Despite his reputation as a public performer, the poet Robert Frost came uneasily both to readings and lectures of any kind. He was so nervous about public speaking that he once put stones in his shoes to distract him from stage fright; early on, he even had someone else read his poems for him. Decades and dozens of honorary degrees later, that nervousness seemed not to abandon him; he would often take a long drive with his friend, Edward Connery Lathem, before an event and talk relentlessly just to get wound up (or down) for the performance.
In "Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus," Lathem, the Dartmouth College librarian and Frost editor who died this spring, has collected edited versions of 46 of Frost's college talks delivered between 1949 and 1962. The talks present a peculiar editing challenge. There are no texts from which to work -- just tapes, and those are hardly of digital quality. In transcribing and editing the talks, the editor has to make a readable text (free of various kinds of acceptable repetitions and "throat clearings") but has to be careful not to exclude important asides and other comments made sotto voce.
Lathem's edition is eminently readable, and his notes identify, for general readers, most of Frost's literary and other allusions. The talks are a treasure for anyone who loves Frost and is interested in American literature. Frost's best quality is his ability to surprise; the shape and outcome of a talk is never predictable but one always senses this is poet's mischief rather than any lack of purpose.
Frost spent most of his early years as a farmer-poet but also taught secondary school. Over the 40 years that followed the success of his first two books -- "A Boy's Will" (1913) and "North of Boston" (1914) -- he would be in and out of teaching at Amherst, University of Michigan, Harvard and Dartmouth. He loved students and teaching but had unaccountable and unorthodox views about the meaning of education; and education is an important part of his poetry (consider "Mending Wall," "The Ax-Helve" or "Directive"). In a 1961 talk at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, for instance, he tells his audience:
"The thing I crave the most is to feel that all over the educational world everybody has got something on his mind he's crazy to tell me if he gets a chance, just the same as I'm crazy to tell you. That's my nature, and I expect other people to be like. And I want to respect their variance -- their departure, their originality. I want to hear from them."
In that same talk Frost muses deeply on the difference between conservative and radical thinking, but you have to listen closely to realize why Frost has little patience with political dissatisfaction of any stripe. Frost sounds here more like Kerouac than the keeper of traditions (Kerouac may be more the keeper of traditions than some may think). At Dartmouth, in a talk that generally seemed to be about "freedom," Frost challenged students: "What are the limitations of psychology? Can psychology help us? Put that down in your mind, will you, for me? Is there any psychology to help you about getting from an attachment to an attraction?"
He didn't answer the question directly but suggested that creation begins in the chaotic and continually struggles against it: "You have all the stuff, all the material of the years, all broken down and scattered in your mind in a beautiful disorder. And you can say, if you think about it, how chaotic it all is. But how delightfully chaotic. . . . It's what you mean by 'self-made' -- passing through that threshold of responsibility to do something with the disordered material that has been supplied you. . . ."
Frost presents an equally encompassing view of poetry that pops unexpectedly from a discussion of "rapid reading":
"The conscientious thoroughness that makes you think you've got to read everything to do it justice, and read every word of it, that's stupid reading, not slow reading. [ . . . ]
"Well, I'll leave that. But poetry is the basis of it all. That's what we mean. But prose and verse, though -- (I'm not just saying rhyme and meter; but prose and verse) -- the essence of it is insight and meaning and purification; clarification, getting rid of the dross, getting down to what this really comes to, taking the bunk out of everything."
One would like to know what was in those brackets. At some point, we will have a full edition of Frost's talks; there are hundreds extending back to the 1920s that reveal the development of his thought, as these do in part, on the relations between poetry, science, religion, politics and education.
"I'm not honest, but I wish I were. You see, I aspire to be honest. [ . . . ]" he declares at one point. As we read these talks in Lathem's edition, we learn more about Frost himself, so powerfully present and yet strangely elusive.
Faggen is Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College and the editor of "The Notebooks of Robert Frost." He is completing a biography of Ken Kesey.