Poetry and School
ROBERT FROST is the most distinguished living American poet. He was born in San Francisco, where his father, a New Englander with strong sympathies for the South, named him after Robert Lee. His mother was a teacher, and after her husband’s death she and young Robert moved back to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he was graduated from the high school. He studied for a time at Dartmouth and at Harvard; he worked in a Lawrence mill, as a schoolteacher, in a shoe factory, as a small-town editor, and finally as a farmer. But his inner dedication was to poetry, and in England in 1912 his first book of poems, A Boy’s Will, won immediate recognition for its fresh, quizzical American character. In his poems he speaks for the country at large; for three decades, he has talked and read to college students, and these remarks from his Notebooks show the glint of his philosophy.
by ROBERT FROST
WHY POETRY is in school more than it seems to be outside in the world, the children haven’t been told. They must wonder.
The authorities that keep poetry in school may be divided into two kinds, those with a conscientious concern for it and those with a real weakness for it. They are easily told apart.
School is founded on the invention of letters and numbers. The inscription over every school door should be the rhyme A B C and One Two Three. The rest of education is apprenticeship and for me doesn’t belong in school.
The chief reason for going to school is to get the impression fixed for life that there is a book side to everything.
We go to college to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven’t learned in High School. Once we have learned to read the rest can be trusted to add itself unto us.
The way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written. We may begin anywhere. We duff into our first. We read that imperfectly (thoroughness with it would be fatal), but the better to read the second. We read the second the better to read the third, the third the better to read the fourth, the fourth the better to read the fifth, the fifth the better to read the first again, or the second if it so happens. For poems are not meant to be read in course any more than they are to be made a study of. I once made a resolve never to put any book to any use it wasn’t. intended for by its author. Improvement will not be a progression but a widening circulation. Our instinct is to settle down like a revolving dog and make ourselves at home among the poems, completely at our ease as to how they should be taken. The same people will be apt to take poems right as know how to take a hint when there is one and not to take a hint when none is intended. Theirs is the ultimate refinement.
We write in school chiefly because to try our hand at writing should make us better readers.
Almost everyone should almost have experienced the fact that a poem is an idea caught fresh in the act of dawning.
Also that felicity can’t be fussed into existence.
Also that there is such a thing as having a moment. And that the great thing is to know a moment when you have one.
Also to know what Catullus means by mens animi.
Also to know that poetry and prose too regarded as poetry is the renewal of words.
Emotion emoves a word from its base for the moment by metaphor, but often in the long run even on to a new base. The institution, the form, the word, have regularly or irregularly to be renewed from the root of the spirit. That is the creed of the true radical.
Emotions must be dammed back and harnessed by discipline to the wit mill, not just turned loose in exclamations. No force will express far that isn’t shut in by discipline at all the pores to jet at one outlet only. Emotion has been known to ooze off.
Better readers, yes, and better writers too, if possible. Certainly not worse writers as many are made by being kept forever at it with the language (not to say jargon) of criticism and appreciation. The evil days will come soon enough, and we shall have no pleasure in them, when we shall have dried up into nothing but abstractions. The best educated person is one who has been matured at just the proper rate. Seasoned but not kiln dried. The starch thickening has to be stirred in with slow care. The arteries will harden fast enough without being helped. Too many recent poems have been actually done in the language of evaluation. They are too critical in spirit to admit of further criticism.
And this constant saying what amounts to no more than variations on the theme of “I don’t like this and I do like that” tends to aesthetic Puritanism. “For goodness’ sake,” said one teacher to a class, “write for a change about what you are neither for nor against.” When one bold boy asked if there could be any such thing, he was told he had flunked the course.
The escape is to action in words: to stories, plays, scenes, episodes, and incidents.
Practice of an art is more salutary than talk about it. There is nothing more composing than composition.
We were enjoined of old to learn to write now while young so that if we ever had anything to say later we would know how to say it. All there is to learning to write or talk is learning how to have something to say.
Our object is to say something that is something. One teacher once said that it was something at once valid and sensational with the accent on both. Classmates punish us for failure better than the teachers by very dead silence or exchanging glances at our expense.
One of the dangers of college to anyone who wants to stay a human reader (that is to say a humanist) is that he will become a specialist and lose his sensitive fear of landing on the lovely too hard. (With beak and talon.)
Another danger nowadays to sensitiveness is getting inured to translations. The rarity of a poem well brought over from one language into another should be a warning. Some translation of course in course for utility. But never enough to get broken to it. For self assurance there should always be a lingering unhappiness in reading translations.
The last place along the line where books are safely read as they are going to be out in the world in polite society is usually in so-called Freshman English. There pupils are still treated as if not all of them were going to turn out scholars.
The best reader of all is one who will read, can read, no faster than he can hear the lines and sentences in his mind’s ear as if aloud. Frequenting poetry has slowed him down by its metric or measured pace.
The eye reader is a barbarian. So also is the writer for the eye reader, who needn’t care how badly he writes since he doesn’t care how badly he is read.
It is one thing to think the text and be totally absorbed in it. There is however an ascendancy in the mood to spare that can also think ABOUT the text. From the induced parallel current in the mind over and above the text the notes are drawn that we so much resent other people’s giving us because we want the fun of having them for ourselves.
A B C is letters. One Two Three is numbers — mathematica. What marks verse off from prose is that it talks letters in numbers. Numbers is a nickname for poetry. Poetry plays the rhythms of dramatic speech on the grid of meter. A good map carries its own scale of miles.
For my pleasure I had as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.