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The Power of a Poet

Remembering Robert Frost’s 1960 visit to Grounds

Robert Frost

When I was in my second year, poet Robert Frost came to the Grounds for the dedication of the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, in which had been assembled the most complete collection of Frost’s works ever. There was an elegant dinner at Carr’s Hill, followed by what was expected to be a brief appearance by Frost at Cabell Hall auditorium.

I arrived early and secured prime seats for myself and my roommate Ted Wolff (Col ’63), who carried a volume of Frost’s collected works that he desperately wanted autographed. The auditorium filled to capacity and the student overflow was allowed to occupy the wings of the stage.

In 1960, Robert Frost was 86 years old. In January 1961, a few months following his appearance at UVA, Frost would recite his poem “The Gift Outright” at the John F. Kennedy presidential inauguration. He would be the first poet so honored, but his appearance almost turned into a disaster. Supported by the podium, Frost attempted to read the poem from a folded sheet of paper, but the cold winter wind and the glare of the sun made the reading impossible. Frost struggled as a nation watched in sympathetic horror. Then he put away the paper and recited the entire poem from memory. The image of Frost’s recovery and triumph is iconic in inauguration history.

The reason I so warmly embrace Frost’s inauguration triumph is because I had witnessed his amazing strength months before in Cabell Hall. In memory, I see him enter the stage from the wings on the arm of a man dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform. At the podium, Frost had three worn books of his collected poetry. I had been told that Frost would speak for no more than 15 minutes. How could he be expected to do more after such a long day of ceremonies? Looking at the white-haired man bent with age, most of us in the audience expected him to read a few poems and nothing more. Certainly there would be no question-and-answer period that we had come to expect from our writer-in-residence, William Faulkner.

Frost removed a folded sheet of paper from his coat pocket, considered its content, and then returned it. He had not said a word, and the audience paused in suspense. Then in a gentle, conversational voice, Frost recounted how he had leaned back during the limousine ride to the auditorium and, through the curved rear window, observed the evening star. He said that seeing it reminded him of how important the evening star had been in his poetry, so he decided to put away his prepared remarks and read a few of the poems inspired by that star.

As he searched his books for the poems that came to mind, a remarkable transformation began to occur. As he read, his posture became more erect, his voice stronger. And although he began reading a poem from an open book, by the second or third line, his eyes came up, and he was reciting from memory. The poetry came alive in an experience of profound revelation. The familiar ones like “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” were never so wonderfully satisfying, or all the others so attuned to our youthful souls. Frost astounded us with his strength as a lifetime of creative energy welled up in him. And then, with the last poem recited and more than an hour passed, his brilliant aura receded, and his body slumped back into its previous form.

Ted grabbed my arm and begged me to take him backstage, where Frost might autograph his book. When we got near Frost, he was being supported as they made their way toward the exit. Imagine my audacity as I introduced Ted to Frost and asked him to sign Ted’s book. Frost only mumbled, and with a trembling hand and stub-nosed pencil, he scrawled something almost illegible onto the title page of the book. Seeing Frost backstage, it was hard to believe that this was the same man who had held an audience spellbound for more than an hour. We could only rationalize that what we had witnessed was a divine expression of the creative life force.

Monty Joynes lives with his wife in Boone, N.C., where he writes novels, nonfiction books, screenplays and classical music libretti.