By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, November 2013. Reprinted in Lovely, Dark, Deep: Stories
BREAD LOAF WRITERS’ CONFERENCE, BREAD LOAF, VERMONT. 18 August 1951.
HERE WAS THE FIRST SURPRISE: the great man was much heavier, much more solid-bodied, than I’d anticipated. You would not have called him fat—that would have been insulting, and inaccurate; but his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were a middle-aged woman’s fleshy thighs. The sensitive-young-poet face of the photos—(at least, the photos I’d affixed to my bedroom wall)—had coarsened, and thickened; deep lines now bracketed the eyes, as if the poet had too often scowled, or squinted, or winked to suggest the (secret) wickedness of the words he was uttering. The snowy-white hair so often captured in photographs like ectoplasm lifting from the poet’s head was thinner than any photograph had suggested, and not so snowy-white, disheveled as if the poet had only just arisen dazed from sleep. The entire face looked large—larger than you expect a poet’s face to be—and the thick jaws were covered in glittering little hairs as if the poet hadn’t shaved for a day or two. The eyelids were drooping, near-shut.
“Excuse me—Mr. Frost?”
My voice was tentative, apologetic. My heart had begun to beat erratically as some small, perishable creature—butterfly, moth—might beat against its confinement.
For here was the great man—so suddenly. In my nervous excitement I’d anticipated walking much farther along the path to the poet’s cabin in the woods—the “Poet’s Cabin” as it was called. I’d anticipated knocking at a door, and waiting for the door to be opened. (Surely not by the legendary Robert Frost himself but by an assistant or secretary? Widowed since 1938, as I’d made it a point to know, the poet would not have been protected by a wary wife, at least.) Instead, Mr. Frost was awaiting his interviewer outside the cabin on a small porch, slouched in a swing, seemingly dozing; slack-jawed, and a scribble of saliva on his mouth. In the bunched crotch of his baggy old-man trousers was an opened notebook and on the floor of the plank porch was the poet’s pencil.
Mr. Frost seemed to have drifted into a trance-like sleep in the midst of writing a poem. I felt a stab of excitement at such unexpected intimacy—Gazing upon Robert Frost asleep! And no one knows.
On a table beside the porch swing was a pitcher of what appeared to be lemonade and two glasses, of which one was a quarter-filled; a strangely loud-ticking alarm clock; and a dingy red flyswatter.
Quickly I glanced about: no one appeared to be watching. The receptionist whom I’d met in the Bread Loaf Conference Center at the foot of the drive had sent me unaccompanied to Mr. Frost—“You’re expected, Miss Fife. Just go on up to the Poet’s Cabin. And remember, you must not stay more than an hour, even if Mr. Frost is generous with his time and invites you.”
Primly this middle-aged woman smiled at me, and primly Evangeline Fife smiled back. Of course! Certainly ma’am.
The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as it was called, was a very busy place at this time of year; there were hundreds of visiting writers, poets, and students of all ages (with a preponderance of well-to-do middle-aged women). But this part of the grounds, behind the administrative offices and the white clapboard residences of the chief administrators, was cordoned off as PRIVATE.
Like an earnest schoolgirl I was carrying a large straw satchel weighted down with books, tape recorder, notebook, wallet. Out of this straw satchel came, now, quick into my hands, my newly purchased Kodak Hawkeye.
For it seemed that Mr. Frost hadn’t heard my faltering voice—hadn’t opened his eyes. In my shaky hands I positioned the camera—peered through the viewfinder at the shadowy figure within with its ghostly-white hair—dared to press the shutter. Very carefully then I wound the film to the next picture.
Like stopping to reload a shotgun, such photography was. You did not simply “take pictures” in rapid succession—each act of picture-taking was deliberate and premeditated.
How strangely vulnerable Mr. Frost looked to me, like an older relative, a father, a grandfather, whom you might glimpse lying about the house carelessly groomed and only partly dressed; it was said that the poet was vain of his appearance, and insisted upon exerting veto power over most photographs of himself, and so it was by chance I’d come upon him in this slovenly state between sleep and wakefulness, as in a hypnotic trance. On his bare feet, well-worn leather house slippers.
I smiled to think Maybe he is dreaming of—an interview? An interviewer who has come to him, in stealth?
In all, I took seven surreptitious pictures that afternoon of Mr. Frost slack-jawed and dozing on a porch swing. Sold to a private collector, resold to another collector, and one day to be placed in the Robert Frost Special Collections in the Middlebury College Library, discreetly catalogued Bread Loaf August 1951 (photographer unknown).
Taking Mr. Frost’s picture without permission was a brazen act, I know. I had never done anything remotely like this before in my life—at least, I didn’t recall having done anything like this: appropriated something not mine, that I believed to be mine; that I believed I deserved. Yet all this while I was trembling in dread of Mr. Frost waking and discovering me. Exhilaration coursed through my body like a swift, sexual shock—I will steal the poet’s soul! It is what I deserve.
IT WAS IN THE LATE SUMMER of 1951, when I was thirty-one years old and a candidate for a master’s degree in English at Middlebury College, that I drove to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference to interview Robert Frost for a special issue of Poetry Parnassus.
At this time, “Evangeline Fife” was a promising poet as well as an English instructor at the Privet Academy for Girls in Marblehood, Massachusetts, from which I’d graduated in 1938; since the fall of 1950, I’d been accepted into the rigorous master’s program at Middlebury College. It was my hope to advance myself in some way, if only by improving my teaching credentials that I might apply for a position at a four-year college or university. (Of course, it was clear to me that few women were hired for such positions, except at women’s colleges; and even there, men were favored. Still, I wished to think that I’d been encouraged by my professors in the Middlebury program; for I’d published poetry in several well-regarded literary magazines including Poetry Parnassus, whose editors I’d convinced to empower me to interview the seventy-seven-year-old Robert Frost.) My thesis advisor at Middlebury happened to be, not entirely coincidentally, the director of the summer Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he’d encouraged me in both my poetry and my academic studies; kindly Professor Diggs had intervened on my behalf with the famous poet who declined most requests for interviews—at least interviews with “unknown” parties and for little-known publications like Poetry Parnassus.
I was conscious of the great honor of being allowed to interview Robert Frost, the preeminent American poet of the era, and I prepared with more than my usual assiduousness. This meant reading, and rereading, virtually all of Frost’s poems, many of which, without having intended to, I’d memorized as a schoolgirl. As early as middle school my grandmother had read to me such Frost poems as “The Road Not Taken”—“The Death of the Hired Man”—“Birches”—“Mending Wall”—“Stopping by Woods” (Grandmother’s personal favorite). My English instructors at the Privet Academy had reinforced my admiration for Frost, and for poetry in general; at Berkshire College for Women, I majored in English, and published poetry in Berkshire Blossoms, which I edited in my senior year. As a junior instructor in English at Privet, I taught Robert Frost’s poetry alongside the poetry of Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Byron. Of course, I’d heard Mr. Frost read his poetry several times in Massachusetts and Vermont, always to large, rapturous and uncritical audiences. The atmosphere at these celebrated readings was reverential yet festive, for Robert Frost had become known as a Yankee sage who was also a Yankee wit—a “homespun” American who was also a seer.
Are you wondering what I looked like? No observer would have been surprised to learn that Evangeline Fife was a “poetess”—(as women poets were known at this time)—but it should certainly be noted that I was a pretty—quite pretty—young woman who’d always looked younger than her age which is, for women, the most satisfying sort of deception.
A man might enjoy being mistaken for being more sexually aggressive than he is, and richer. But for women, age is paramount.
It is true, I was not a strikingly beautiful woman, which would have involved an entirely different sort of strategy in confronting the (male) world—one far more cautious and circuitous—but my sort of wan delicate blond prettiness seemed preferable than beauty to many men. The striking beauty is the female a man can’t control in the way he might imagine he could control the delicately blond merely pretty woman who at thirty-one can still pass for a girl of eighteen.
Also, I was petite. Men imagine that they can more readily intimidate a petite female.
“Evangeline Fife” was not married, nor even engaged. This you would note immediately by glancing at the third finger of her left hand—which was bare. Like most girls and young women of her sort, of the era, Miss Fife was certainly a virgin.
By virgin is meant not simply, or merely, a physiological state but a spiritual state as well. Pure, innocent, unsullied, artless—these were adjectives that might have described me, and would have been flattering to me, as to any young unmarried girl of the time.
Though at thirty-one, and still unmarried, Evangeline Fife wasn’t exactly young any longer, I hoped that Mr. Frost, at seventy-seven, would see me differently.
“EXCUSE ME, MR. FROST? I am—Evangeline Fife? I have a—an appointment with you at one o’clock . . .”
Thrillingly my voice quavered. If you’d placed your forefinger against my throat, as the dozing poet might have been imagining he did, you would feel a sensuous vibratory hum.
The elderly poet’s eyelids fluttered and blinked open. For a startled moment Mr. Frost didn’t seem to know where he was—outside? On a porch swing? Had he been sleeping? And what time was this?
His first, fearful glance was at the alarm clock on the table beside the swing. From where I stood, I could not see the clock-face clearly but had an impression that the glass was glaring with reflected light. The clock was of slightly larger than ordinary size, trimmed in brass, with a look of a nautical instrument; its ticking was unusually loud, and seemed quickened.
The poet then saw me—blinking again, and even rubbing at his eyes. Ah, an attractive young stranger!—standing some ten feet in front of him in the grass, with fine-brushed pale-blond hair and widened “periwinkle-blue” worshipful eyes like a poetry-loving schoolgirl. As a portly peacock might do, quickly the poet took measure of himself, glancing down at his bulky body. His large hands lifted to pat down his disheveled hair, stroke his unshaven jaws, adjust his shirt where it swelled over his belt buckle. He frowned at me, and smiled, as a cunning look came into the faded-icy-blue eyes, and there emerged as through parted curtains on a brightly lit stage the New England sage “Robert Frost” of the famed poetry readings.
“Yes! Of course. I’ve been awaiting you, my dear. You are prompt—one o’clock. But I am prompter, you see, for I am already here.”
Unfortunately the notebook precariously balanced in the poet’s lap fell to the ground. Clumsy, flummoxed, and sensing himself not so nimble, Mr. Frost seemed disinclined to stoop over and pick up the notebook—so, with a little curtsey, I did.
(It was an ordinary spiral notebook, with a black marbleized cover. What I could see of the pages, they were covered in pencil scrawls.)
Mr. Frost seemed embarrassed, taking the notebook from my fingers. “Thank you, my dear.”
Very like a schoolgirl I stood before the poet whose gaze moved up and down my body with the finesse of a practiced gem-appraiser. It is always an anxious moment before a woman understands the male judgment—Yes! You will do.
(After much deliberation that morning, before setting off on my pilgrimage, I’d selected a pink-floral-print cotton “shirtwaist” with a flared skirt that fell below the knee. On my slender feet were black patent-leather “ballerina flats.” My pale-blond hair was brushed and gleaming and tied back with a pink velvet ribbon. Of course, the Kodak Hawkeye had vanished into my straw bag as if it had never been.)
Mr. Frost was murmuring what a lovely surprise this was, that the interviewer for Poetry was—me.
“So often the interviewer is beetle-browed and grim—if a young man; and thick-waisted and plain as suet—if female.” The poet chuckled mischievously, rubbing his hands together.
There was the Yankee sage. Yet more beloved, the mischievous Yankee sage.
A blush rose into my face. Being so complimented, at the expense of other, less fortunate interviewers was an ambiguous gift: to accept would be vain, to seem to decline would be rude. A young female soon learns the slitheringness of accommodation to her (male) elders, by a faint frown of a smile.
Yet I had no choice but to murmur an apology: “Except, Mr. Frost, it isn’t Poetry—but Poetry Parnassus.”
Mr. Frost grunted, he wasn’t sure he’d heard of Poetry Parnassus.
“You will be featured on the cover, Mr. Frost. As I’d explained in my letter.”
Still, Mr. Frost frowned. A sort of thundery malevolence gathered in his brow.
Quickly I said, “I mean—the entire October issue will be devoted to ‘Robert Frost.’”
This placated the poet, to a degree. He’d recovered something of his composure, placing the notebook on the table beside the swing, and taking up, in a playful manner, the red plastic flyswatter.
“And what did you say your name is, dear?”
“My name is—‘Evangeline Fife.’”
Mr. Frost gazed at me with mirthful eyes. “‘Evangeline Fife’—a truly inspired name. Is it authentic, or shrewdly invented on the spot, to prick the poet’s curiosity?”
What a strange question! My thin-skinned face, already blushing, grew warmer still. My reply was a stammer: “I—I am—my name is ‘authentic,’ Mr. Frost.”
“As authentic as ‘Robert Frost,’ eh?”
This was very clever! Or so it seemed to me. For Robert Frost was the ideal name for the individual who’d created the poetry of Robert Frost.
“Please have a seat, dear Miss Fife. Forgive an old man’s rudeness, for not rising with alacrity at your approach . . .”
Mr. Frost made a courteous little gesture, simulating the action of rising to his feet, without actually moving; and extending a hand to me in a gentlemanly manner, though it was imperative for me to come to him, to allow my hand to be gripped in his plump-dimpled hand, and shaken briskly.
With a little grunt Mr. Frost tugged me up onto the porch to sit beside him on the swing—but discreetly I took another seat in a rattan chair.
“I think, my dear, the cushion on that chair is damp?”
Belatedly, I realized that this was so. But I only just laughed airily and insisted that the chair was fine, for I did not wish to sit close beside the elderly poet on the swing.
Mr. Frost was slapping the flyswatter lightly against his knee. “If it becomes too damp, my dear, please tell me—we’ll find another place for your—for you.”
With mock primness the poet smiled. Wanting me to understand how he’d refrained from saying for your tender little bottom.
Embarrassed, I was about to turn on my tape recorder and ask my first question, when, as if he’d only now thought of it, Mr. Frost said,
“And who are the ‘Fifes,’ my dear?”
My heart sank in dismay. I’d never thought of my family and relatives as the Fifes—it was rare that I gave them much thought at all.
The poet’s faded-icy-blue gaze seemed to be pressing against my chest. I could not breathe easily. I managed to stammer a weak reply:
“My family and my father’s relatives live in Maine, mostly in Bangor.”
“Bangor! Not a hospitable place for the cultivation of poetry, I think.” Mr. Frost smiled at me, tapping the flyswatter lightly on his knee. “And your mother’s relatives, Miss Fife?”
“She—they—there were ancestors who’d lived in Salem, Massachusetts . . .”
Gleefully Mr. Frost said, “Ah, there’s a history, my dear! Were your mother’s Salem ancestors witch-hunters, or witches?”
“I—I don’t think so, Mr. Frost . . .”
“If you don’t know with certainty, it’s likely that your ancestors were witches. The witch-hunters were the ruling class of the Puritan settlements, and no one is ashamed of being descended from any ruling class.”
None of this made sense to me, entirely. Mr. Frost chuckled at my look of incomprehension. It would seem to have been an old, much-loved ploy of the poet’s—confounding an interviewer with questions of his own.
He’d folded his large hands over his belly, that strained the white cotton shirt above his belt. I had a glimpse of the elderly poet’s exposed navel, a spiraling little vortex of hairs around a miniature knob of flesh quaint as a mummified snail. Like a New England Buddha the poet reclined, a figure of complacent (male) wisdom.
Even as I asked Mr. Frost if we might begin our interview, he said, ignoring me, slapping the flyswatter against the palm of a hand, “‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’—the Americans understand this admonition, deep in their killer-souls. All that remains for our fellow citizens is to locate the ‘witch’ among us—for that, like the most vicious hunting dogs they require guidance.” Mr. Frost smiled with a strange sort of satisfaction. “‘I have a lover’s quarrel with the world’—but I would not really like it, if the ‘world’ had any sort of quarrel with me.”
In the way of a bull who is both rambling and aggressive, prone to whimsical turns the observer can’t predict, Mr. Frost reminisced at length on the subject of witch-hunting and witches and the “witchery” of the poet, for poetry must always be “a kind of code”; by this time I’d switched the tape recorder on, and had begun to take shorthand in my notebook as well, for I did not want to lose a single, precious syllable of Mr. Frost’s. I thought of Frost’s bizarre poem “The Witch of Coös”—the bones of a long-ago murder victim hiking up the cellar steps of a remote old farmhouse in New Hampshire, nailed behind the headboard of a marital bed in an attic—like an ancient curse stirring to life. If the poet had written only this singular poem—along with one or two other poems spoken by deranged New England narrators—the reputation of Robert Frost would be that of a master of gothic.
“Do you believe in witches, Mr. Frost?”
It was the bold desperation of the timid, such an awkward query, made when Mr. Frost paused for breath; and met with a disdainful frown such as an impertinent child might receive from an elder. With a sneering smile Mr. Frost said, “Poetry isn’t in the business of believing, Miss Fife. Believing is a crudeness that is the prerogative of other, lesser beings.”
These words were a sort of rebuff to my naïveté but I was eager to transcribe the startling aphorism, which was entirely new to me. If Robert Frost had uttered it previously, or committed it to writing, I was unaware of it.
Poetry . . . not in the business of believing.
Believing . . . a crudeness the prerogative of other, lesser beings.
(Very different from the “homespun” Frost so beloved by people like my grandmother!)
As Mr. Frost spoke, his faded-icy-blue eyes darted shrewdly about, and with sudden alacrity he wielded the flyswatter—crushing a large fly that had come to rest on a porch post nearby. The black, broken body fell into the grass.
“If only the ignorant ‘poetry-haters’ among us could be dealt with so readily!”—Mr. Frost chuckled.”
I was about to ask Mr. Frost if he felt that there were “poetry-haters” in the world, and who these individuals might be; I’d prepared to ask him about Shelley’s bold remark that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but had not a chance to speak for Mr. Frost then reverted, with the air of an elder teasing a captive child, to the previous subject of the Fifes—as if he were suspicious of my identity, or pretending to be so. Asking me when the Fifes had emigrated to the United States, and from where, so that I told him that, so far as I knew, the Fifes had come to America in the 1880s, from somewhere in Scotland.
Mr. Frost seemed just slightly disappointed. “Ah well—so ‘your Fifes’ are not guilty of persecuting witches, at least not in the New World! And ‘your Fifes’ obviously were not slave-owners, nor did they profit from the robust slave trade of pre–Civil War United States—as so many did, whose descendants are canny enough to change the subject when it comes up.”
“Yes, sir. I mean—no. They did not.”
“And where in Scotland did they come from, Miss Fife?”
My tongue felt clumsy in my mouth. For my mouth was very dry.
The poet’s perusal of me, the fixedness of his gaze, was making me feel very self-conscious; for it seemed to me that this was the way he’d been looking at the flies that buzzed obliviously about beyond his reach to swat. “I think—Perth, Inverness . . .”
Sharply Mr. Frost said, “Indeed! But not Leith?”
I had not dared claim this port of Edinburgh, for I knew that Frost’s mother had been born there.
“But have you visited Scotland, Miss Fife? Are you any sort of ‘Scots lass’?” The poet’s mouth twisted in a smiling sneer with the words Scots lass.
I told Mr. Frost that I was no sort of “Scots lass,” I was afraid, and that there wasn’t money for that sort of lavish travel in my family.”
“Ah, a rebuke! Let me assure you, dear, there wasn’t money for anything like that in the Frost family, either. We were all—very—as my poems indicate—very poor, and very frugal.” But Mr. Frost was laughing kindly, seeing the abashed expression in my face. “D’you like the verse of Robbie Burns? ‘O my Luve’s like a red, red rose That’s newly sprung in June; O my Luve’s like the melodie That’s sweetly play’d in tune.’” Mr. Frost recited the lines with exaggerated rhythm, sneering. “Gives doggerel a bad name, eh? All dogs might sue.”
Feebly I laughed at this joke. If it was a joke.
A bully is one who forces you to laugh at his jokes, even if they are not jokes. That is how you know he is a bully.
A knitted-look came into the poet’s forehead. The mocking eyes relented. “Though I will have to concede, Burns has written some decent verse, or rather—lines. ‘Ev’n you on murd’ring errands toil’d, Lone from your savage homes exil’d . . .’ The man felt strongly, which is the beginning of poetry.”
(A ripple of panic came over me: at this rate we would never get to the poet’s life, still less to the substance of the interview which was the poetry of Robert Frost. This, the man seemed to be hiding behind his back as one might tease a child with a treat the child knows is behind the back, and out of reach.)
Daringly I decided to counter with a question of my own:
“And where are your people from, Mr. Frost?”
But this was a blunder, for Mr. Frost did not like such contrary motions. Coldly he said: “That sort of elementary ‘biographical information’ you should already know, Miss Fife. In fact, you should have memorized it. I hope you’ve done some homework in your subject and don’t expect the poor subject to provide information that is publicly available.”
But for a moment I could not speak. I thought He will send me away. He will laugh at me, and send me away.
“Oh, Mr. Frost, I’m sorry—yes, I do know that you were born in San Francisco, and not in New England—as most people think. And your background isn’t rural—you lived in San Francisco until you were eleven, your father was a newspaperman—”
Irritably Mr. Frost said, “That is but literally true. In fact I have a considerable ‘rural background’—I was brought back east by my mother after my father’s untimely death and soon—soon I was farming—my paternal grandfather’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire. It was clear from the start that ‘Rob Frost’ was a natural man of the soil . . . a New Englander by nature if not actual birth.”
Shutting his eyes, leaning back to make the swing creak, Mr. Frost began to recite poems from A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, with perfect recall. These were: “Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile,” “After Apple-Picking” . . .
I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired.
The poet spoke in a soft, wondering, lyric voice. There was great beauty in this voice. The New England drawl with its spiteful humor had quite vanished. Now, it was possible to discern the young Robert Frost in the flaccid and creased face—the young poet who’d resembled William Butler Yeats and Rupert Brooke in his dreamy male beauty.
The poet ceased abruptly as if he’d only just realized what this final line from “After Apple Picking” meant.
Quickly I asked, “What does that line mean, Mr. Frost? ‘I am overtired . . .’”
“A poem’s ‘meaning’ resides in what it says, Miss Fife.”
The poet cast a look in my direction that, had it been a swat from the dingy red flyswatter, would have struck me flat in the face. As it was, I couldn’t help recoiling.
Frost’s second book, North of Boston, contained another of his early masterpieces, “Home Burial.” This poem, the poet never read to audiences. I asked him if the “man” and the “woman” in the poem were himself and his wife Elinor at the time of their first son’s death, in 1899, at the age of three; a death that might have been prevented except for the mother’s Christian Science beliefs. I quoted the powerful line, of the woman: “I won’t have grief so/If I can change it.”
Mr. Frost stared at me for a long moment, with something like hatred. His eyes were narrowed, his face contorted in stubbornness. There was no mistaking the man for the kindly New England bard. But he did not answer my question. As if this were an issue that had to be set right he reverted to his previous subject: “Only a poet who knew rural life intimately could have written any of my ‘country’ poems. There is no other poetry quite like them, in American poetry. In England, perhaps the poetry of John Clare, and Wordsworth—but these are very different, obviously.
“Yes, sir. Very different.”
“You see that, do you? Miss Fife?”
“Yes, sir. I think so . . .”
Mr. Frost tossed the flyswatter onto the table and was rubbing his large hands. I thought how curious, the backs of his hands were creased and elderly, but the palms smooth. A sly light came into the faded eyes. “I am wondering, Miss Fife—”
“Please call me ‘Evangeline,’ sir.”
“But you must not call me ‘Rob,’ you know. That would not be right.”
“Mr. Frost, yes. I would not presume.”
“I have been wondering, Evangeline—are you comfortable in that chair?”
I was not so comfortable. But quickly I smiled yes.
“You’ve not become just slightly—damp?”
My bottom was in fact damp, for the cushion was damp and had eked through the skirt of my dress, my silk slip, and my cotton panties. But I did not care to betray my discomfort.
“Your bottom, dear? Your delightful little bottom? Your white cotton panties—are they damp?”
I hesitated, stunned. I had no idea how to respond to the poet’s teasing query.
So shocked! My notebook nearly slipped from my fingers.
Seeing that he’d so discomfited his interviewer, Mr. Frost laughed heartily. He apologized, though not very sincerely: “I’m very sorry, my dear. My late wife chastised me for my ‘coarse barnyard’ humor. She was very sensitive—of course. But there are females drawn to such humor, I believe.” Mr. Frost paused, gazing at me. The faded-blue eyes moved along my (bare) slender legs another time to my (bare) slender ankles, lifted again to my legs, my (imagined) thighs inside the flaring skirt, and the cloth-covered belt cinching my small waist so tight, a man might fantasize closing his large hands about it.
“You might want to change your panties, Evangeline. And take another seat here on the porch, one without a damp cushion.” Again Mr. Frost patted the swing seat close beside him, and again I pretended not to notice.
I knew that Mr. Frost was teasing me. Yet, I had no other recourse than to say, with a blush, that I couldn’t “change” my panties since I didn’t have another, dry pair to put on.
“Really, my dear! You came to Bread Loaf to interview the revered Mr. Frost, with but a single pair of panties.” Mr. Frost laughed heartily, seeing how embarrassed I was. “Risky, my dear. Reckless. For you must know that the notorious womanizer Untermeyer is on the premises—and the young, dashing John Ciardi.” Mr. Frost peered at me, to see how I interpreted this ambiguous remark. (Of course, I had heard of Louis Untermeyer and John Ciardi, who were both poet-friends and supporters of Robert Frost; the poet was fiercely loyal to his friends, as he was said to be fiercely loyal as an enemy.) “And you are a poet—poetess?—yourself, I believe.” Mr. Frost lay back against the porch swing at an awkward angle, as if inviting another to lie back with him; the old swing creaked faintly. His fingers were stretched over his belly as over a ribald little drum. “Or is it the lack of foresight of an innocent virgin?” The words innocent virgin were lightly stressed.
Seeing that his coarse jesting was meeting with a blank expression in his wanly blond young-woman interviewer, Mr. Frost sighed, in an exaggerated sort of disappointment, and may have rolled his eyes to an invisible audience, that reacted with near-audible laughter. With a wink he said, “Well! You must be the judge, dear girl, of the degree of dampness of your panties. No one else can make that decision, I quite agree.”
Panties! What did the great man care about panties! I’d resolved to ignore these lewd remarks, as they were unworthy of a poet of such distinction; though of course, my tape recorder was recording everything Mr. Frost said.
My notebook was opened to the first page of questions, carefully transcribed in my neat schoolgirl hand, and numbered; but before I could begin, the mischievous old man peered at me again and said, “You are a ‘good’ girl, it seems, Evangeline! I should hope so. And what blue eyes! Of the hue of the New England ‘heal-all’—has anyone ever told you?”
Did Mr. Frost expect me not to know to which of his famous poems he was alluding? Shyly I said, “Except if the heal-all is white, Mr. Frost.”
“Eh! You are quite correct, my dear.”
The oblique flirtatiousness of the virgin poetess had taken Mr. Frost somewhat by surprise.
An ideal opportunity! The poet was gazing at me as if hoping to be surprised further. And so in my low, thrilled, schoolgirl voice I recited that brilliant chilling poem that begins—“I saw a dimpled spider . . .”
Yet, if you had ears to so hear, you could detect, in the interstices of the schoolgirl breathlessness, something very far from school, or girlishness.
At the conclusion of my recitation Mr. Frost laughed and took up the flyswatter. He struck the porch railing in raucous applause. He couldn’t have been more delighted if a small child had recited his poem without the slightest idea of its meaning.
“That is my most wicked sonnet, my dear. I’m frankly surprised you would have memorized it.”
I responded that “Design” was a perfectly executed Petrarchan sonnet which I’d memorized as a schoolgirl years ago—“Before I understood it.”
“And d’you feel that you understand it now, dear Evangeline?”
You little fool, trained in poetry by spinster schoolteachers, what do you know of me?
I was reluctant to take up this challenge. In my dampened undergarments I sat with meek-lowered eyes, turning over a page of my notebook, while on the table the alarm clock continued its relentless tick, tick-tock, tick-tick-tock—that would have been distracting except for the intensity of our conversation.
In a more serious tone Mr. Frost said: “In great poetry there is always something ‘signatory’—a word, a phrase, a break in rhythm, a stanza break—that is unexpected. No ordinary versifier could come up with it. In Emily Dickinson’s work, virtually every poem contains the ‘signatory’ element. In Robert Frost’s work, it’s to be hoped that many poems do. For you see, my dear, in reciting the poem, you blundered with one word—‘wayside.’ Instead, you recalled the more commonplace ‘roadside.’”
Was this so? I tried to recall, confused. Roadside, wayside?
The poet said, more kindly than chiding, “If you can’t sense the difference between the two words, you are not sensitive to the higher calculus of poetry.”
“Mr. Frost, I’m sorry! It was a silly mistake.”
“It was not a silly mistake, but a mistake of the sort most people would naturally make, trying to recall a ‘perfect’ poem. Of course, you could not recall, my dear Evangeline, because you could not have written the poem. As you could not emulate the conditions that give rise to the poem, originally: ‘a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.’”
The poet seemed satisfied, now. Mr. Frost was the sort of bully, very familiar to girls and women, who is fond of his victim even as he is contemptuous of her; whose fondness for her may be an expression of his contempt, like his teasing. He lay back in the swing, fingers folded over the Buddha-belly.
The sun was shifting in the sky: now, the afternoon had begun to wane. Overhead, a soughing in the treetops.
Half-consciously I’d been smelling something both sweet and mildly astringent—a smell of fresh-cut grass. There came to me a blurred memory of childhood, like frost on a windowpane through which you can see only the outline of a figure, or a shadow. The poet is the emissary to childhood, and all things lost. I thought He is not a wicked man, that he can lead us there. If only he would not misuse his power.
The ticking of the windup clock merged with cries of crickets in the tall grasses at the edge of the clearing. Uncertain what I should do, I glanced through my notebook pages, as Mr. Frost sighed, and stirred. He opened a single eye, and regarded me quizzically: “In your printed piece, I suppose you will mention the alarm clock, dear Evangeline? It’s because I hate watches, you see. Wearing a watch, as fools do, is like wearing a badge of your own mortality.”
These mordant words, I recorded in my notebook.
“The poem is always about ‘mortality,’ you see. The poem is the poet’s mainstay against death.”
In the trees overhead, that soughing sound that is both pleasurable and discomfiting, like a memory to which emotion accrues. Except we have forgotten the emotion.
Belatedly Mr. Frost offered me a glass of lemonade, which I poured for myself, as I replenished the poet’s glass as well; for Mr. Frost was one of those men who seem incapable of lifting a hand to serve themselves, still less others. This, I didn’t at all mind doing, of course, for I’d been trained to serve, especially my influential elders.”
I took a small sip of the lukewarm, oversweet lemonade. My mouth was very dry.
I resumed the interview with a friendly, familiar sort of question: “Mr. Frost, will you tell the readers of Poetry Parnassus what you hope to convey in your poetry?”
Mr. Frost laughed derisively. “If I ‘hoped to convey’ something, Miss Fife, I would send a telegram.”
Very good! I laughed, and wrote this down.
In my schoolgirl fashion I went through a list of questions aimed to draw from the poet quotable quotes which would be valuable to the readers of Poetry Parnassus, virtually all of them poets themselves. Pleasurably, Mr. Frost leaned back, his hands locked behind his neck, stretched and yawned and answered my questions in his New England drawl which was both self-mocking and sincere. Countless times the great poet had been interviewed; countless times he’d answered these very questions, which he’d memorized, as he had memorized his carefully thought-out replies. Unlike other poets who would have become restless, irritable, and bored being asked familiar questions, Mr. Frost seemed to bask in the familiarity, indeed like a Buddha who never tires of being worshipped. How different this slack-faced old man was from the dreamy-eyed poet in his early twenties, on my bedroom wall! Long ago he’d composed his aphoristic replies, worn smooth now as much-handled stones. Free verse—“Playing tennis without a net.” Poetry—“A momentary stay against confusion.” Lyric poetry—“Ice melting on a hot stove.” Love—“An irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” On invitations to poetry “festivals”: “If I’m not the show, I don’t go.” Opinion of rival Amy Lowell—“A fake.” Opinion of rival T. S. Eliot—“A fake.” Opinion of rival Ezra Pound: “A fake.” Opinion of rival Archibald MacLeish: “A fake.” Opinion of rival Wallace Stevens: “Bric-a-brac fake!” Opinion of rival Carl Sandburg: “Hayseed fake! Always strumming his geetar. Everything about Sandburg is studied—except his poetry.”
From time to time the vatic voice took on a sound of Olympian melancholy, as a god might meditate upon the folly of humankind from above. “Everything I’ve learned about life can be summed up in three words: ‘It goes on.’”
(Yet even these somber reflections, the poet presented to the interviewer as one might hold out, in the palm of his hand, the most exquisite little gems.)
“And what is poetry, Mr. Frost?”
“Poetry is—what is lost in translation.”
Mr. Frost paused, then continued, thoughtfully: “A poem is a stream of words that begins in delight and ends in wisdom. But, as it is poetry and not prose, it is a kind of music—a matter of sound in the ear. I hear everything I write.”
This I took up with a canny little query: “Do you mean you hear—literally, Mr. Frost? Words in your head?”
Mr. Frost frowned. Though he liked very much to be listened-to, he did not like being queried. “I—speak aloud—to myself. The poem is a matter of measured syllables, iambics, for instance, that produce a work of—poetry.” Abruptly he ceased. What sense did this make? The young woman interviewer gazing at him so avidly with her widened heal-all-blue eyes had become just subtly disconcerting.
“A poem is ‘sound over sense’?”
“No. A poem is not ‘sound over sense’—not my poetry! The babbling of that pretentious prig Tom Eliot might qualify, or infantile lowercase e.e. cummings—but not the poetry of Robert Frost.”
And again cannily I asked, “Do you ever ‘hear voices,’ Mr. Frost? As you are composing your poems?”
Mr. Frost frowned. The large jaws clenched. A look of something like fright came into the faded-icy-blue eyes. “No. I did not—ever—‘hear voices.’ The poet is not, as Socrates seemed to believe, in the grip of a ‘demon’—the poet is in control of the ‘demon.’”
“But there is a ‘demon’?”
“No! There is not a ‘demon’—this is a way of speaking metaphorically. Poetry is the speech of metaphor.” Mr. Frost was frowning at me, dangerously; yet I persisted, with my innocently naïve questions:
“But, Mr. Frost—what is metaphor? And why is metaphor the speech of poetry?”
The poet snorted with the sort of derision that would have roused gales of laughter in an admiring audience. “Dear Miss Fife! You might as well ask a mockingbird why he sings as he does, appropriating the songs of other birds, as ask a poet why he speaks as he does. If you have to ask, my dear girl, it may be that you are incapable of understanding.”
This scathing rejoinder would have eviscerated another, more subtle interviewer, but did not deter me, for I felt the truth of the poet’s observation, and did not resent it.
“But you have never ‘heard voices’ and you’ve never claimed to have ‘second sight’?”—I pressed these issues, for I knew that Mr. Frost would not volunteer any truth about himself that might detract from his image of the homespun New England bard.
“Miss Fife, I’ve told you—no.”
“And you’ve never had—‘second sight’?”
Scornfully Mr. Frost asked, “What is ‘second sight’?”
“The ability to see into the future, Mr. Frost. To feel premonitions—to prophesize.”
Mr. Frost snorted in derision. In his eyes, a small flicker of alarm. “Old wives’ tales, my dear. Maybe in your Scots family, but not in mine.”
Adding then, in a smaller voice, “Why would anyone want to ‘see into the future’! That would be a—a—curse . . .”
In the elderly poet’s face an expression of such pain, such loss, such grief, such terror of what cannot be spoken, I looked aside for a moment in embarrassment. Thinking But he is just an old, lonely man. It is mercy he deserves, not justice.
And for that moment thinking perhaps I would take pity on him, beginning by destroying the humiliating snapshots in my Kodak Hawkeye. Then, Mr. Frost resumed his bemused, chiding, superior masculine voice: “Miss Fife! Tell your avid readers that poetry is very mystery. Quite above the heads of all. No matter what the poet tries to tell you.”
But readily I countered: “Yet, the poet builds upon predecessors. Who have been your major influences, Mr. Frost?”
Mr. Frost looked at me startled, as if a child had reared up to confront him. “My—‘influences’? Very few . . . Life has been my influence.”
“But not Thomas Hardy?”
“Not Keats, not Shelley, not Wordsworth, not William Collins—”
“No! Not to the degree that life has been my influence.”
The thundery look in Mr. Frost’s face warned me not to pursue this line of questioning, for of all sensitive issues it is “influences” that most rankle and roil even the greatest geniuses, like the suggestion that others have helped them crucially in their careers. Yet I couldn’t resist asking why Frost had so low an opinion of Ezra Pound, who’d been extremely generous to him when he’d been a struggling unpublished poet when they’d first met in England.
Mr. Frost shut his eyes, shook his head vigorously. No comment!
“Was Ezra Pound mistaken, or some sort of ‘fake,’ when he said that A Boy’s Will contained ‘the best poetry written in America in a long time’?”
Mr. Frost’s eyes remained shut. But his large, lined face sagged in an expression of regret.
“Well—even a, a ‘fake’—can be correct, now and then.” Cautiously Mr. Frost opened one of the faded-blue eyes, his gaze fixed upon me in mock-appeal. “As a clock that can’t keep time is yet correct twice each twenty-four hours.”
Still, I wasn’t to be placated. My next question was a sharp little blade, to be inserted into the fatty flesh of the poet, between the ribs: “But, Mr. Frost, weren’t you once a friend of Ezra Pound’s?”
“Miss Fife, why are you tormenting me with Pound? The man is a traitor to poetry, as he was a traitor to his country. A Fascist fool, an ingrate. No one can estimate when he became insane—he’s insane now. Enough of Pound!”
“And what is your opinion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt?”
This was a sly question. For Mr. Frost’s Yankee conservatism was well known. Even more than Ezra Pound, “FDR” enraged the poet who stammered in indignation: “That—cripple! That Socialist fraud! ‘FDR’s’ brain was as deformed as his body! Tried to hide the fact that he wasn’t a whole man—the idiot voters were taken in. And his wife—homely as the backside of a gorilla! Socialism is plain theft—taking from those of us who work, and work damned hard, and giving what we’ve earned to idlers and shirkers. My wife Elinor, a sensitive, educated woman, nonetheless raved about ‘FDR’ that if she could, she would’ve killed him!—which suggests the man’s monstrousness, that he would provoke a genteel woman like Elinor Frost to such rage. You may call me selfish, Miss Fife—yes, I am a ‘selfish artist’ for I believe that art must be self-generated, and has nothing to do with the collective. ‘Doing good’ is a lot of hokum! I would not give a red cent to see the world ‘improved’—for, if it were”—here Mr. Frost’s voice quavered coyly, for he’d made this remark numerous times to numerous interviewers—“what in hell would we poets write about?”
My shocked response was expected, too. And my widened blue eyes.
“Why, Mr. Frost! You can’t mean that . . .”
“Can’t I! I certainly do, dear Evangeline. Have you not read my poem ‘Provide, Provide’—in a nutshell, there is Frost’s economic theory. Provide for yourself even if it means selling yourself—‘boughten’ friendship is better than none.” The chuckle came, deep and deadly. “Just don’t expect me to provide for you.”
“But—you are acquainted with poverty, Mr. Frost, aren’t you? Quite extreme poverty?”
“N-No? Not when you were a child, and later when you were married and trying to support a young family on your grandfather’s farm in Derry . . .”
“No! The Frosts were frugal, but we were not—ever—poor.”
“When your father died in San Francisco, your mother was not left—destitute?”
“Miss Fife, ‘destitute’ is an extreme word. I think that you are insulting my family. This line of questioning has come to an end.”
Mr. Frost’s face was flushed with indignation, of the hue of an overripe tomato. He’d been striking the swing seat beside him with the flyswatter as if he’d have liked to be striking me.
“You don’t think that we have a moral duty to take care of others? Did Wordsworth feel that way?”
“Wordsworth! What did Wordsworth know! The old windbag didn’t have to contend with our infernal IRS tax, Miss Fife! He did not have to contend with the slimy New Deal!”
Between us there was an agitation of the air. The very lemonade in my glass quivered, as if the earth had shaken.”
Seeing that the poet was about to banish me, having lost patience with even my wanly blond good-girl looks, I plunged boldly head-on:
“Is it true, Mr. Frost, that as a young man not yet married you were so depressed you tried to commit suicide in the Dismal Swamp of North Carolina?”
Mr. Frost’s cheeks belled in indignation. “‘Dismal Swamp’! Who has been telling you such—slander? It is not true . . .”
“Didn’t you suspect that Elinor had been unfaithful to you, and so you wanted to punish her, and yourself, in a Romantic gesture?”
“Ridiculous! It’s for effete poets like Hart Crane to commit suicide—or utter fakes or failures like Chatterton and Vachel Lindsay—not whole-minded poets. A man with a wife and a family to bind him to the earth doesn’t go gallivanting off and kill himself.”
“But your poems are filled with images of darkness and destruction, Mr. Frost. The woods that are ‘lovely, dark and deep’—except the speaker has ‘promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.’ The poem is obviously about a yearning to die, but a resistance to that yearning, and a regret over the resistance.”
“Balderdash, Miss Fife! Though you are a pretty lass, you are also a hysterical female. Reading into poems nasty little messages that aren’t there, like looking into a mirror and seeing a snake-headed female who is there, and who has your secret face.”
Vehemently the poet spoke, and not very coherently. The red flushed face swelled and throbbed as with an incipient stroke. Yet, I persisted: “Why don’t you ever read your ‘dark’ poems to audiences, Mr. Frost? Why only your perpetual favorites, which audiences have memorized in school? Are you afraid that they will be offended by the darker, more difficult poems, and wouldn’t applaud you as usual? Wouldn’t give you standing ovations, that so thrill your heart? Wouldn’t buy your books in such great numbers?”
Flush-faced Mr. Frost told me that I had no idea what I was saying. And that I’d better turn off the damned tape recorder, or he would smash it. “Enough! This ridiculous interview is concluded. I suggest that you leave now—exactly the way you’d crept in.”
Yet boldly I asked Mr. Frost about his patriotic poem of 1942, “The Gift Outright,” with its remarkable line “The land was ours before we were the land’s”—“Could you explain to the readers of Poetry Parnassus what this astonishing statement means?”
Mr. Frost had taken up the dingy red plastic flyswatter, tapping it restlessly against the swing railing. His voice was heavy with sarcasm: “Assuming the readers of Poetry Parnassus can comprehend English, I see no reason to ‘explain’ a single word.”
“Mr. Frost, this is indeed a provocative statement!”
“Damn you, ‘Fife,’ what are you getting at? Frost is not ‘provocative’—Frost is ‘consoling.’ Audiences have loved ‘The Gift Outright’ whether they understand it, or not. The poem tells us that our ancestors, who settled the New World, were ‘of the land’ in a way that later generations can’t be, because we are American citizens; and that the ‘land’—our country, America—is a ‘gift outright.’ It is ours.”
Seeing the expression on my face, which was one of utter transparency, the poet said, irritably, “Is it each individual word that perplexes you, Miss Fife, or their collective meaning?”
“Mr. Frost, the collective meaning of your poem seems to endorse ‘Manifest Destiny’—the right of American citizens to claim all of North America, virtually. It totally excludes native Americans—the numerous tribes of Indians—who lived in North America long before the European settlers arrived. British, Spanish invaders—‘Caucasians.’”
Mr. Frost cast me a smile of glaring incredulity. “Miss Fife! For God’s sake—are you seriously suggesting that Indians are native Americans?”
“Yes! They are human beings, aren’t they?”
“Human, but primitive. Beings, but closer to the animal rung of the ladder than to our own.” Mr. Frost tapped the flyswatter on his knee, with a dangerous squint of his eye. “You may put this in your interview, Miss Fife, that Robert Frost believes in civilization—which is to say the Caucasian civilization.”
“But, Mr. Frost, the indigenous people you call ‘Indians’ were the original native Americans. Caucasians from the British Isles and from Europe came to this continent as settlers, explorers, and tradesmen—with no respect for the native Americans living here, they appropriated the land, exploited and attempted genocide against the natives, and are doing so even now, in less obvious ways, in many parts of the country. And your poem ‘The Gift Outright,’ which might have addressed this issue with a poet’s sharp eye, instead—”
Smirking Mr. Frost interrupted, with a sharp slap of the flyswatter, “Miss Fife! ‘Genocide’ is a pretty hifalutin’ term for what our brave settlers did—conquered the wilderness, established a decent civilization . . .”
“But there was not a ‘wilderness’ here—there were Indian civilizations, living on the land. Of course, the original inhabitants were not city dwellers—they lived in nature. But—surely they had their own civilizations, different from our own?”
How surprised Mr. Frost was by the passion with which I spoke!
You might have thought, as Mr. Frost was possibly thinking, that there was something not quite right about this interviewer from Poetry Parnassus with her tape recorder and notebook and straw satchel who was persisting, despite the poet’s obvious agitation: “Mr. Frost—is it possible that your audiences have been deceived, and that you aren’t a ‘homespun New England bard’ but something very different? An emissary from ‘dark places’—an American poet who sees and defends the very worst in us, without apology—in fact, with a kind of pride?”
“And what is wrong with pride, Miss Fife!”
A fierce light shone in the poet’s faded-blue eyes. His breath came audibly and harshly. You could sense the old, enlarged heart beating in his chest like a maddened fist as in the throes of a combative sexual encounter at which the poet in his inviolable maleness did not intend to fail.
But the interviewer was suffused with a sort of ferocity, too. Squaring her slender shoulders, leaning forward so that her pale-blond hair fell softly about her face, daring to inquire in her throaty, thrilled voice that hardly seemed the voice of a young virginal woman: “Did you not once say, Mr. Frost, imagining that your remark wouldn’t be recorded, that you’d have liked never to see your children again—those who were living at the time, and causing you so much trouble; they were—are—‘accursed’—”
“I—I did not say that . . . Who has been spreading such lies? I—did not . . .”
“You’ve written about this—in your sly, coded poems. Your inability to feel another’s pain—your inability to touch another person. You’ve revealed everything in your poems that has been hidden in your heart. Which is why, in public, you deny your very poems—as one might deny paternity to a deformed or disfigured child.”
“This is false—this is wrong! I have tried to explain”—Mr. Frost drew a deep breath, shut his eyes tight and began to recite through clenched jaws—“‘To be too subjective with what an artist has managed to make objective is to come on him presumptuously and render ungraceful what he in the pain of his life had faith he’d made . . . graceful.”*
Primly Frost uttered these words, as if the statement should be sufficient to convince the interviewer; but the statement did not have the desired effect.
“Mr. Frost, what do those words even mean? That those who see in your poetry something of the terribly flawed and dishonest man who wrote the poems are charged with being ‘ungraceful’?—while the poet, who feeds like a vampire upon the lives of others, is imagined as being ‘graceful’?”
“But—that’s what poetry is.”
“Not all poetry! Not all poets. The subject today is you.”
“I—I—I have no reply to that, Miss”—the flyswatter had fallen from the poet’s fingers onto the ground. His fingers appeared frozen, claw-like as if cramped—“whoever you are, and wherever you are from—Hell . . .”
“But do you believe in ‘Hell,’ Mr. Frost?”
“I—I think that I do . . . I must . . . I believe—‘This is Hell, nor am I out of it.’ That grim and beautiful line of Marlowe’s, I do believe.”
This concession, rare for the poet, failed utterly to placate the interviewer, who pursued her panting quarry like a huntswoman and showed him no mercy.
“Mr. Frost. Do you remember when your daughter Lesley was six years old? When you were still a young man—a young father—living on that wretched farm in Derry, New Hampshire?—you wakened your daughter with a loaded pistol in your hand and you forced the terrified child to come downstairs in her nightgown, and barefoot, to the kitchen where the child saw her mother seated at the table, her hair in her face, weeping. Your wife had been an attractive woman once but, living with you in that desolate farmhouse, enduring your moods, your rages, your sloth, your fumbling incapacity as a farmer, your sexual bullying and clumsiness, already at the age of thirty-one she’d become a broken, defeated woman. You told the child Lesley that she must choose between her mother and her father—which of you was to live, and which to die. ‘By morning, only one of us will be alive.’”
“No. That did not—happen. . . . It did not.”
“Yet Lesley remembers it vividly, and will reproach you with the memory through your life, Mr. Frost. Is she mistaken?”
“My daughter is—yes, mistaken . . . My eldest daughter hates me without knowing me. She has never understood me . . .”
“And what of your daughter Irma, committed to a mental hospital? Why did you give up on Irma, when you might have helped her more? Were you exasperated and disgusted by her, as an extreme form of yourself? Your wild talk, your turbulent moods, your ‘dark places’? You gave up on Irma as you’d given up on your sister Jean years before. Mental illness frightens you, like a contagion.”
Mr. Frost protested, weakly: “I did all that I could for Irma, and for—my sister Jean. I could not be expected to give up my entire life for them, could I? All that I’d done, they felt no gratitude for, but were encouraged in their wildness and blame of me . . .”
“Why was poor Irma so obsessed with being kidnapped and raped? Forced into prostitution? You were scornful of Irma’s terrors, you’d told her bluntly when she was just a girl that she was so unattractive, she needn’t fear being raped; no man would be interested in her sexually; she wasn’t worth ‘twenty cents a throw.’ Later, to Robert Lowell, you said laughingly that Irma Frost couldn’t have ‘made a whorehouse.’”
“That is not true. That is—a lie, slander . . . Lowell was a sick, distressed person. I spoke to him in a way to lift his spirits, to entertain him. He’d thought that he was bad, but old Frost was badder. But none of it was meant to be taken literally . . .”
“And your son. Your only surviving son. He’d said, ‘My father is ashamed of me. My father has no more than glanced at my poetry, and push it aside.’ He’d said, ‘Sometimes I feel tight-strung—like a bow. I feel that I want to—that I must—be shot straight to the heart of . . .’ And your son’s voice would trail off, and he would hide his face in his hands.”
The interviewer spoke in a soft condemning voice. The poet stared at her, uncomprehending. Small hairs stirred at the nape of his neck. It was very hard for him to draw breath. Barely he managed to stammer, “Who? Who is—‘he’? Who are you speaking of . . .” A sensation of vertigo swept over him, the ground seemed to be opening at his feet. In desperation he’d snatched up the poetry notebook in both hands as if to shield himself with it.
“Mr. Frost, you know that he burnt his poetry. Fifteen years of poems. You’d thought so little of him, you’d never given him permission to live. He was always your ‘son’—you never relinquished him, though you never loved him. He was thirty-eight when he died of a gunshot wound to the head. He’d seemed much younger, as if he’d never lived. All he wanted was approval from you, a father’s blessing—but you withheld it.”
“I’ve told you—I don’t know what—who—you are talking about . . .”
“Your son, Mr. Frost. Your son Carol who killed himself.”
“My son did not—kill—himself . . . He died of a regrettable accident.”
“Your son you named with a ridiculous girl’s name, for some whim of yours. He was so unhappy with ‘Carol’ he changed it to ‘Carroll’—to your displeasure. It was too late, the damage had been done, as a young child he’d been marked. In his poetry he wrote of how you’d sucked the marrow out of his bones. You’d left him nothing, you’d taken his manhood from him. He knew your secret—you could never love any of your children, you could love only yourself.”
Frost shook his massive head from side to side, frowning. Deep rents in his ashy skin.
“I—I loved Carol. He knew . . .”
“You never told him you loved him! He didn’t know.”
“Carol was weak—immature. He was not a man. How then could he write genuine poetry? He was a versifier—his best poems were pale imitations of mine. He was a child who has traced drawings in Crayola. His rimes were stolen from mine—‘though’—‘snow’—‘slow’—‘near’—‘seer.’ Worse were his poems in which he’d attempted vers libre.” Mr. Frost laughed, a ghastly wheezing sound like choking. With the verve of a litigator arguing his case, the poet spoke with a righteous sort of confidence, though laced with regret: “My son thought that ‘no one loved him.’ Pitiful! His mind was one cloud of suspicion . . . his cloud became our cloud. Well, he took his cloud away with him. We never gave him up. He ended it for us—the protracted misery and obstinacy of a failed life.” A brooding moment, and then: “It was an error to marry—initiating a sequence of worse errors, the Frost children. Soon it came to me, though I thought I’d kept it a secret, that I didn’t care in the slightest if I ever saw any of them again—at least, after my dear daughter Marjorie died. She, I did love. I loved very much. Yet, what good was my love? I could not save the beautiful girl. She died as the child of anyone might have died—a disappearance. ‘The only sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake’—nothing more in nature than that, of grief. A poet ought not to marry, and procreate. That was the fear of my wife Elinor—she would drag me down into her mortality, and we would make each other miserable, which we did. Poetry is more than enough of ‘procreation.’ Life is the raw material, like dough—but it is only ‘raw,’ and it is only ‘dough.’ No one cares to eat mere dough.”
The poet’s large, slack-jowled face contorted into a look of sheer disdain, disgust. Astonishingly he reared up onto his legs, that barely held his bulk. The porch swing creaked in protest. The notebook fell from his lap, onto the grass. Like a wounded bull, suffused with an unexpected strength by pain and outrage, the poet swayed and glared at his tormentor. He was stricken to the heart, or to the gut—but he would not succumb. His enemies had assailed him cruelly and shamefully as they had through his beleaguered life but he would not succumb.
“You—whoever you purport to be—an ‘interviewer’ for a third-rate poetry journal—what do you know of me? You may know scattered facts about my ‘life’—but you don’t know me. You haven’t the intelligence to comprehend my poems any more than a blind child could comprehend anything beyond the Braille she reads with her fingertips—only just the raised words and nothing of the profound and ineffable silence that surrounds the words.”
Taken by surprise, the young blond interviewer stumbled to her feet also, a deep flush in her face; in dampened undergarments and schoolgirl floral-pink “shirtwaist” she gripped the straw bag, and backed away with a look of surprise and alarm.
Jabbing at this adversary with his forefinger the enraged poet charged: “You are nothing. People like you don’t exist. You’ve never been called the ‘greatest American poet of the twentieth century’—you’ve never won a single Pulitzer Prize, let alone several Pulitzer prizes—and you never will. You have never roused audiences to tears, to applause, to joy—you’ve never roused audiences to their feet in homage to your genius. Barely, you are qualified to kiss the hem of genius. Or—another part of the poet’s anatomy. All you can do, people like you, contemptible little people, spiritual dwarves, is to scavenge in the detritus of the poet’s life without grasping the fact that the poet’s life is of no consequence to the poet—essentially. You snatch at the dried and outgrown skin of the snake—the husk of a skin the living snake will cast off as he moves with lightning speed out of your grasp. You fail to realize that only the poetry counts—the poetry that will prevail long after the poet has passed on, and you and your ilk are gone and forgotten utterly, as if you’d never existed.”
The poet stumbled down the porch steps, not quite seeing where he was going. Something glaring was exploding softly—the sun? Blazing, blinding light? Overhead, an agitated soughing in the trees? He had banished her, the demon. His deep-creased face was contorted with rage. The faded-icy-blue eyes were sharpened like ice picks. In the grass, the poet’s legs failed him, he began to fall, he could not break the propulsion of his fall, a fall that brought him heavily to the ground, the stunning hardness of the ground beneath the grass; all his life he’d been eluding the petty demons that picked at his ankles, his legs; the petty demons that whispered curses to him, that he was bad, he was wicked, he was cruel, he was himself; all his life they’d tried to elicit him to injure himself, as his only surviving son Carol had injured himself, and succumb to madness. In the vast reaches of the Dismal Swamp he’d first seen the demons clearly, and retained the vision through the decades; how, in daylight, it is a temptation to forget the terrible wisdom of the Swamp, and of the night; but at great peril. He had blundered this time, but he had escaped in time. He was not going mad—but madness swept through him like a powerful emetic.
Somehow, he was lying in the grass. Gnats flung themselves against his damp eyes. He’d fallen from a great height, like a toppled statue, too heavy to be righted. His fury was choking him. Like a towel stuffed down his throat. Somewhere close by a clock was ticking loudly, mockingly. He would grab hold of the damned clock and throw it—but the taunting girl-interviewer had vanished.
His notebook! Precious notebook! It had slipped from his fingers, he strained to reach it, to hold against his chest. Strangely it seemed that he was bare-chested—so suddenly. The shame of his soft, slack torso, the udder-like breasts, was exposed to all the world. He could not call for help, the shame was too deep. The poet was not ever a weakling to call for help. The obstinacy of his aging flesh had been a source of great frustration to him, and shame, but he had not succumbed to it, and he would not.
Just barely, the poet managed to seize hold of a corner of the notebook. The strain of so reaching caused him to tremble, to quaver—yet, he managed to draw the notebook to him, and to press it against his chest. His loud-thumping heart would be protected from harm, from the assault of his enemies. For here was his shield, as in antiquity—the warrior has fallen, but is shielded from the pain of mortality.
“Mr. Frost? Oh—Mr. Frost—”
Already they’d found him, he’d had scarcely time to rest. He was unconscious, yet breathing. The great poet fallen in wild grass in front of the Poet’s Cabin at Bread Loaf, Vermont, in a languorous late-afternoon in August 1951.
Yet, the poet was breathing. No mistaking this, the poet was breathing.
This is a work of fiction, though based upon (selected) historical research. See Robert Frost: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers (1996).
The Frost poetry quoted in this story is from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (Henry Holt, 1969).
* From Robert Frost and Sydney Cox: Forty Years of Friendship by William R. Evans (University Press of New England, 1981).
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.