The Backwoodsman

Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus, ed. E.C.Lethem
(200 pp, $25.95, Norton)

Robert Frost always said that his poetry depended on tone: the reader had to be able to hear the sounds of a conversation going on behind a door without necessarily being able to make out exactly what was being said. The tone would provide clues to the narrative and resolution of some of his most puzzling, parable-like poems. Reading this collection of extracts from lectures and off-the cuff comments made before American university audiences during the period 1949-1962, Frost's tone and his speaking voice come through equally clearly: this is both an unexpected strength and an annoying weakness.

Firstly, the strengths: this is quite clearly Frost's voice speaking to us, over forty years after the last talk. The poet who talks of 'my kind of fooling' and 'ulteriority' is the same individual whose short, gnomic verses about woods on a snowy evening continue to haunt us. The comments in these talks (I won't call them lectures) are conversational, repetitive, colloquial, even shrugging and casual. Here he is in 1962 in Georgia talking about time: '...a thousand years. That's a good long time. We've only spent two hundred of it. Thousand is - if you look in history - it's a good long time. It's longer than most have done it. The great days of a nation are seldom anything like that. You've got to think of that.' Charming as this sort of thing is, it palls after a time, especially in the later, more rambling talks when the poet was great in years.

Nevertheless, this kind of 'back-porch' rambling shouldn't be dismissed. Frost on free verse: ' there's another freedom I want - not freedom  from , but freedom of. I want the freedom of our syntax and our idiom; the idiom particularly.' In the midst of such fuzziness, there come suddenly intriguing moments of clarity. Frost liked to present himself as an unschooled oddity, a backwoodsman, to play the role of the Only Surviving Robert Frost in Captivity, but he was scholarly and formal when it suited him.

Much of the time, Frost posed questions to his listeners; he rambled around claims about his poetry; he niggled away at words. There are numerous examples of this is this book, but they are generalities: don't come to it expecting to get keys to decoding some of the more gnomic Frost poems. Talks like 'What I think I'm doing when I write a poem' are slippery, as Frost himself was, full of mischief about technique: 'all thought... in poetry is a feat of association' is followed by 'rhyme is an outward symbol of this inner coupling'. This is a valuable addition to the collections of Frost's letters which have appeared, but the poet, as ever, refuses to be pinned down: 'let's say that poetry counts', he says, 'not necessarily mine, but it counts.'

     M.C.Caseley 2009