It Takes a Hero to Make a Poem

LEWIS: Mr. Frost, when I think about the way you write, the language you use seems entirely a language of your own; and in your first book you seem to have started writing this way without apparently any influence from anyone else.

FROST: You can see in some poems some lingering words "fain" and "list" that I was getting rid of, that I was ashamed of to begin with.

LEWIS: Yes, but you got rid of those pretty fast, I think.

FROST: Yes.

LEWIS: But the - the poem "Mowing"...

FROST: "Mowing"? Yes, now that's perfectly clear, straight goods -- mine.

LEWIS: But that seemed to set the style, and you never felt any need to alter it much?

FROST: No, I don't remember thinking much about style except that I was ashamed at "thee" and "thou" and "thine" and such things as that: that I'd dropped them without any - without thinking much about it.

LEWIS: Yes.[. ..] When I re-read your poems to write an introduction to some of them I noticed one or two Augustan phrases almost. Or they might have been Augustan as altered a bit by Crabbe. One of them was - the "highway where the. ..." (How does it go?) The "highway where the slow wheel pours the sand. " (Into My Own) And then there was one phrase: that famous one about


That seems to me very like a good Augustan, or at any rate a good line by Crabbe. Did you read him?

FROST: No, I had never read Crabbe when I wrote that. But I'd read, you know, so scatteringly - so at large - that I can't put my finger on any particular thing. I didn't know about Crabbe until somebody called my attention to him, and then I felt some kinship. I have two first editions of him now.

LEWIS: Yes, yes. And another thing, do you not think that the language of the American countryside, of the country folk you lived amongst so long, has got into your poetry?

FROST: It must have a good deal, though I'm aware of another - of a vocabulary a little below any I use, you know: a little more - a little rough, a little cruder. But I think there's nothing in our country talk of the sort of rustic kind that didn't come from some quarter in England.

LEWIS: Yes?

FROST: There'll be a word like "clide." The cattle - the cattle get clide. That's "cloyed" really, and that's a word that you wouldn't use for animals, you know, like "sorrowful and cloyed." But they use it about the cattle: The cattle get clide, when they're overfed. Things like that I haven't played with. They're curiosities, but I haven't played with them.[. ..]

LEWIS: Now there's another thing that interests me very much. I've forgotten where you said it, but somewhere or other : that you write a poem to clear up some confusion in your own mind.[. ..]

FROST: Yes, I suppose that's a good deal backward-looking theory, that I can see in nearly every poem some answer to some doubt or some question, you know, that's come up in my mind -- even in argument with people or something - a difficulty in a situation, you know, that needs a phrase to finish it off. The same as in diplomacy they find a phrase. It's just like diplomacy - you find a phrase.

LEWIS: Yes.

FROST: It's a way out of something. Now that's not very obvious in the poems. Not as obvious to anybody else as it is to me. I could probably name twenty or thirty poems that were just answers to somebody that had - somebody that had left me unsatisfied with the last thing he said in an argument.

LEWIS: Yes, yes.

FROST: A year afterwards.

LEWIS: I suppose most of us start off in a kind of fog. We have a feeling that there is a poem asking to be written and one makes moves into this fog to see the right direction to follow, but I noticed in the --I think it's in your introduction to your collected poems - you made a difference between the way the scholar works with his accumulation of facts and the way a poet works. I think you said the poet just allows whatever sticks to him to stick to him, like burrs when you walk through a field. But I've been looking into this lately, and it seems to me that - that at a certain stage, at any rate, of their work scholars - I mean historians, philosophers, or scientists - have very much the same imaginative jump as poets do. I think it was Collingwood, the Oxford historian and philosopher, who said that he - he starts in a fog, and he doesn't know what the problem is until he is halfway towards solving it. Well, that is true for us, isn't it - for poets?

FROST: Yes, yes, that's a good description - another good description of a way a poem happens.

LEWIS: Yes.

FROST: But it seems to me there's a difference here about the material. You can see the deliberateness with which the scholar seeks his material after he gets going, but a poet never lives in that way at all. All the best things he ever uses are things he didn't know he was getting when he was getting them. A poet never takes notes. You never take notes in a love affair .

LEWIS: Yes. Do you find that subjects have to lie about in your mind for a long time before you can use them or. ..?

FROST: Oh, no. The thing is that the scattered material that's been making in various ways - thrown ahead of me, all round me; and all of a sudden some day I see a way across some of it, and that is a little theme - a little idea. It gives me a start and a direction so that I can use some of this stuff. That's all. You never - you never cease: you never rest from sort of little ideas and things that don't seem to start to be poems. They're just scattered thoughts, you know. But some day, all of a sudden, there's one that looks as if it's just struck like lightning across a lot of this stuff.

LEWIS: Narrative poems, you've written quite a lot of them. Have you come across any narrative poems written in our time that seem to you true narrative? They seem so often to me to be really dramatic monologues or ballads or something concealing themselves as narratives.

FROST: Yes, I guess that there's a good deal of that in mine, too. Can you think of one that seems to you pure narrative? I think every poem, even a little lyric, ought to have a progress through it; it ought to go to an end and have something of a narrative movement in it.

LEWIS: Yes, yes.

FROST: Not stand still and pirouette on one leg.

LEWIS: I've tried to write narratives myself, and I'm not at all sure. ...I mean we're so overawed now by critics and, indeed, other people who tell us that the work of the narrative poem is all done better by the novel or the short story or the films, and so on, that I tend to get rather overanxious, I think, when I'm writing a narrative poem.

FROST: I think there's always someone talking. I even look, when I approach a novel, to see if it's unbroken prose, without any conversation in it. I don't read it then, I want it to be broken with talk. I want drama in the narrative - a lot of talk. I suppose mine just runs over with these things. There's always somebody - nearly always somebody-talking.

LEWIS: Yes.

FROST: I remember someone said to me once, "What you're trying to write is the short story." But I thought that was rather doubtful.

LEWIS : It seems to me that possibly you have an advantage in the writing of narrative by living in a fairly remote place: in the country, where small things that happen - things that are gossiped about - are extremely important. I should think that is a good foundation, isn't it, for telling the sort of stories that you tell? In the next village but one, they would refuse to admit that you existed, and you refuse to admit they exist; so in the country you're in a close circle of a community, and anything that happens there is potential drama and story .

FROST: Yes, I've picked up many of them all my life. And they're all dialogue, aren't they, nearly?

LEWIS: Quite a lot of them.

FROST: Yes, there's a story implied in every case. They are rather the sort of thing you speak of; they're gossip. And one of the three great things in the world is gossip, you know. First there's religion; and then there's science; and there's - and then there's friendly gossip. Those are the three - the three great things. Philosophy is just a thing that trims religion, you know - that prunes it and all that. And you've got science. And you've got this: the biggest of all, is gossip - our interest in each other .

LEWIS: Yes, which is really based on a kind of hero-worship, isn't it? Or rather a lot of hero-worship is based on that, isn't it?

FROST: Yes, yes.

LEWIS: And I suppose that anyone who is going to write a narrative poem now has to have the kind of interest in human beings that often comes out as hero-worship.

FROST: That's it. It is hero-worship, you see, and one of the things that makes you go is making a hero out of somebody that nobody else had ever noticed was a hero.

LEWIS: Yes, exactly, yes.

FROST: You pick up the unconsidered person.

LEWIS: Yes, and of course that is what gossip does, in a small community: it makes heroes, doesn't it - or villains - out of our neighbors? But they're big anyway.

FROST: Yes. Do you know, that's interesting to hear you use the word that way, when people are saying there's no such thing as heroism left. Some of the talk is that way. I know of a book of history that says heroism is out of date. But it's in everything. It's in making a book, you know. And it takes a hero to make a poem.

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