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.'