Through the years, I've been to countless poetry readings by novices and literary titans alike, reciting original work and classics, from personal narratives in hushed bookstore corners and traditional iambic pentameter in venerated halls to haiku in Japanese gardens and hip-hop/slam events in smoky, low-lit clubs.
Regardless of style or setting, poetry readings always feel far more intimate to me than other types of public presentations. Unlike other literary forms, poetry is the distillation of innermost thoughts, inventive concepts and heartfelt observations down to their essential armature, with verses meticulously shaped and woven together into a hopefully potent, evocative series of moments, tones and images.
Poetry readings are most often straightforward affairs, with a body of work read in succession followed by polite applause from an appreciative audience. Unless one is formally studying poetry and can enjoy in-depth analysis by experts, we poetry lovers rarely get a peek into the mind of the writer beyond a brief introduction or quick post-reading Q&A. Understanding a poet's intentions, motivations and challenges, however, can transform the impact of a poem by investing it with far more meaning and weight than can emerge from ink and paper.
On a few occasions, I've reaped the benefits of such contextualization. Years ago, when award-winning poet Cole Swenson was a newly published Bay Area author, it was wonderfully enlightening to hear her describe how the experience of living near the Seine for a summer and her love of rivers in general had greatly informed her latest poems. Each time I read them now, they've got yet more life in them, thanks to those informative conversations.
Likewise, we can immerse ourselves in the lives and muses of our favorite poets through colorful biographies and erudite analyses. Ever since reading "Homage to Frank O'Hara" — a collection of essays, correspondence, notes, photos and poems about the celebrated urban author, published in 1980 after his untimely death at age 40 — his poems have had even greater impact.
Having taken a few poetry classes in college, I've enjoyed enthusiastic albeit general discussions of various well-known poets, but it wasn't until recently that I was fortunate enough to hear a lecture devoted in its entirety to the examination and illumination of one single poem, thoroughly and thoughtfully, line by line.
Last month, my friend, Dr. Mark Richardson, an eminent Robert Frost scholar who teaches at Doshisha University in Kyoto, spoke at the Stone House in South Shaftsbury, where Frost lived from 1920 to 1929. Part of the "Sunday Afternoons with Robert Frost" lecture series put on by the Friends of Frost, who transformed the Stone House into a museum during the past few years, Richardson's talk centered on "Home Burial," a profoundly moving poem first published in Frost's collection "North of Boston" in 1915.
Here doing research for his latest book on New England's honorary native son (Frost was born in San Francisco), Richardson shed light not only on the literary significance and personal roots of the poem, but on its intended cadence, voice and delivery.
It is one thing to read poems in the pages of a book, but altogether another to hear them interpreted by someone who has been long-immersed in researching the work, life and times of a single author.
Richardson's most recent book on his subject, "The Collected Prose of Robert Frost," which came out last year from Harvard Press, shows sides of Frost most of us didn't learn about in grade school when reciting "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening." Frost was a charismatic man whose robust, wry sense of humor and decided aplomb permeated everything from magazine and newspaper articles to personal correspondence. Credos such as "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader," reveal the rigor and focus of everything he wrote, particularly poems such as "Home Burial."
Frost's breadth of emotional force came through in Richardson's powerful reading of it, in unexpected ways that had us all enrapt and reconsidering every stanza from beginning to end.
Describing a tense conversation by a husband and wife who have just lost a child, Frost presents the full gamut of raw emotion that is particular to times of acute mourning, from anguish and tenderness to anger and rage. And yet it was the live interpretation of the poem that infused Frost's words with the humanity and vigor he intended, and which is impossible to extract from mere printed words.
The gentle pleading of these lines were particularly poignant:
She moved the latch a little. "Don't — don't go.
Don't carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it's something human.
Let me into your grief. I'm not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance ...."
But with volume and intensity, Richardson revealed the wife's incredulity at her husband's depth of grief and the husband's exasperation at being misunderstood.
"There you go sneering now!"
"I'm not, I'm not!
You make me angry. I'll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it's come to this,
A man can't speak of his own child that's dead."
Stopping to decipher phrasing and analyze Frost's methodologies throughout the reading, Richardson deconstructed the poem with the literary scalpel of a surgeon and magnification of a loupe. In light of the enthusiastic comments and questions afterward, it was clear that this nuanced presentation of "Home Burial" had transformed its impact for everyone in the room.
Previous speakers in the "Sunday Afternoons with Robert Frost" series have included Frost's grandson, John Cone Jr. and Carol Thompson, founder and director of the museum, and two more events this year promise to be equally fascinating.
On Sept. 21, in the Little Red Barn behind the Stone House, Dr. Robert Bernard Hass, author of "Going by Contraries: Robert Frost's Conflict with Science" and a poet in his own right, will read from his newly published first book of poems, "Counting Thunder." This year's series concludes in November when Franklin D. Reeve, Russian literary historian and scholar who accompanied Frost to Russia in 1962, will read 24 of his own poems in a performance piece entitled "The Blue Cat Walks the Earth," accompanied by a jazz combo, at Bennington College.
Further Frost-specific events take place Saturday at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, starting with "Frostiana," in which seven of Frost's poems are set to music composed by Randall Thompson in 1959, performed by Middlebury Community Chorus. Author Natalie Bober will also read from her engaging book about Frost — written for ages 10 and older and boasting 44 photographs — "A Restless Spirit: the Story of Robert Frost," followed by Q&A with Bober and Robin Hudnut, Robert Frost's granddaughter.