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Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus – Excerpts From His Talks (1949-1962)

"I don't write free verse," Robert Frost says in one of his talks to undergraduates collected in this book. "I talk free verse, extempore." And so he did, compulsively, over many years and in many places. "Barding around", he called it. And what were supposed to be formal addresses don't come freer: he never had a script and, for all his stage fright, the charm of his talks lay in their colloquial freshness.

Extempore speakers usually find themselves circling back to hobby horses, but if Frost has fixations, he knows it: "I'm like a dog that has a number of bones around, different parts of the yard. And he goes and gets one and worries it for a while. And then he covers it up a little and goes and worries another one."

Amid all the brackets and digressions, a single theme emerges. Whatever the subject, the rootedly conservative instincts of Frost the countryman, patriot and non-political Democrat come genially through. He is perversely stubborn in his disapproval of free verse, though sensible about communism, another non-negotiable dislike ("Socialism ends in fearful cruelty. All purities do").

Sceptical about science ("that other belief that doesn't always know it's a belief"), he is also teasing about women (why didn't they throw up any great classical philosophers, he wonders) in a way that would get this four-times Pulitzer Prize-winner and eminently harmless body heckled out of town and disinvited by his next campus audience today. Nor does he think much of the Beat poets: at their core is "mis'ry", he believes. Yet he is large-hearted as ever about it: "If it's genuine misery, and not affected, then it's all right with me."

Amid the rambling texts of talks that it might have been more entertaining to attend than to read, there is no lack of good humour, or good lines: "An existentialist is a man who wouldn't be bothered to commit suicide." "Civilisation means all the freedoms, even the dangerous freedoms, the risky freedoms. And utopia means security." "[Education] lifts trouble and sorrow to a higher plane of regard."

Today, it will be hard for many to understand the awe and affection that Frost inspired in his listeners. The recipient of more than 40 honorary degrees, including doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge, he was seen as being on a level with Longfellow and James Russell Lowell. Appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1958, he was poet laureate of the United States in all but name.

Frost went on many international goodwill missions, culminating in a private talk with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. International activism did not, however, come naturally. Everyone knows I went to Russia, he later quipped, but they've never read my books. He died the following year.

Younger readers unfamiliar with Frost's poetry may be surprised to discover that there once existed an America where literary folk gave talks to students that did not brim with scabrous ironies, foreign policy advice to the White House, or radical social and political sentiments. (Saul Bellow was a fellow conservative, but then he didn't give as many campus talks.) On the other hand, I doubt whether reading these sometimes zany or scatty, off-the-cuff remarks will incline them to dip into the perfectly accessible (sometimes over-accessible) poems.

My own reservations about the book are different. If, like me, you see quirkiness as a tic, an irritating affliction even when it isn't contrived and are allergic to national treasures, which Frost indubitably became, you will find some of its pages tiresomely wry and self-regarding - in a healthy, American way, of course.

At their worst they can sound like an amalgam of John Betjeman and Alan Bennett. Frost himself describes his talks as his unfinished pieces of knitting , and as in his poetry - purl and plain in a wholesomely rhyming pattern - there is, for all his intelligence, something amiably homespun about it all.

“I'm scatterbrained, that's all, bits of wisdom here and there, scraps of wisdom," he confesses here. Well, that's fine, but I prefer the wit and wisdom of the genuine Mark Twain, another prolific lecturer (for examples, see Ron Powers's terrific Mark Twain: a Life), to the poet who bards around his country, occasionally appearing to echo the great man's style. As for the
poetry, my money's on Wallace Stevens. But it's a diverting book all the same.

Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus - Excerpts From His Talks (1949-1962)
W W Norton, 232pp, £17.99

George Walden's memoir "Lucky George" was published in 1999 (Allen Lane).

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England