Williams Record Williams College October 19, 1960



Frost Discusses
Poetry, Politics

by Stephen Brumberg



Frost talks to students at Baxter Hall, Williams College
October 1960 Enlarge picture click here

"Life is cellular," began Robert Frost as he confronted a group of students sprawled around a fraternity library the afternoon following his Chapin Hall appearance. Captivating his audience with a unique display of wit and intelligence, Frost drew on the wisdom of his years to comment on life and art.

"Life," he continued, "is composed of cells. The family, college, nation, city, county, church, even the communists have cells." He expressed the belief that life must be contained within certain forms or it is devoid of meaning.

In this discussion, he made repeated allusions to his poem "Mending Wall": "Good fences make good neighbors." Every entity, personal or communal, must operate within a given structure, but these "fences" are always changing: "Life is cells breaking down and building up, biologically and politically. There will always be cells."

Free Verse
Nevertheless, much creative work occurs outside the structure, "Just as there can be religion outside the church and education outside the university, there can be good poetry outside the institution of verse. I belong to the institution outside poetry in the prose poem I deliver before my poetry readings."

However, Frost does not feel constrained by these self imposed bonds. Rather, he finds his thoughts fitting naturally into the framework of verse. Frost is a conscientious student of his art form. He read poetry from his youth and especially liked Keats. However, he has always maintained a broad balance of reading in other poets. In comments on the effect of his poetry-reading on his work: "I remind people of many poets. I had a liberal education: I majored in no poet."

Politics of Politics
Poetic form did not occupy his conversation for too long: "I get so sick of the politics of poetry that it's nice once in awhile to turn to the politics of politics." And he did. Here, Frost was at his most biting. He is violently opposed to President Eisenhower's proposed plebiscite for the world. "Imagine letting everyone vote on the fate of our counties. All these years, out the window, just like that. No nation of any greatness would surrender itself to a plebiscite."

Eisenhower, according to the poet, is "a nice boy", but no politician. Frost referred particularly to a conversation with General Eisenhower after the war in which Ike told him, "I'm not interested in politics; I am a soldier."

Speaking on politics in general, he said, "I admire men who took less power than they could have had - men like Washington for example." These men saw their boundaries and knew when to stop and make way for others.

Passionate Preference
Within the cells in which he operates, Man's glory is still his freedom - the freedom of "passionate preference". Man advances by means of this preference which involves him in one pursuit as opposed to another. "I can't let alone of it" is the Vermont expression Frost used to characterize this instinct.

"The young should lead with their impulses"; but they should use the wisdom of the aged to guide them. Reason must act as a governance on the impulses of human nature. Human progress and development is the result of the application of reason to the way that impulse leads us.

Reprinted with the permission and courtesy of the Williams Record, Williams College
and the author, now Prof. Stephen F. Brumberg of Brooklyn College, CUNY

Cross-reference to a story 3 years earlier in the New York Times "A Poet and a National Symbol." Frost had a habit of repeating his thoughts with different twists, so that read as a body of statements, his little quips become more lucid.
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"To go straight home, we wouldn't keep him, would we?"