DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Happy Birthday, Robert Frost

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.        

Fans of poetry will probably recognize the above 9 lines as written by Robert Frost, one of America's most studied, admired, and well-known poets. And, according to poet and former chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia, a recent survey has named "Fire and Ice" as the favorite poem of American college students.

Gioia, a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellow poet Eric Pankey, also a professor at George Mason University appeared at the Library of Congress of March 26 to celebrate what would have Frost's 139th birthday.

Frost is unique in that his poems appeal so strongly to writers, scholars of literature, and average readers, Gioia said. "His shorter works still seem fresh if you've heard them a hundred times," he added. 

Gioia talked at length of  Frosts's impact on his writing. "It was 1975. I was 24 and dropped out of Harvard grad school to pursue poetry in the evenings and weekends. The poet I studied most was Robert Frost. He changed the way I wrote."

The poet discussed the 4 main lessons he learned from his New England mentor, who also dropped out of school. "First, you should leave something out of every poem. That absence invites the reader to make the poem partly their own," Goia maintained. Secondly, Frost's poems were personal, but not overtly autobiographical. Thirdly, there is always "a shadowy subtext" in Frost's work. "The surface of the poem is only the beginning," Gioia said. And finally, the poem left arguments unfinished. "He left the central question hanging in the air. His poems don't conclude, they end."

For his own Frost-influenced work, Gioia recited "The Apple Orchard," "Pity the Beautiful," and "Majority."

Pankey, meanwhile, said that when he first began writing serious poetry in the 1980's, he would have said that he really had no strong connection to Frost.  "I had read very little Frost," Pankey said. However, on one of the blurbs on one of his 1st poetry volumes, a writer described Pankey's work as "not unlike that of a young Robert Frost. "I thought I better dig deep into Frost's work. I found that he had had a real hand-me-down influence. Almost all the writers who had influenced me had been influenced directly by Frost," he said.

Both Pankey and Frost employ meandering walks in many of their poems. "Frost was master of the meditative poem and these were not hikes; calculation is no part of the 1st stage of any of these walks," Pankey said. 

Pankey read Frost's "The Woodpile" which contains "the kinds of lines that makes one want to be a poet."
The DC author then read 2 of his walk poems "A Walk with Father"" and "A Line Made by Walks."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Although he was most closely associated with New England, Frost had several connections to Washington, D.C. For example, he served as a writing consultant (a post today which is called the national poet laureate) to the Library of Congress. However, Frost's most known tie to DC centers around his selection to read a poem at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the 1st time a poet had ever been selected for such an honor. Frost intended to read a new poem "Dedication," that he had written, but the sun's glare on that snowy January, 1961 day prevented him for reading his new work. Instead, he recited another of his poems, "The Gift Outright," from memory. The manuscript of that unread poem was on display as part of the Frost celebration.    
Frost reads with Kennedy and Eisenhower to his left

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