We are fortunate to be living in a time when poetry is once again becoming popular. Instagram poetry is on the rise; it’s easy to post our work for thousands to see. If we learn the use of hashtags and posting times, we can build an impressive following. It is a breath of relief, since there had been a time when many claimed poetry to be dead.
As time changes, so do the poems that define a generation. What we share on social media has a different feel from the poetry of old. It’s designed to grab attention, to stop someone mindlessly scrolling to read a snatch of art. Much of modern poetry bears a minimalist quality. Literature evolves with the people who write it, changing with society.
Sometimes I am nostalgic for classic poetry. I’ve been reading Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe. Last week I focused on Robert Frost, who was considered the first American poet. His most famous piece, The Road Not Taken, is still taught in school. I wanted to go beyond that and learn about the author himself. I wanted to read the lesser-known pieces.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. His father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist; his mother, Isabelle Moodie, a Scottish immigrant. The family hoped his father become a lawyer, but William Prescott Frost had a rebellious spirit. It led him instead to become a teacher, an editor, a politician. After his death in 1885, the family moved to New England, an area that would inspire much of Robert’s poetry.
He discovered poetry at the age of fourteen, and a year later published his first poem in his school newspaper. Though his mother was proud, his grandfather warned him that “no one can make a living at poetry.” Two years after his marriage at the age of twenty-two, Robert tried to please his family by seeking an education in Harvard. He was drawn to philosophy and the classics, but claimed “It wasn’t what I wanted.”
Disappointed in Robert’s artistic ambitions, his grandfather gave him a farm in New Hampshire on such terms that he was committed to it for ten years. Once that time was up, Frost sold the farm and moved to England with his wife, Eleanor. They found a home in Beaconsfield, a little town near rural Buckinghamshire, and lived a comfortable life. During this time, his first two books were published.
A Boy’s Will and North of Boston were received by the English with great enthusiasm. Of North of Boston, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote, “Mr. Frost has turned the living speech of men and women into poetry…Tales that might be mere anecdotes in the hands of another poet take on universal significance because of their native veracity and truth to local character.”
What makes his work so special? An essay by Mark Van Doren titled The Permanence of Robert Frost explains: “Whether in dialogue or in lyric, his poems are people talking…The man who talks under the name of Robert Frost knows how to say a great deal in a short space, just as the many men and women whom he has listened to in New England and elsewhere have known how to express in the few words they use more truth than volumes of ordinary rhetoric can express.”
Frost returned to America in 1915 to find himself suddenly famous. His books were on sale everywhere, and he was hailed a leader of “the new era in American poetry.” He bought a farm in New Hampshire and lived there for five years. In 1938 he moved to Boston, and later to Cambridge; wherever he went, he took a bit of the land which had captured his heart.
Frost’s poetry crosses many styles and subjects. His focus on farming and field work makes him very much a poet of the people. He has written sonnets and works of lyrical beauty. He has written epics which were adapted into screenplays. I prefer his shorter pieces because they can be memorized; we can take beautiful verses into our own souls to fill idle moments. One such example is the poem Nothing Gold Can Stay:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Robert Frost’s twenty year wait for publication serves to remind us that not even those whose work became classic achieved fame overnight. Some didn’t get published until they were old; others weren’t discovered until after death. An author should never write for the sole purpose of publication. If we do this, we risk writing stories that lack soul. I write more about this in my review of Anne Lamott’s memoir, Bird by Bird.
Literature gives voices to things which normally wouldn’t speak, such as stars or houses. Robert Frost spoke even for ghosts and the forest. In The Sound of the Trees, he gives us a glimpse of their minds—
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
Skilled poets raise the voice of each gust of wind. They also open our ears so that we, the readers, can understand what the breezes whisper. Poetry is on the rise, and we can expect a new era of poetry worldwide. I am eager to find out which of these new voices will live to be classics.
In the midst of this, let us not forget the poets on whose shoulders we stand. As we breathe life once more into poetry, let us follow them down roads less traveled; only after we learn their ways can we go down paths of our own.