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Visiting Frost: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Robert Frost, edited by Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro. University of Iowa Press, 2005; 180 pages; $39.95 hardcover; $17.95 paper


A four-time Pulitzer Prize winner whose work is principally associated with the landscape and life in New England, Robert Frost (1874-1963) was a traditional, psychologically complex, often dark and intense poet. In Visiting Frost, 100 homage-paying poets speak on behalf of us whose lives have been brightened by the memorization and recitation of such poems as "The Road Not Taken" or "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Robert Frost looms large in the American literary landscape, straddling the 19th and 20th Centuries like a poetic colossus: whosoever desires passage must, at some point, contend with the monolithic presence of Robert Frost. As they did in Visiting Emily, and Visiting Walt, in Visiting Frost, Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro once again capture the conversations between contemporary poets and a legend whose voice endures.

In his introduction to the collection, Frost biographer Jay Parini likens the poet to a "great power station, one who stands off by himself in the big woods, continuously generating electricity that future poets can tap into for the price of a volume of his poems."...In Visiting Frost, 100...poets -- some who knew Frost, most only acquainted through his work -- celebrate and reflect that intensity, in effect tapping into his electrical current.

By reacting to specific Frost poems, by reinventing others, and by remembering aspects of Frost or by quarreling with him, the contributors speak on behalf of us [for whom Frost] -- more than 40 years after his death -- remains in our collective memory.

Frost's poems are still among the most frequently memorized by American schoolchildren, including "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Mending Wall," "Birches," "After Apple Picking," "The Pasture," "Fire and Ice," "The Road Not Taken," and "Directive".

Contributors Include Marvin Bell, Wendell Berry, Robert Bly, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hayden Carruth, Peter Davison, Annie Finch, James Galvin, Thom Gunn, Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, David Lehman, Robert Lowell, Peter Meinke, Howard Nemerov, Muriel Rukeyser, Mary Jo Salter, Floyd Skloot, William Stafford, and Richard Wilbur.


Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro are the editors of Visiting Emily (Iowa 2000), recipient of a Minnesota Book Award, and Visiting Walt (Iowa 2003), finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. They teach at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where Coghill is professor of English and chair of the English Department and Tammaro is professor of multidisciplinary studies and teaches in the English Department and in the MFA in creative writing program.


We talked early one Saturday morning. I was at home in California and the editors were at home in Minnesota, each on a telephone. I asked if we could talk about the influence of Frost on American poets, on voice and subject matter. Ms. Coghill began. "Well, in some ways the influence has been a carryover of what you'd call the pastoral voice of poetry, the voice that speaks from being grounded in the land. Frost is looking at New England when he's writing; that's his basic landscape.

"But it's a very formal voice. It's a voice of the common people. In that way he's no different than Whitman. Except Frost uses meter to express that voice. It's a very down-to-earth voice, and it celebrates nature, it also acknowledges every day human travails. He acknowledges the darker side of life, the harshness. He gets onto paper a common person's connection to the realities of life."

Mr. Tammaro suggested, "One thing Frost has going for him is simply longevity. He has one foot in the 19th Century and one foot in the 20th Century. It's rare the writer that can walk both those worlds. And despite the fact that Frost had doubts and suspicions about the modernist movement that was taking place at the time when he was coming of age as a writer, he stayed the course in terms of his voice and his vision of what a poem should be.

"He was nearly 40 -- 38 -- when his first book came out. Now first books of poetry are out there by people in their early 20s, and many people have two and three and four books by the time they're 40. Frost was so committed to his art and craft and has something many writers don't have, and that is patience with their art. Frost was patient with his art; I encourage patience with their art to my writing students, a difficult thing to do in our contemporary world.

"So, Frost sustains himself as a writer through two centuries. Writing in that 19th Century, he is facing what Sheila and I always talk about with each other as 'washed-out transcendentalism.' It's the reason why Whitman is so great, because he's writing against that strain. And especially when we talk about form with Whitman.

"Frost maintains that sense of formal language. I tell my students, 'If you want to learn how to write blank verse, read Frost.' That absolutely gorgeous blank verse is mesmerizing. He stayed true to that and didn't bite the apple of modernism and go into other directions, and was writing a poetry that was in many ways counter to what modernists were doing, in form as well as content.

"He makes it American. He takes what I'd call the leftover formalism of Puritanism that goes through the 19th Century and he commits it to American imagery and American dialect, American geography."

Ms. Coghill agreed. "Frost wasn't experimental in the way that we think of the early modernists. His influence on poets today is that persistence in looking at place and looking at it closely, exploring it, through the music of language. Regardless of what he was writing, Frost emphasized the music in American language.

"It didn't matter what was going on in his life; he kept his commitment to the beauty of language that he calls 'the sound and the sense.' And the gold in the language, those are things he talks about. He rarely writes about it in essay form the way some writers do, but infuses it into the poems themselves."

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