Vermont Reads: Robert Frost - An Unconventional Teacher

09/17/08 7:50AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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Dartmouth College Library
(Mitch Wertlieb) Robert Frost brought everyday language into his poetry -- an innovation for his time. As part of our series this week, we examine Frost's inventive techniques and his influence as an educator. VPR is collaborating with the Vermont Humanities Council's Vermont Reads program to focus on a single book. This year that book is "A Restless Spirit", The Story of Robert Frost by author Natalie Bober. I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

Inspired by his mother's innovative ideas about education, and to augment his meager income as a poet, Robert Frost turned to teaching. For a time he taught at his mother's private school. Later he taught at Pinkerton Academy in Hew Hampshire.

In 1917, he began teaching English at Amherst College in Massachusetts. And as author Natalie Bober observes, his methods were unconventional.

(Bober)"His teaching appeared to be informal. He was always late for class, yet angry if the students did not wait for him. He much preferred sprawling out on a couch at home to sitting in a chair in class for "teaching," and this he often did: "I don't teach," he once said. "I don't know how. I talk and I have the boys talk." The boys were read to read some of the minor authors-"The fellows who didn't blow their trumpets so loudly but who nevertheless sounded a beautiful note."

He believed very strongly that the only education worth anything was self-education. He said at Amherst that "some are self-made outside of college; some are self-made in college; but all are self-made if made to any purpose."

"Everyday I feel bound to save my consistency by advising my pupils to leave school. Then if they insist on coming to school it is not my fault: I can teach with a clear conscience."

Even Rob's posture seemed symbolic. He would sit slumped down in a chair, his legs spread out in front of him in his comfortable old-fashioned shoes. Every now and then his broad, hairy fingers would rub the blunt tip of his nose, or mess his thick graying hair.

But he gave much of himself to an eager student. He did not care how much they read or wrote. He cared only how they thought about what they had read:

"I want you putting two and two together, and I don't care a hurrah for anything else... As long as I stay around the college that will be my reason for staying. I have run away, you know. I ran away twice and I walked away a good many times..."

Amherst at that time was part college, part military camp, and the boys were confused. Rob brought a sense of stability and of peace to them, a sense of value to their thinking. But he was beginning to feel restless himself. When the boys asked him for a poem for their June 1918 issue of the Amherst Monthly, he gave them "The Runaway.

Once when the snow of the year was beginning to fall,

We stopped by a mountain pasture to say, "Whose colt?"

A little Morgan had one forefoot on the wall,

The other curled at his breast. He dipped his head

And snorted at" us. And then he had to bolt.

We heard the miniature thunder where he fled,

And we saw him, or thought we saw him, dim and gray,

Like a shadow against the curtain of falling flakes.

"I think the little fellow's afraid of the snow.

He isn't winter-broken. It isn't play

With the little fellow at all. He's running away.

I doubt if even his mother could tell him, 'Sakes,

It's only weather.' He'd think she didn't know!

Where is his mother? He can't be out alone."

And now he comes again with clatter of stone,

And mounts the wall again with whited eyes

And all his tail that isn't hair up straight.

He shudders his coat as if to throw off flies.

"Whoever it is that leaves him out so late,

When other creatures have gone to stall and bin,

Ought to be told to come and take him in."

(Wertlieb) Frost was a popular teacher. His students at Amherst were sure that when he wrote about a little colt spooked by the snow he was writing about them. And they loved him for it.

At the same time, Frost captured the essence of what it's like to fear the unknown - and the almost irresistible urge to run. And he did so in just twenty one narrative lines alternating image with colloquial speech, an innovation that he would put to good use in some of his most famous poems, like "The Death of the Hired Man."

Tom Slayton is Editor Emeritus of Vermont Life Magazine and a long-time appreciator of how Frost used the patterns of ordinary speech in his poetry. Slayton says it set Frost apart.

(Slayton) "In his early career, Frost was an innovator, and that's because he tried to capture the voice of everyday speech in his poetry. When Frost began writing, poetry in the Victorian mode - with elevated diction, thee and thou, the kind of poetry that sort of makes you wince today - was popular, and Frost wanted to create poetry in which you could hear common people speaking and he did that."

(Wertlieb) What about the simplicity of his poems, does that make it more accessible to the general public. Is that part of the reason for his popularity? 9:05

(Slayton) "Frost is accessible that's part of the reason he was so very popular, and yet even the simplest of his poems have depth. And they almost always hint at the universality of human experience."

(Wetlieb) Middlebury college professor Jay Parini, author of Robert Frost: A Life, imagines that Frost acquired his familiarity with the everyday speech patterns of Northern New England easily enough - but that he still thought long and hard about how to use them effectively.

(Parini) "All of the farmers would gather at the country store, and he'd sit there in Derry, New Hampshire and hear them talking and Frost found the poetry in their language and was able to imitate that language which was not his by birth by native acquisition. I would say he was like a convert to the beauty, the terrors, the glories the wonders of the North country, north of Boston, and he took up the collection, I mean he listened to the language and he found the beauty of that language, he looked around him, and saw this stunning imagery, these beautiful barns, these rolling hills, the spring pools, the snowy landscape in winter and he was able to make a poetry out of this astonishing imagery.

I think Frost's poetry was first a poetry of sound, he called it the sound of sense in some of his letters to his students. He said you know I call this theory the sound of sense, and he said there is in the English language, in syntax, the way the words hang together - remember syntax is the order of words in a sentence - and Frost said everybody in their natural speaking voice has a way of hanging words together, and there's a kind of poetry that's very idiosyncratic, in the way that every single person hangs words together. Frost also noted that in a region you have a sort of dialect going on, where people begin to talk in a certain way, and he heard the way these farmers in New Hampshire talked, later in Vermont, and he was able to somehow get that feeling into the poetry"

(Wertlieb) Middlebury Professor of English John Elder believes that Frost's ability to transform everyday speech - and give it poetic wings - lies at the heart of his enduring appeal.

(Elder) "Not only the simplicity that allowed him to connect vivid imagery and philosophical resonance but most fundamentally for me, the music, the way in which he could take strong meter, and engage it with colloquial cadences of speech, I think it means for other poets...he becomes more useful and more central, than some of the poets like Pound and Elliot who probably got more attention and were more celebrated say in the third quarter of the 20th century than Frost, I think he is emerging as both a poem who enriches our life in New England and who has resonance for lovers of poetry around the world."

(Wertlieb) The deceptive simplicity of his poetry, wasn't the only paradox in Robert Frost's life. We'll explore that thought further tomorrow. You can find more about Vermont Reads, this series and offer your own thoughts about Frost and his work on-line at VPR-dot-net.

Note: "A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost," by Natalie Bober, was published by Henry Holt, who is also the publisher of Frost's poetry.

Photo: Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.  Item Located in Rauner Special Collections Library.

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