JACKI LYDEN, host:
"The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost, is one of the best known, most beloved American poems of the 20th century.
Mr. ROBERT FROST (Poet): Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both, And be one traveler, long I stood, And looked down one as far as I could, To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that...
LYDEN: For much of his long life, Robert Frost kept notes. He jotted down thoughts, both mundane and profound, on small pocket-sized pads, school composition notebooks. Forty-eight of them survive and have been published for the first time by one of the foremost Frost scholars, Robert Faggen. Professor Faggen says that taken together, the notebooks of Robert Frost show us that America's best-loved poet may have been poorly understood. Robert Faggen, welcome to the show.
Professor ROBERT FAGGEN (Claremont McKenna College): Thank you very much.
LYDEN: We should say that these notebooks can't be read as a kind of coherent narrative. I mean because first of all, they are hard to decipher and they are fragmentary.
Prof. FAGGEN: Yes, indeed they are. They were written over several decades, throughout his life, from the 1890s through the early 1960s. And he would jot down thoughts at random. And the notebooks are teeming with meditations, aphorisms, proverbs, short essays, drafts of poems, trial lines. And there is no particular order. And very often he will go back into a notebook over and over again over many years. So it's very hard to date any particular thought.
LYDEN: What was his handwriting like?
Prof. FAGGEN: Awful. And of course, as he grew older, the handwriting became almost, I would say, indecipherable. But nevertheless I'd say we got all of it.
LYDEN: But you did decipher it and it took you a very long time.
Prof. FAGGEN: It took me about five years.
LYDEN: When you first started reading these small notebooks, what struck you as the most surprising about this poet whom you would have thought you had known so very well?
Prof. FAGGEN: I think the intensity of the thought and the compression of the thought. There is really very little dross. You say at the beginning a mundane thought. I would say that he observes ordinary life, but that there is always a kind of intensity about it. And there's very little in the notebooks by way of journal keeping - that is, it's Frost thinking and Frost thinking hard and fast about poetry, about science, about religion. And Frost presented himself as a folksy, down to earth dispenser of homespun wisdom. And I think that was a way of deflecting some of the more complicated, sometimes even tragic aspects of his character and of his work, and more subtle aspects of his work.
LYDEN: Can you just give us a description from one of these notebooks that would illustrate what it is you're saying?
Prof. FAGGEN: Well, there are so many examples in the notebooks. I mean one thought that comes to mind, just off the top of my head, just a phrase: where poetry is posted on the brink of spiritual disaster. That is the kind of quick, quick thought that one would want to think about for a very long time.
LYDEN: That poetry stands on the brink - that would just be a jotting.
Prof. FAGGEN: Yes. Well here's one. In tracing back an idea, institution or species to its origin, it is, as it were, to consider a larkspur, and descending from more flower to less, go right past the stem and come to an end with a spur. It looks as if the pale point of the spur were what the flower had derived from instead of from the stem, which is not flower-like at all.
Prof. FAGGEN: And then he has just a little drawing of a larkspur with stem. So the larkspur becomes a metaphor for the way in which thought seems to spring, almost mysteriously, from no discernable origin at all.
LYDEN: It's like a small map of his thinking about a poem, really, or a diagram.
Prof. FAGGEN: Yes, it is.
LYDEN: Robert Frost read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration, of course. You provide us with this wonderful quote that Kennedy said about Frost at the groundbreaking for the Frost Library in Amherst.
Prof. FAGGEN: Yes.
LYDEN: If Frost was much honored in his own life, it was because many preferred to ignore his darker truths.
Prof. FAGGEN: Yes.
LYDEN: What'd he mean?
Prof. FAGGEN: I think that Frost was an accessible poet, but he followed in a tradition that the Roman poet Lucretius wrote in, which was sweetening the wormwood with a kind of accessibility. That is, he made his poems brilliantly palatable. And I think the evidence of that is how widely they're read and how wonderfully they're misunderstood. Frost is often, I think, seen as providing a simple kind of order, or a comfort, and that very often as one reads him more carefully that one begins to see the complexity and even sometimes the tragedy in his work.
LYDEN: So we're willing to see this cycle of nature, but maybe skip over the part about decay.
Prof. FAGGEN: Yes, I think so.
Prof. FAGGEN: I think the notebooks make it somewhat harder to avoid.
LYDEN: Well, Robert Faggen, thank you very much for being us.
Prof. FAGGEN: Thank you.
LYDEN: Robert Faggen is a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in California and he's the editor of "The Notebooks of Robert Frost."