Between Prose and Verse
ROBERT FROST, reciting his poems and commenting on poetry in general, has been the high point of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference since its inception at Middlebury College. Among those who were invited to attend last summer was Mrs. Elsie Masterson, the author of OFF MY TOES, who look stenographic notes. After an introduction by John Ciardi, the director of the conference, this is what Mr. Frost said.
You don’t have to know how to spell to write poetry. You can be rather loose in your syntax as far as I am concerned. You don’t have to know how to punctuate at all. Poe has nothing but dashes in his poems because he left punctuation to his printers. They kept too many of his dashes.
You don’t need to know how to punctuate. I am proud 1 can write a telegram without putting the word “stop” in it. If I can’t do that, I don’t know how to write anything. I go that far.
And then you have to begin with something. You have to know how you write in free verse and in regular verse. You have to know that borderline between prose and verse and feel for it. And then you have to know something about the way verse has been written. You don’t have to know all those forms. You just have to know strict iambic and loose iambic. That’s all I know. You look at my poems.
Then you have to know what an idea is, in a joke or in a poem. You have to know how to make a point, to point up an idea. You have got to know the difference between an idea that will do in prose or in talk and all that, and one that is more poetical. I think you can go as deep as philosophy goes. You look for philosophy in the newspapers. It is one of my interests to see who writes the spirited editorials. I think of one. He is the front-page editorial man on the Atlanta Constitution, a brave man. He knows the difference between Southerners who take the Civil War wrong and those who take it right. He does it with a good deal of emotion. Anyway, poetry is not prose. It has to be a passionate thought.
The way to know about that is to read the beginnings of poems, see how they begin, how they launch out. See how soon they launch you into feeling, tone, air. That’s all there is to it. It sounds simple. All you have to do is do it.
I have often tried to tell what an idea is. It is a feat of association. That’s one of my definitions for it. It reaches its height in a good metaphor. Many metaphors are unemotional. Every philosopher has one big metaphor in him. That is all he has. One says the world is like unto that in man which is called “reason.” That’s the whole thing in Plato. Schopenhauer says the universe is like unto that in man which is called “will.” Darwin’s one thought is “natural selection” — the universe is a selective thing. Then he writes books on books to elaborate that. Nothing more to it. You can go right down the list.
The latest is, it is like unto that in man which is called “number.” All can be reduced to number. Count it. You have got to get a number and sec how many times it multiplies, and that’s the universe. Another of Plato’s figures of speech is that everything we have here is an imperfect copy of something somewhere else. If you sit in a chair, it is an imperfect copy of something somewhere else. Figures are daring. Effrontery is part of it. No figure has ever caught the whole thing.
You can see people nowadays trying to make one world. They try to decide what you would make it out of. Love. That is terrible, because hate is almost equal. There is no unity. We used to say money is the root of all evil. I saw a book called Love Is the Root. It went through my head when I looked at it that love is the root of all evil — one natural progression of the thought.
THE strange thing is how tonal poems have to be. Prose doesn’t need to be so tonal, but poetry has two things, meter and rhythm. Meter is a set thing, like a tennis court or a checkerboard, and on it you perform with rhythm. Neither of these is the poem. It is the stress of one on the other that lifts a sound from it, a tone from it, that is the poem.
I could take the Oxford Book of Verse and just dip around in it anywhere. I don’t think I will do that, but I have got it with me, in case.
[Mr. Frost reads one or two poems, one, “ The Road Mot Taken.” He speaks of the sounds and the rhythms and the tones.]
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference;
When they want me to lay it on thick, they like me to say one of my own, “Provide! Provide!”
Now I want to be talked to. You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country. I don’t want that to go too far. It all comes down to, every good thing you say is a dip for depth. You can or you can’t. Some have it, and some don’t. Some can write prose and think away in it, but it has got to be as deep as you can go in thought and take your emotions with you. The amusing part of my saying all this is that it doesn’t matter at all. You probably know all about it.
I can tell when I get a little book of poetry or look at a manuscript: first thing, is it doing anything to my ear in some way of its own? Is it being successful in the relation of rhythm and meter? I can make short work of it; one or two poems and I can tell whether the person knows what it’s all about. If I’m wrong, try the poem on another reader! I am always interested in whether the rhymes seem successful. I don’t want it to look as if it’s giving the writer trouble.
QUESTION. Was it Emerson as a philosopher or as a poet that most attracted you?
MR. FROST. Emerson is the same person in his poetry as in his prose. There is a touch of melancholy that is just right. “Evil will bless and ice will burn.” Emerson is a real poet in prose or verse. I heard that some teacher had trouble teaching Emerson in a college. He told me the boys came and said, “You cannot put that old stuff over on us.” He let them get away with it. He ought to have shot them all! Emerson is clever and witty. All sorts of thoughts. He throws his weight about in all sorts of thinking.
QUESTION. I was interested in your using rhythm and meter together. What do you think of free verse, which has rhythm but no meter? How do you feel about it?
MR. FROST. It’s quite a difficult thing. Prose can have rhythm and meter. But it does not have those two acting on each other, the rhythm acting on the meter.
Let’s put this straight. First of all, the coupling that moves you, that stirs you, is an association of two things you don’t expect to see associated. The words used to be “surprise” and “inevitability.” You can get that in prose. There is much great prose. When prose is the way it ought to be, it has rhythm. The other kind of prose is declare, declare, declare until you don’t know what to do with your voice when you’re reading it.
I am not asking for poetry. I can read Charles Lamb aloud to everybody. Other prose — I get sick of it before reading too far. You read it to yourself. That’s the difference between a lecture read from a piece of paper and an extemporaneous talk. The littlest lyrics have this drama in them. Poetry gives your voice so many ways of behaving — cutting up with your voice.
That’s very important, you know, in all our writing. In all the darn stuff I ever read in theme papers, it was as if there was no esprit in them, I once said to the class, “I’m not going to read them any more.” I’m no perfunctory reader of perfunctory writing. I come here with a certain eagerness to tell you something, I tell my class. I want some of them to tell me something. I say, “Haven’t you anything to tell me? Haven’t you seen into anything lately? Seen through anything lately?”
QUESTION. How do you penetrate a poem that you don’t understand?
MR. FROST. How do you penetrate a lunkhead?
One of your prides in life is that you know what’s going on on any page. If I’m not smart enough, I miss it. I don’t waive judgment. I don’t say, I’m not up to that. Somebody’s to blame, and it’s not me!
You take certain kinds of things that you see. I don’t like loathsomeness in a poem. I’d just as soon step into something nasty on the street, if you know what I mean. I don’t like botheration. The emotion of being bothered is no emotion. It’s got to be amusement. It’s one on me, for instance, if this world has to be ruled; if it gets so that it can only be managed by socialism, it would be one on me. I’d write a funny poem about myself. It amuses me that some of my friends say I have got to face it — overpopulation. One of the nice things that might happen; we might die from being too many, too close quarters. It would be one on me.
QUESTION. What do you read today for pleasure?
MR. FROST. Lots and lots.
A young poet came to see me and asked me why I never mentioned him on the platform. I said, “My dear boy, I never mention anybody but Shakespeare!” When I was teaching, I never said “very good” on papers; I couldn’t say good or bad to my students. They knew I was interested in the paper they wrote. If it arouses a thought in me, that’s the great thing. I am not going to stand up here and tell you who can and who cannot write. You can tell something if you watch my life, whom I associate with, whom I quote a little, who comes into my thoughts. You can say they can all go down the sinkhole but Shakespeare.
I was talking with Mr. Nims the other day about giving grades. It is hard to tell the difference between A, B, C, and D. I can tell triple A, but I cannot tell the difference between A, B, C, and D. I haven’t that kind of discrimination.
It makes me laugh to hear, “You were pretty good, considering you were a freshman; you were pretty good, considering you were a sophomore; a junior; considering you had only two years in graduate school.” It is nothing at all. Most deceptive. There is good and not good. Keats was writing the same as he ever did, very early. So was Shelley. All of a sudden, he was doing it. You could have marked him A, good enough. I used to pass the students in my classes, after I had bothered them a year; I’d pass them out of pity so they wouldn’t have to take the course again. I used to ask too much of them. I’d let them get by. I have been very, very, very terrible.
I remember talking to a class, a little group I had once. I said, I don’t want to see anything you’ve written until it has some age on it. Get at it. Get writing so you can have something to select from later. One of them said, “If I kept it awhile, I wouldn’t show it to you; I’d throw it away.” I said, “That’ll save me from throwing it away.”
There was one fellow — I don’t know where he is now, but he became a professor. I started talking to him about using his own judgment. The most terrible thing is your own judgment. He set out suffering. I never saw the writing at all. He let me think he was suffering agonies. Never wrote anything.
One day I said to him, “Bill,” I said, “you haven’t written anything, have you?” He said, “No, sir.” I said, “Now, look, we’ve done this on the high too long. You want to graduate?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Now we’re goin’ to do it on the low. I’m not going to read what you write. But you’re going to deliver to me so many pounds of it to weigh.”
One night he came over to me in the library, where I was sitting with a student, and produced another pound. My friend waved him out. We were groping our way out of the building later (the lights were turned off); we saw a light under a door. I opened the door. There was a long table, a big brass projector, and there was this fellow asleep, waiting for me.
I had put him through a lot of agony, so he deserved to graduate.
QUESTION. Does the American poet have a special opportunity or challenge?
MR. FROST. There is no challenge except the challenge of life to pull off something that is something. What is the idea? If you remember only one thing I’ve said, remember that an idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor. If you have never made a good metaphor, then you don’t know what it’s all about. You save an argument sometimes by using a figure they haven’t time to attack or answer.
The first thing I ever wrote was a ballad. It was written hell for leather. It had a heroic sound. It was all heroes. It is heroic. Brave. That is the greatest emotion of all, to be brave. Brave.
QUESTION. Some years ago you reported a world series game for Sports Illustrated magazine. Can you tell us why you did it and something about it?
MR. FROST. The latest book I bought is an encyclopedia of the world series. You know what I was looking for in it? When I was away, out of the country, the world series was won by the Boston Braves, in 1914. One of the pitchers was a boy I knew, Lefty Tyler. The Braves came up from the bottom. He is only mentioned once in the encyclopedia, but there were three pitchers that day, one for the other side and two for the Braves. One of them was James; the other was Lefty Tyler. Whether he pulled James out of it, or James pulled him, I don’t know. My hero.
I am always interested in games. When I get a newspaper, I look at the front page first to see how they’re behaving in Brazil. I know Brazil, I’ve been down there. Then I look at the editorial page, if it’s readable. Then I look at the sports page. Then I look at the zigzag on the stock exchange to see how the world’s going. Those are my four things, my four interests. And I don’t read the comic strips. Not very much, unless someone recommends a very good one to me.
QUESTION. Which of your own poems do you like best?
MR. FROST. Ask a mother which of her children she likes best. She won’t tell you.
I have no favorite poems, and if I had, I wouldn’t tell you. I want to be fair to my poems.
QUESTION. May we ask for our favorite poem, “The Gift Outright”?
THE GIFT OUTRIGHT
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
It is as poetic as I ever get.
Time’s gone. We have had enough of each other, me and you. So, good-by.
For sixteen years the ATLANTIC has held out a special incentive to short story writers. In January, 1946, we began to publish what we called Atlantic “Firsts short stories by unestablished writers making their first appearance in our pages. We are happy to announce the following prize winners for 1961.
First prize of $750 awarded to
for “Familiar Usage in Leningrad”
in the July issue
Second prize of $250 awarded to
for “The Tender Mercies”
in May issue