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
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
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.”