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A Poet's Voice Rises from the Archives

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A Poet's Voice Rises from the Archives


A Poet's Voice Rises from the Archives

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For nearly 20 years, Henry Lyman hosted a radio program called "Poems to a Listener" out of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. He brought leading contemporary poets to the air, poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Seamus Heaney and Robert Tenuan(ph). Many have since passed away.

In recognition of National Poetry Month, we're going to bring you excerpts from the archives of "Poems to a Listener" throughout the month of April. Today, a reclusive poet whose work was admired by Robert Frost. Here's Henry Lyman to introduce him.

HENRY LYMAN: Today, I'd like to tell you about Robert Francis, an old friend of mine, who lived in a two-room, one-storey cottage in the wooded hills of Amherst. He built the little place in 1940 and called it Fort Juniper, after the low-growing juniper bushes that surrounded it. Like the juniper, Francis kept a low profile, hugging the ground as it were, and living on next to nothing. But he was well published eventually. And by the end of his life, he'd produced seven volumes of poetry and several books of prose. Here's Robert Francis at Fort Juniper in 1986.

Mr. ROBERT FRANCIS (Poet): Somebody once told me that I am, or can be, a vicifous(ph) poet. And perhaps here is an example: "Alma Natura."

LYMAN: Which is the Latin for Mother Nature. It's a poem that portrays her as if she comes straight out of a painting by Peter Paul Rubens.

Mr. FRANCIS: Rubens, you know, was famous for his voluptuous women, bursting at the seams.

(Reading) A humor broad to match the body, far too exuberant to be body. A voice out of the stomach, burly, hair windblown like a sheaf of barley. Barefoot, what modern shoe could boot her? Ah, more than barefoot, more the better. A bust no bra could hope to capture. Let Peter Rubens paint the picture.

LYMAN: A bust no bra could hope to capture captures the whole universe mischievously. Francis' poems range from mischievous to political to pastoral, often mingling all three together. But generally, they're set in the natural world, the woods and fields in which he lived and walked.

Mr. FRANCIS: I found a wonderful root, east wood, and found myself in a sort of natural garden, evergreens and spring flowers and so on. And from there, I went up the hill and found myself at the top. This was Butter Hill, and my reward for that climb was a wonderful view in all directions, and also 12 white cattle were standing there gazing. Would you like to hear the poem called "Midsummer"?

(Reading) Twelve white cattle on the crest, milk-white against the chicory skies. Six gazing south, six gazing west with the blue distance in their eyes. Twelve white cattle standing still. Why should they move? There are no flies to tease them on this wind-washed hill. Twelve white cattle utterly at rest. Why should they graze? They are past grazing. They have cropped the grass, they have had their fill. Now they stand gazing, they stand gazing. And the white clouds above the hill move in the softly moving breeze. The cattle move not, they are still.

LYMAN: That was poet Robert Francis. He recited "Midsummer" for me in the spring of 1986. He was in his 85th year, and his eyesight was so poor that he could no longer read. But he spoke these poems from memory, sitting by the fireplace at Fort Juniper. Robert Francis died in 1987, 20 years ago this July.

ELLIOTT: And we'll hear more from Henry Lyman and his archives throughout the month of April. To listen to his full program with Robert Francis, visit our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: This is NPR News.

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