Good fences make good poets.
Good fences make good poets.

(John moves over to the table and slumps down, he is gradually becoming more Frost like in posture and voice.)


Frost talked and wrote a great deal about poetry, but one of the truest things he ever stated is, “A piece of writing is as good as its drama.” He certainly proved it that day. 


You know we think of Robert Frost as the quintessential New Englander, but he was actually born in San Francisco, March 26, 1874. His father was a political rebel who named his new son, Robert Lee Frost, after the Southern Civil War Leader. His father was alcoholic, abusive and remote so it fell to his mother to nurture and instruct him. She read him religious stories, myths and fairy tales. Later, she read aloud to him the poems of Burns, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Longfellow. The boy didn’t really read for himself until he was fourteen, but he wrote his first poem at fifteen and had his first published in a local paper three years later.


When Frost’s father died of tuberculosis in 1885, he left his family with just $8 after his funeral expenses had been paid. Robert, with his mother and younger sister, moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts to live with his grandfather. He married Elinor in 1895. She and Robert had been co-valedictorians of their high school class. He then headed off to Dartmouth College where he was bored and quickly dropped out of college. He fell more and more into long walks, night and day walks in the woods and hills. At the fraternity he had joined, where his antisocial behavior was making him unpopular, he was asked what he did in the woods alone. His response was, “I gnaw wood.”


Frost next enrolled in Harvard living with his wife, young son and mother-in-law in a small Cambridge apartment. Plagued with ill health and now having a new daughter added to the family, he dropped out of Harvard and took up poultry farming. His first son died of cholera at the age of four. But with his grandfather’s help, he purchased a 30-acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire, working by day and writing by night at the kitchen table.


About those days he said, “I was ambition-less, purposeless. For months on end I would do no work at all. I didn’t write because I wanted to write; I wrote because I wrote. I would exchange work with another farmer, perhaps during the haying, and for three weeks would sweat and toughen up. Then the hay fever would come on, and I would do no work until another haying.”


“No one can make a living at poetry,” his grandfather told him. “But I tell you what,” he added shrewdly, “ we’ll give you a year to make a go of it. You’ll have to promise to quit writing if you can’t make a success of it in a year. What do you say”? “Give me twenty,” the nineteen year old replied. And twenty years later, almost to the month, Robert Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, was published in England where he, his wife and children had temporarily moved, followed a year later by North of Boston. One enthusiastic critic wrote, “Mr. Frost has turned the living speech of men and women into poetry.”


When he and his little family landed in New York, he had only a few dollars left. They carried their hand luggage across town to the elevated train, took it to 42nd Street and then rode a 42nd Street trolley across town to Grand Central Station. On one of the newsstands they passed, Frost’s eye was caught by the issue of the New Republic with his name and the title “The Death of the Hired Man” displayed on the cover. He had never heard of the New Republic; he had not even heard that Henry Holt and Company were publishing his poems in the United States. He left his family sitting in the station and went to the Henry Holt office. There he was given a check from the New Republic. He and his wife could now get to New Hampshire and start their life in America again. The man who had left as an unknown writer came back to be hailed as a leader of the new era in American poetry. He later went on to teach at Dartmouth, Amherst and the University of Michigan, and four times Frost was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the best book of poetry of the year—the only poet to ever achieve that quadruple distinction.


But let me take a short detour here and tell you a little story of something I discovered myself about drama from Frost’s poetry.  (to be continued)



The Always Robert Frost
The Always Robert Frost




This is a behind the scenes look at Robert Frost and his work. If you are curious about poetry at all it will give you some guidelines that will help you make your work more memorable. Or if you just wonder about the man behind the legend, here are some clues. I originally prepared this as a reading. Let me know how you like it. John Lehman.


(The stage is dark. A spotlight switches on abruptly focusing on the center of the stage. John appears from stage right in a lumber jacket and baseball cap. To the far right is an easel upon which are signs that identify the first segment and then the second. The first says “Holding on and letting go.” To the left, a second easel that has blowup photos of Frost as a young man.)


Hello. I’m not Robert Frost. My name is John Lehman and we’ll be spending the next hour and a half  together. Some of you may remember seeing Robert Frost on television or in a movie in your high school English class. I was familiar with him that way too, but that never meant much to me until my wife and I made a car trip out East a few years ago and we stopped at a place he once owned: Franconia Farm.


It was in the fall. We found it in a book on various author’s homes. When we pulled in, there were no cars or people, just this humble wood house.

A makeshift sign said it was closed, but we decided to stay awhile.


I stepped up onto the slanting wood porch and peered through the panes of ripple glass. What I saw was a table…


(John points over at the table on stage.)


 and two chairs. The barest of interiors. Then I turned away and looked out to see what Robert Frost would have seen through the window, …


(Dramatically, stepping forward and looking directly at the audience.)


…a mountainside of trees, in flaming October colors swaying in the wind. His life and his work are full of those dramatic contrasts. Let me give you one, incredible example, which you probably don’t know.


(John takes off his jacket and hangs it on the coat rack. He dons a black button- up knit sweater, then grabs a book and heads over to the stool where he begins to read.)


Here’s part of a poem by Galway Kinnell about Frost reading at Kennedy’s Presidential Inauguration:


I saw you once on the TV,

Unsteady at the lectern,

The flimsy white leaf

Of hair standing straight up

In the wind, among top hats,

Old farmer and son

Of worse winters than this,

Stripped in the first dazzle


Of the District of Columbia,

Suddenly having to pay

For the cheap onionskin,

The worn-out ribbon, the eyes

Wrecked from writing poems

For us—stopped,

Lonely before millions,

The paper jumping in your grip,


And as the Presidents

Also on the platform

Began flashing nervously

Their Presidential smiles

For the harmless old guy,

And poets watching on the TV

Started thinking, Well that’s

The end of that tradition,


And the managers of the event

Said, Boys this is it,

This sonofabitch poet

Is gonna croak,

Putting the papers aside

You drew forth

From your great faithful heart

The poem.


In that moment when the whole world was anxiously waiting on the edge of its chair, he came through.


(Pause, John stands and shakes his head.)



Or so it seemed. But, here’s what really happened.





The presidential election of 1960 was perilously close, with Kennedy and Nixon dividing the electorate almost evenly in half. Frost balked at the prospect of a Nixon presidency, preferring the debonair, highly cultivated senator from his own neck of the woods. It was Congressman Stewart Udall who suggested to Kennedy that Frost read a poem at his inauguration. It would focus on Kennedy as a man of culture, as a man interested in culture. Furthermore, Kennedy had long admired Frost, but his initial response was, “No, you know Frost always steals any show he is part of.”


Anyway, Frost worked on a new poem, simply called “Dedication.” He was unhappy with it, even as he rushed to finish it the night before the Inauguration.


The next day—one hour into the big event—Frost was called forward. He ambled slowly to the podium, then fumbled for a while with his manuscript. The light seemed to strike the page in such a way that he couldn’t see, and he said, “I’m having trouble with this.” The new Vice-President, Lyndon Johnson, tried to help by shielding the page with his top hat, but Frost brushed him aside. Then he totally captivated the audience by declaiming his poem “The Gift Outright” —almost as if it were coming to him for the very first time (in fact it’s one he had written two decades earlier, recited by heart dozens and dozens of times). 


He concluded: “…Such as we were we gave ourselves outright…To the land vaguely realizing westward, / But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, / Such as she was, such as she would become.” The crowd roared.


Decades later, Americans who watched the ceremony on television still recall the hoary-haired figure in the black overcoat who put aside the script he could not read to recite from memory in his folksy, New England farm manner. Frost’s fame zoomed. People on the street suddenly recognized him. He could not go into a restaurant without someone asking for an autograph or wanting to shake his hand. And, sure enough, the day after the Inauguration, true to Kennedy’s prediction, the front page of the Washington Post headlined: Robert Frost in his natural way stole the hearts of the Inaugural crowd.”




JOHN:   QUESTION: Can writers fly?


     Despite being able to leap effortlessly from one subject to another, writers are not bats, but if they are on some kind of flying device like a plane or a helicopter, yes writers can fly. 


You are what you dream.  “You Are What You Dream” is the name of my short story I wrote last year, let me read it to you.


John grabs a sheaf of papers. He begins to read


You Are What You Dream


     When the twice-divorced John Larkin introduced himself at a downtown business card exchange to an attractive woman easily fifteen years younger than he was, he surprised himself by saying his name was “Jack.”


     She had a million dollars worth of tortoiseshell-colored hair, a soft, serious face and teeth that were even and strong and very white. She wore a faux fur jacket and skin-tight leather slacks. But her most unusual feature was one he could not see.   


     John Larkin suddenly remembered twenty-five years earlier, on the first day of boot camp.  A man waiting in line, Skip, had introduced himself to John and John had given his name, “John Larkin.” Moments later when they were joined by two other new soldiers, Skip had told them John’s name was “Jack.” He probably had had a friend, John, who went by “Jack” or perhaps—this was only a few years after the presidency of John F. Kennedy—he thought that this nickname was universal. It wasn’t. But instead of correcting him, John thought, “Why not be Jack.” It had a tough, aggressive ring he liked. Rash.  And so for the month and a half of crawling under barbed wire, breaking-down and re-assembling weapons and out-of-control binge drinking every Friday night he was “Jack.” He could have been sent to combat in Vietnam. He even hoped he would be. But when reporting to his subsequent hospital administration position in Kansas, “Lieutenant John Larkin,” was the name written on his assignment orders. It once again seemed right.


     That’s why, so many years later it was strange he would say his name was “Jack.” But then he thought, as he had before, “Why not?” He knew the consequences of being “John”—the nothing person everyone dumped on. For once he wanted to be the guy who grabbed what he wanted. This was his first mistake.


     Perhaps she was hearing impaired or had been born with deficient vocal chords, but the volume and tone of her voice was like she was holding her nose when she talked, or pronouncing words she’d never heard anyone else say. It was the voice of a cat that had somehow learned to speak


     Cats are my business, she said. “Cass aaaa maaa bizzzz-nesss.”


     “I’m a dog person myself…” Jack was self-conscious. At first he had been embarrassed by the unexpected peculiarity of this woman’s speech, now he was trying to show he wasn’t. As he looked over the business card she had offered him, this was the best he could come up with. “Though it’s not that I don’t like cats. I do. But I’ve never had one myself. And I’ve never heard of a cat spa.”


     Then a strange thing happened. It was as if she were a silent-screen actress and the ballroom was flickering in black and white. Words, sound, didn’t seem to matter. It was the look in her large eyes. It was seduction.


     In his movie version it would have meant getting a room here at the hotel, ordering a bottle of champagne, peeling apart the crisp sheets and getting cozy under the covers of a king-sized bed. But Jack found himself in her feature, pulling out of the Sheraton’s parking lot as they headed to the address of the Meow Spa and Cat Salon off of East Washington Avenue.


     He smiled, remembering the old Steve Martin joke about how his cat enjoyed being bathed…though the hard part was getting the hair off your tongue afterwards. Maybe there was something kinky going on, but Jack was too horny to care. He wanted to press this little prize into the corner of a leather couch in the spa waiting room and pump the hell out of her while from cages in the other room cats in heat yowled.


     The Meow Spa and Cat Salon was located in the old Humane Society building. Jack had been there once when his Norwegian Elk Hound wandering in the park had been picked up by the police. They had not called him and Jack had been frantic. Then the next day, to release the dog, the Humane Society was demanding he pay for its overnight stay. Jack had argued, “You never phoned me he was here. In fact I called and no one knew anything about my dog, Orson Wells.”


     “The dog was riding in the back of the squad car most of the afternoon,” the suddenly attentive woman behind the desk had tried to placate him.


     “Humane Society, hah. What a joke. You people aren’t good for anything except killing animals!” he’d screamed, and they had dropped the overnight charges.


     But that rage was still there, Jack realized, as they pulled in front of the out-of-way building along the railroad tracks. All parking spaces for the Meow Spa and Cat Salon were empty.


     She unlocked the front door and ushered him in. There was a small lamp lit on the ultramodern reception desk, the rest of the room was resplendent in art-deco shadows. There was no couch.


     Here’s what they teach you in the army, it’s called “An Estimate of the Situation.” Take stock of your surroundings, assess your existing resources, set priorities, act decisively, evaluate results. OK, Jack thought, there is no couch but the building seems to be empty of other people. Bang her and leave. Don’t even think about this after it’s over. However, one question did gnaw at Jack: How had she gotten to the business card exchange without a car?


     The woman stepped over to a large metal door. She let her faux-fur jacket dangle and fall to the floor. Then she began to unbutton her blouse. Jack felt like he was again watching a black and white movie—but now it had become one of those ancient porn booths where you inserted a nickel and a pulsating Parisian beauty stripped off her clothes. In that moment this woman seemed to unleash all the wild desire he’d ever felt. She kicked off her shoes and was stepping out of her black-leather pants. There was a skulking, feline quality to her movements as she pulled one leg then the other free. She caressed herself and looked directly at Jack. He was staring at her breasts and at that inviting patch of fur between her legs.


     That’s when he did something stupid—his second mistake. He hurried out of his own clothes as if he and she were two animals preparing to mate in the woods. And when he saw that Mary Pickford-look of slight alarm cross her face, he felt himself grow hard as a dog’s bone. But before he could reach over to touch her, she had opened the steel door to the back.


     Beckoning to him with her outstretched finger she slowly slipped out of view.


     Jack, completely nude, followed her. Mistake number three.


     When the door shut behind him, he felt a moment of panic. He was in some kind of hallway and it was completely dark. But he could hear footfalls of the little tease ahead of him and he had already seen all of her body he needed to.   


     The end of the corridor. Then there was a ninety-degree turn right. Down this hallway he became aware of metal bars on either side of him. He heard breathing.


     “Uuuuu arrrr  wha yrrrrrrr dreeeeam,” her strange cat-like whisper seemed to summon him. He sensed he was standing in the entrance to some kind of enclosure. As he stepped forward he heard its door clang shut behind him.


     War, to those who have never experienced it first hand, seems to be about noble causes. They imagine the soldiers who participate as exhibiting valor. But only people at a distance have the luxury of such sentiments. For men going into battle it is something else. Something less noble. Less rational.  Something more real.


     The fluorescent lights blinked on. Jack saw he was in a barrack of naked men, like dogs in cages, smelling death.




     So what happened?


     It’s over. You’ve arrived.





He reveals the last sign: THE WRITER’S CAVE


     The Writer’s Cave. Now we’re ready to begin.










QUESTION: Can a writer be killed if one drives a stake through the writer’s heart or chops off his or her head?


ANSWER: Yes, but that would also kill regular humans if one does the same to them. By the way, killing a writer is murder and murderers are arrested and put in jail.


     Each year I teach at a kind of back-to-nature folk school in Door County called “The Clearing.” Last summer in the short story workshop we read a story by Joyce Carol Oates called Images and I thought it might be interesting for all of us to write some scenes like she did:


He stands up as if addressing a class.


     “So you see the problem in creating a scene between two people in a piece of fiction or creative nonfiction is getting into the mind of the second character—the one who is not a stand-in for you and your sensibilities,” I tell the class.


John in an aside to the audience.


     Blank faces of the workshop participants stare at me.


John, as if to the workshop.


     “I mean,” I continue straight-faced, “you have to become schizophrenic.”


John in another aside to the audience.


     No response.


John, as if to the workshop.


     “Crazy,” I bellow.


John directly to the audience.


     They laugh.


     The exercise I am giving them is to write a dialogue between two people in which one person—an unlikely candidate for the job—is trying to seduce another.


John to the students.


     “You need to look at the motivation of each,” I insist.


John, back to the audience.


     Blank stares.


John (to the students).


     “For example, in the Joyce Carol Oates story we just read, the adolescent

girl—a surrogate for the author—wants to break loose from her family and the small town where she is going to school.

John explains to the audience.


     Heads nod in agreement. Who doesn’t want to break out of their environment? Start a new life, not as someone else but as the real you who you never got a chance to be?


As if at the workshop again.


     “But what about the pedophile teacher she is smoking cigarettes with?” Garret asks—an intentional or unintentional jab at instructors.


     “Yes, what about him?” I repeat the question, using a teacher trick of responding to a question with a question in order to gain time to think of an answer.


     “He should be reported to the authorities,” Hugh pipes in. Hugh is a former grade-school principal.


     “Well, yes,” I say. “But that’s why we have fiction, so we don’t all wind up in jail. But in the context of the story what is his motivation?”


     “He’s just a loser,” Heidi answers. She could play the story’s strong female lead in a movie version.


John stands at the podium, lost in thought. Finally to the audience, and himself.


     Am I the loser? What the hell am I doing? Where am I going with this?


 John, getting a grip, plows forward.


     Plato wrote about a cave in which the philosopher sees only shadows from a fire. He moves outside to discover truth in the blinding glare of the sun.     


     Freud gave this a literal twist—bringing our neuroses from their unconscious depths to the rational surface.


     But wait. We may want to bring the truth out into the open but initially we need to go inward…into the writer’s cave. It’s there we will discover truth. When we do emerge it is the audience who keeps us from being self-indulgent and merely projecting our feelings onto other people and events.


     Am I saying that when you change the encounter with Orson Welles or when Lorine Niedecker writes about one thing when she may have other things in mind and when Bergman’s art searches below the surface to address subjects he needs to bring out into the light…that this is some kind of terrifying journey?


Well, you are what you dream.