The Fifties: An Evening with Robert Frost

When I arrived at Umass, Amherst in 1955, Robert Frost was Poet-in-Residence at Amherst College, a short walk across town. Frost was already world renowned and considered by many to be the greatest living American poet. He won many literary awards, including four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. In grammar and high school many of us had to memorize his work and could do pieces of “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening,” or any of the hundreds of poems he had published in several well-received books. He was also something of a curmudgeon (think Andy Rooney on “Sixty Minutes”) who valued his privacy, his Yankee roots, and a man who suffered fools badly.

He was also something of a ham, enjoyed public performances (when he felt like it), and encouraged young writers  to learn their craft well before proclaiming themselves as poets. He came to the UMass English Department’s Poetry Evenings from time-to-time, read several of his own poems, did some literary critique, and offered advice to the students. There was one ground rule: You never showed your own work to Robert Frost. It wasn’t done.

Once, a student member of the Poetry Club violated the Prime Directive and handed Mr. Frost a copy of his own work and asked, “What do you think?”

The student work was a complex and symbol-filled poem about several pseudo-intellectuals (that term was big in those Beatnik days) at a cocktail party, engaged in frivilous conversation. It ended with the line: “They talked of people, who talked of people, who talked of people.”  All the kids who read it in the Literary Club Newsletter thought it was deep, insightful, and profound. Everyone waited for Mr. Frost’s reaction.

At first, the poet just glared at the boy, then he sat down and actually read the poem. He read it slowly to himself. Then he handed it back to the  young man and said: “You’re trying too hard, son. Go write some Rhymey-Dimey stuff.”

Early on, I was a member of that group, and we invited Mr. Frost to a student gathering one bleak night in February. He accepted the invitation. The day came, and brought with it the snowfall of the year. It snowed for a solid day, the roads and sidewalks were blocked, and nothing was moving. We figured the event was cancelled but, since we lived in the dormitory across the street, we figured to bundle up, brave the elements, and show up … just in case.

We put up our hoods, bowed our heads, and bulled our way across the street and into the conference room. Sitting there impatiently was … Mr. Frost. He said, “Where is everybody?” We rushed out and used the pay phones to call everybody we knew to “get down here, now.” Mr. Frost, already in his 80’s, had a Jeep. And nothing stops a determined old Yankee farmer with a Jeep. The evening went on as planned, with a reasonable audience in attendance. Mr. Frost took requests, answered questions, and came across as everyone’s crusty, old grandfather. It was a memorable evening.

At this time, I was a junior member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon social fraternity. Junior members were expected to do chores around the campus house. One of mine was collecting wood for the fireplace that illuminated and warmed the Saturday night house parties. I wrote the following to commemorate my firewood adventures. People ask me if it’s true. I reply, “If it isn’t, it should be.”

Here’s to you, Mr. Frost. More “Rhymey-Dimey Stuff:”

Amherst, 1956:

Undergraduate Recollection of  Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening

 Whose woods these are, I think I know,

His house is in the village though,

He will not see me stopping here,

To cut his wood at ten below.

My chainsaw’s set, the trailer’s near,

Some kindling there, some hardwood here,

A half a cord is all I’ll take,

And then I’m gone until next year.

The blue lights flash across the lake,

A siren wails, I come awake,

While down the roadway comes his Jeep,

I think I made a big mistake.

I’m so ashamed: The fine is steep,

The cordwood they won’t let me keep,

I can’t begin to count the cost,

Of stealing wood from Robert Frost.

Ed note: The recollection was originally published in Reader’s Digest, September, 1978. This is the poem’s first light.

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