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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Frost’

19 FEBRUARY, 2015

How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay: Robert Frost’s Letter of Advice to His Young Daughter

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“The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White wrote in the foreword to his collected essays. Annie Dillard sees things almost the opposite way, insisting that essayists perform a public service — they “serve as the memory of a people” and “chew over our public past.” Although he had never written an essay himself, the advice Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Frost (March 26, 1874–January 29, 1963) offered to his eldest daughter, Lesley, not only stands as an apt mediator between White and Dillard but also some of the most enduring wisdom on essay-writing ever committed to paper.

During her junior at Amherst College, Lesley shared her exasperation over having been assigned to write an academic essay about a book she didn’t find particularly inspiring. In a magnificent letter from February of 1919, found in The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1 (public library), the beloved poet gave his daughter sage counsel on her particular predicament, emanating general wisdom on writing, the art of the essay, and even thinking itself.

Five years before he received the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes, 45-year-old Frost writes:

I pity you, having to write essays where the imagination has no chance, or next to no chance. Just one word of advice: Try to avoid strain or at any rate the appearance of strain. One way to go to work is to read your author once or twice over having an eye out for anything that occurs to you as you read whether appreciative contradictory corroborative or parallel…

He speaks to the notion that writing, like all creativity, is a matter of selecting the few thrilling ideas from the lot of dull ones that occur to us — “To invent… is to choose,” as French polymath Henri Poincaré famously proclaimed. Frost counsels:

There should be more or less of a jumble in your head or on your note paper after the first time and even after the second. Much that you will think of in connection will come to nothing and be wasted. But some of it ought to go together under one idea. That idea is the thing to write on and write into the title at the head of your paper… One idea and a few subordinate ideas — [the trick is] to have those happen to you as you read and catch them — not let them escape you… The sidelong glance is what you depend on. You look at your author but you keep the tail of your eye on what is happening over and above your author in your own mind and nature.

The Frost family in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, 1915: Elinor and Robert, Lesley and Irma, Marjorie and Carol (University of Virginia Library)

Reflecting on his days as an English teacher at New Hampshire’s Pinkerton Academy, Frost points to precisely this over-and-above quality as the factor that set apart the few of his students who mastered the essay from the vast majority of those who never did. (Although by the time of his tenure the Academy officially accepted young women, Frost’s passing remark that his class consisted of sixty boys reveals a great deal about women’s plight for education.) He writes:

They seem incapable of the over-and-above stuff. I think maybe it goes on in their heads as they read but they are incapable of catching it. They are too directly intent on the reading. They cant get started looking two ways at once. I think too they are afraid of the simplicity of many things they think on the side as they read. They wouldn’t have the face to connect it in writing with the great author they have been reading. It may be a childhood memory; it may be some homely simile; it may be a line or verse of mother goose. They want it to be big and bookish. But they haven’t books enough in their heads to match book stuff with book stuff. Of course some of that would be all right.

Indeed, in many ways Frost’s advice on essay-writing is really advice on reading — that mutuality of thought between reader and writer, pulsed through by the book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” Echoing Virginia Woolf’s dictum on how to read a book, Frost offers counsel so passionate that it becomes almost a stream-of-consciousness prose poem, barely punctuated:

The game is matching your author thought for thought in any of the many possible ways. Reading then becomes converse — give and take. It is only conversation in which the reader takes part addressing himself to anything at all in the author in his subject matter or form. Just as when we talk together! Being careful to hold up our end and to do our part agreeably without too much contradiction and mere opinionation. The best thing of all is going each other one better piling up the ideas anecdotes and incidents like alternating hands piled up on the knee. Well its out of conversation like this with a book that you find perhaps one idea perhaps yours perhaps the book’s that will serve for other lesser ideas to center around. And there’s your essay.

He lands from this poetic elation into some practical advice:

Be brief at first. You have to be honest. You don’t want to make your material seem more than it is. You won’t have so much to say at first as you will have later. My defect is in not having learned to hammer my material into one lump. I haven’t had experience enough. The details of essay won’t come in right for me as they will in narrative. Sometimes I have gotten round the difficulty by some narrative dodge.

[…]

Take it easy with the essay whatever you do. Write it as well as you can if you have to write it. Be as concrete as the law allows in it — concrete and experiential. Don’t let it scare you. Don’t strain. Remember that any old thing that happens in your head as you read may be the thing you want. If nothing much seems to happen, perhaps another reading will help. Perhaps the book is bad or is not your kind — is nothing to you and can start nothing in your nature one way or another.

He interjects a meta-remark on the nature — and naturalness — of the essay form:

Of course this letter is essay. It is material that has come to the surface of my mind in reading just as frost brings stones to the surface of the ground.

At the very end, before signing off “Affectionately Papa,” Frost can’t resist taking a little jab at the essay, voicing the sentiment that seems to explain his own lifelong resistance to partaking in the genre:

I don’t know you know whether its worth very much — I mean the essay — when you have it written. I’m rather afraid of it as an enemy to the really creative writing that holds scenes and things in the eye voices in the ear and whole situations as a sort of plexus in the body (I don’t know just where).

Robert Frost with his daughter Lesley (left) and her two children, 1945

Lesley grew up to be an author herself, albeit not of essays — she published two books of stories for children: Really Not Really in 1962, published mere months before her father’s death, and Digging Down to China in 1968.

In its portly 850-page totality, The Letters of Robert Frost is a trove of writerly wisdom and heartwarming parental advice to the poet’s six children, of whom Lesley and her sister Irma outlived their father. Complement it with Frost’s beautiful poem on art and government, which he intended to but didn’t read at JFK’s inauguration, and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing in a letter of advice to his own daughter, then revisit this growing library of writers’ advice on writing.

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22 JANUARY, 2013

On Art and Government: The Poem Robert Frost Didn’t Read at JFK’s Inauguration

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“Summoning artists to participate / In the august occasions of the state / Seems something artists ought to celebrate.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested poet Robert Frost, who had been appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1958, participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. JFK asked Frost to either compose a bespoke poem for the occasion or read “The Gift Outright,” written in the 1930s and published in 1942. Frost responded to JFK’s invitation with bold enthusiasm in a telegram sent the following day:

If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — the arts, poetry — now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen. … I am glad the invitation pleases your family. It will please my family to the fourth generation and my family of friends and, were they living, it would have pleased inordinately the kind of Grover Cleveland Democrats I had for parents.

As Natalie Bober writes in A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost (public library), Frost had planned to read “The Gift Outright” — which he once described as “a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse” — but once he arrived in Washington two days prior to the inauguration, the 86-year-old poet got so absorbed in the excitement that he decided to compose an additional poem and recite it before the one already planned. Titled “Dedication,” it was at once a celebration of JFK’s slim victory over Nixon (“The greatest vote a people ever cast, / So close yet sure to be abided by.”) and a wider ode to the dream of including the arts in government at the dawn of the “next Augustan age,” framing investment in the arts as an essential part of patriotism and democracy.

'Dedication' by Robert Frost, handwritten and signed by the author, January 20, 1961.

Image courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

DEDICATION

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood,
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison
So much they saw as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what not appears,
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.

Robert Frost recites 'The Gift Outright' for John F. Kennedy in 1961

Image courtesy The New York Times

Once Frost completed the 42-line poem, however, he realized he had no time to memorize it — he’d have to read it instead. But on the white winter day of the ceremony, he ran into some meteorologically induced technical difficulties: The sun’s glare in the surface of the snow was so bright that the poet couldn’t read the text past the third line. Armed solely with his memory, he was able to recite the familiar “The Gift Outright” only. Per Kennedy’s request, however, Frost changed the last line from “Such as she would become” to the more assertively hopeful “Such as she will become.”

Though a recording from the actual inauguration doesn’t appear to survive, this reading by Frost himself approximates the occasion as fully as one could hope:

“Dedication,” which was eventually retitled to “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration,” and “The Gift Outright” both appear in Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (public library).

Open Culture & Poetry Foundation

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