Robert Frost: Speaking On Campus: Excerpts From His Talks 1949-1962, edited by Edward Connery Lathem
As someone whose thoughts about Robert Frost as a poet are decidedly mixed to adverse, I am pleasantly surprised that there is so much of value in his talks to college students. I suppose a great deal of my enjoyment comes from the fact that the author shows himself to be interested in conversation. Even where one disagrees with him (and there is plenty to disagree with him about), the author’s focus on having a conversation rather than turning the talks into merely sermons of his worldview makes it a lot easier to take. Approach and framing matter a great deal here, and the author’s occasional misquotations of poems only adds to the charm of the author being somewhat more human. Indeed, the essential humanity of the author makes this book far more enjoyable to read than many of the author’s early poetry, and almost makes it worthwhile to consider if the later poems of Frost are worth exploring at all since I’ve read the same early ones over and over again thanks to the wonder of marketing. Almost. At any rate, these discussions are worth reading if you care what Frost has to say about various aspects of writing and life.
The slightly less than 200 pages of material in this book consist of a variety of transcribed talks given by Robert Frost to college students, mostly at Dartmouth, during the course of his old age. The earliest of them start in the period after the end of World War II and show someone trying to deal with the political changes as a result of the Cold War, hinting at some kind of “higher treachery” by having a loyalty above that of a nation, although Frost is wise enough not to discuss this in greater specificity given the treachery of so many of the people who had served in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations on behalf of the Soviets. In other talks the author talks about the lack of need for anxiety about the liberal arts, as well as the author’s taste in fooling, the importance of uncertainty and falling in love at first sight, matters like generalizations and walking and the importance of poetry in life. Most of the talks relate to the author’s thinking and writing, or the writing of others (like Milton and Emerson) that one would expect would be of importance to the scions of Puritan New Englanders.
I don’t think that there is very much within these pages that could be considered by anyone as life changing information. Frost’s talks are often pleasant and genial, they are sometimes rambling, and he tends to return to the same few poems of his to read over and over again, but given the lack of geniality in much of Frost’s body of work when it comes to his poetry, the geniality of his talks is enough to make this an enjoyable read. It is almost endearing when the author talks about the fact that he is a Democrat and “tried out” socialism (whatever that means) or comments on the sudden turnabout of American policy concerning Soviet communism. It is endearing when the author wishes aloud that he were honest, reminding the reader (and the listener) that he was not an obvious or particularly honest person whatever his wishes, and that his writing was full of artifice. The introduction to the book tries to undercut the importance of the work as a whole in demeaning the way that someone reading a conversation misses much of what happened in the author’s nonverbal communication, but the text provided is sufficient to convey that Frost was pleasant and enjoyable in conversation. Too bad his poetry wasn’t better in this regard.