloaf director Reginald Cook recounts his meetings with Frost and records their conversations.

More on Robert Frost:
Profile of Robert Frost, our American farmer/philosopher poet
The Tricky Poem,” study guide to “The Road Not Taken”
A Robert Frost poem handwritten & hidden away: “War Thoughts at Home”
Library – Poems by Robert Frost


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