Let me begin by saying how sorry I am that I can't be with you this evening. I hope this electronic version will suffice. Receiving the Frost Medal is especially meaningful to me because I am old enough to have had some personal acquaintance with Mr. Frost—as he liked to be called—at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in those August sessions for the lucky few.
And long before that, when I was an undergraduate at Radcliffe in the 40s, I had the great good fortune to hear Frost read on two occasions to overflow crowds in Sever Hall, one of Harvard's largest classrooms. Students wedged themselves into the window wells and stood along the sides and back of the room as the wise old trouper indulged everyone by reciting his crowd-pleasing favorites: "Stopping by Woods," "Acquainted with the Night," "Provide, Provide," and "Birches." He paused to say something between poems, explaining, for instance, how he was forced by the exigencies of the rhyme scheme to repeat the penultimate line, miles to go before I sleep, and how he inadvertently locked himself into the dense triplet lines of Better to go down dignified/ with boughten friendship at your side/ than none at all: provide provide.
But he was a far more complex individual than the quintessential Yankee farmer-poet so popular with elementary school classes, a crusty old bard with twinkly blue eyes, white hair streaming in the New England breeze. Frost could also mock, convey bitterness, skepticism, or defiance, as in such short lyrical narratives as "Desert Places," "Design," or "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep." But his intent was not directly or specifically political.
I see my own work shifting its focus from the almost explicitly pastoral to poems looking outward, persona poems, poems dealing with the horrific subjects of extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, waiting to be rescued. There was a time when friends teased me with the epithet Roberta Frost, which I took pleasure in. I don't mean to apologize for such poem; if anything, I rejoice in them. The poetry umbrella has to be broad enough to shelter all of us. I would defend to the death the poet's right to be inward, to explore his or her own sensibilities in whatever frame.
But I find I agree with Hans Magnus Enzenberger, who says that the modern-day poet who shuns what we perhaps call for want of a better term the "poetic" of our time, does so at great spiritual cost. This is the aesthetics of an elite culture that claims a "good" poem is not political. This is why, to paraphrase Katha Pollitt, we do not have readers, in contrast, for instance, with the poets of Latin America, who have larger followings. There, poetry matters. The political scene gives their work impetus and validity. Here, and I quote, "our voices, our power has been taken from us… so that at best we are impotent voyeurs of a barbaric and stupid world."
What is the role of the American poet in the nuclear—or nucular, as the President insists on pronouncing it—age? Why is our response to the menace of global destruction so meager? Partly it seems that the subject is too big, unwieldy, futile. What use are protest poems? They are read only by the already converted, goes the argument. In April, poetry gets a polite nod on television. Otherwise, only poets read other poets; they and a sprinkling of academics and eccentrics comprise the audience.
Of course the poet is not alone in his obscurity. Kurt Vonnegut insisted that writers in America have about as much impact as a pancake falling from a height of four feet. Later, he did admit that if he didn't believe writers had some impact on their times he would have become an optometrist instead. And Arthur Miller said he began to write in the 30s because he found life totally irrational in a world "where people were starving on street corners ands we were burning wheat is the west." He sees the writer as an outsider crying aloud, Life should be better than this!
The problem seems to be how to deal with the enormity of sensory data bombarding the writer in this torn and ravaged world. Especially and specifically for the poet, I think it is an aesthetic issue: how to deal with the incredible ingenuity of man's inhumanity to man; how to write tellingly and intimately about modern-day acts of depravity so grotesque, so exquisitely cruel that the deranged Roman emperors and the 15th century Borgias look like mere juvenile delinquents by comparison. How do you make a poem that speaks of social justice when, nightly on television, we are treated to scenes of carnage, eyewitness accounts of rapes and dismemberments, and tortures so extreme that crucifixion would appear by comparison a blessed death?
Czeslaw Milosz, who survived the Nazi occupation, spoke to this issue in the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he delivered at Harvard. He recounted the history of Polish poetry, which went underground during the war and was circulated clandestinely. The poetry of the pre-war years, which had closely identified itself with European attitudes, was totally lost. What survived were the documentary poems of the Holocaust victims. A new attentive respect to a subject matter far removed from the stylistic mode of the past continues to develop. To transform this material artistically is the challenge.
When Frost proclaimed a bit showily that he had enjoyed a lover's quarrel with the world, it was a safe and secure world. The position of the romantic is that of the individual, intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally superior to the crowd, whose mission is to prophesy or rail against the stable, ongoing culture he lives in.
Today, the poet cannot escape his or her obligation to bear witness. It is impossible to separate the life and the art. Wherever there is language, there too stands a poet, a little to one side, but there. Whether the subject is a diving beetle or a fire bombing, the poet's function is to speak of the encounter.
And now, like the serpent with his tail in his mouth, I would like to close by recalling that Bread Loaf setting I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Shy, insecure, I was nevertheless one of the chosen I refer to in the poem. I am truly grateful for the event, my memory of it, and the special burnish it provides the Robert Frost medal tonight.
Bread Loaf, late August, the chemistry