ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Mr. ROBERT FROST (Poet): As near as you want to come to saying what you mean -that's what poetry is - as near as you want to come to it.
BLOCK: That's poet Robert Frost, lecturing seniors at Dartmouth College in 1947. A transcript of that talk has just been published for the first time. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has the story with audio of Robert Frost that was forgotten for decades.
ANDREA SHEA: Robert Frost actually enrolled at Dartmouth in 1892. But scholar James Sitar says Frost's initial run at the Ivy League school was a short one.
Mr. JAMES SITAR (Robert Frost Scholar): His grandparents thought that Harvard was too much of a drinking school, so they sent him up to Dartmouth, and he spent all of about two months there before dropping out.
SHEA: Sitar himself went to Dartmouth, and as a sophomore in 1999, he says he stumbled on an overlooked trove in the school's special collections library: audio recordings of talks Frost gave at Dartmouth in the 1940s.
Mr. SITAR: He didn't have any prepared notes for most of these lectures, not any that we know of at least. And so he was mostly shooting from the hip, but you get a sense he's honed his thoughts and that these are the thoughts that he's sharing with these young students.
Mr. FROST: Somebody will say to me, I understand your poem but - so they want to know, what are you getting at? I think they mean under what head does that come? Under what head, how does it classify? Is it pessimistic or optimistic or something like that? I can't find out. But I always say to them, defensively, you know, if I wanted you to know, I'd told you in the poem.
SHEA: For the past nine years, James Sitar has been transcribing and studying the tapes. This lecture, titled "Sometimes It Seems As If," has just been published in the journal Literary Imagination. Editor Peter Campion says, Frost is in his element here, revealing a side of himself that you can't get in biographies, letters or essays.
Mr. PETER CAMPION (Editor, Literary Imagination): Here he is talking about how figurative language works. Here he is making a mild diss on Whitman, who was his beloved yet troublesome forbearer in American letters. We're really going to have a lot more of a sense about Frost's imagination and intelligence that he brought to bear in his own poems from these recordings.
Mr. FROST: No poem is intelligible except in the light of all the other poems, all the poems that were ever written, so you better get about them, circulating among them.
SHEA: For Literary Imagination editor Peter Campion, hearing the lecture is a Frost groupie's dream come true.
Mr. CAMPION: It was like having Guitar Hero walk into your living room with an acoustic guitar and sit down and, you know, start to give you off-the-cuff little lessons and play what he wanted to play. And here we have this icon of American literature unplugged.
Mr. JAY PARINI (Poet and Robert Frost Biographer): He was a song-and-dance man, Robert Frost.
SHEA: Jay Parini, a poet and Frost biographer, says the Dartmouth lectures provide a snapshot of the poet on the cusp of becoming an American icon.
Mr. PARINI: He was out there on the stage. He was playing the role of Robert Frost. And he was, in many ways, perfecting the mask of the rambling old Yankee farmer/poet/philosopher.
SHEA: Parini says Frost was also perfecting his act. The poet went on to tour a lot, giving these somewhat rambling talks for the rest of his life.
Mr. FROST: Somebody says what - is poetry a way of saying one thing and meaning another? Kind of, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHEA: Transcriptions of three more 1947 Dartmouth lectures are about to be published in the poetry journal Fulcrum. And although there are plenty of other recordings of Robert Frost reading and lecturing in front of live audiences, the Dartmouth tapes aren't available to the public. They are currently held by Robert Frost's estate.
For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.
BLOCK: And our thanks go to the Robert Frost Estate for permission to use that audio.