Sunday, March 6, 2011

Robert Frost: The Derry Years

In March 2010, I was in Middlebury, Vermont, when I was reacquainted with the poet Robert Frost. I’d long been fond of his poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Now I learned that Mr. Frost had spent time in a cabin northwest of Middlebury, and that he had taught at Middlebury College. My interest was piqued.

In The Vermont Bookshop, I looked for a biography and found Robert Frost: A Life by Jay Parini. Parini is a poet, novelist, and biographer serving as Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College.

For the last year I’ve been savoring the biography, and I took it with me to New Hampshire when I learned that Frost’s farm in Derry was only;12 miles south of the Manchester airport.

Frost’s ten years on the farm in Derry (1901 – 1911) were key in his life as a poet. It was during this time that he developed his own voice. While working with and talking to his New Hampshire neighbors, Frost realized a connection between poetry and conversation. “I was after poetry that talked,” wrote Frost. If my poems were talking poems – if to read one of them you heard a voice – that would be to my liking,” he said (page 88).

Parini writes that, “By the time he [Frost] emerged at the end of this decade of farming, writing, and teaching, he would be fully formed; a major modern poet,” (page 73).

Today the Robert Frost Farm is directly off State Highway 28. I turned left into the muddy driveway, the white farmhouse and barn on my right surrounded by piles of snow. Behind the buildings and yard is a large field, bordered on three sides by pine and birch trees. A couple with baby in a backpack made their way on snowshoes across the field toward the back tree line.

For me, there is a mix of magic and romance in being in the place where someone I know through their writing or art once lived. There is an imagining of the reality of what I’ve read actually occurring in this location. It makes the person more real to me. It makes history live.

I walked the muddy driveway and along the shoulder of Highway 28. The snow was too deep for me to get any closer, or to walk all the way around the house; I did not have snowshoes. The house was closed for the season.

During his Derry years, Robert Frost taught at the Pinkerton Academy, two miles north of his farm, in order to earn extra income. He was a highly regarded teacher by students and colleagues, and was even asked to speak about his teaching philosophy. Parini says Frost focused his talk, “on the need for teachers to develop their own minds before they thought about developing the minds of their students. He [Frost] also said it was important that students be made to feel so dependent on books that without them, ever afterward, they would feel lonely,” (page 99).

I went away knowing more of Robert Frost, inspired to read again Parini’s book, and dedicated to memorizing another Frost poem.

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