istories of nations are written by poets. The Iliad and the Odyssey are monumental records of the personal investitures in the historical enterprises of the Greeks of 1200 B.C. King David’s musing in the Psalms are the human dimensions of personal faith and conflict in the face of national turmoil and rapid world-change. The writings of William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Alighieri Dante tell more of their times than the written histories of their ages.
In America, if you would know about the Transcendental years, read Henry Thoreau, Ralph Emerson, and Emily Dickenson; about the 20s, read Edwin Arlington Robinson and Vachel Lindsay; about the 30s read Edna St. Vincent Millay; about the 40s and 50s, read Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and Amy Lowell. If you would know of the Harlem Ren-aissance, read Jean Toomer, Zora Neal Hurson, and Langston Hughes. If you would understand the beginnings of American technology, read Walt Whitman.
While we often praise scientists and technologists above our literary artists, two events of recent weeks have been genuinely encouraging for poets and poetry. One is the gift of in excess of $100 million by Ruth Lilly of Indianapolis to Poetry, Chicago’s own celebrated literary journal, begun by Harriet Monroe in 1912. The New York Times called the gift “astonishing.” Poet Laureate Billy Collins said it “was a real mind-blower!” And Poetry editor Joe Parisi, upon recovery, observed “it was by far the largest single donation ever made to an institution devoted to poetry.”
It is doubtful that this gift will make the poetry submitted to the magazine any better than that submitted in the past. But the security of this important institution, often called the “poor little match girl” of the arts, will be made permanent, in perpetuity, and the poetic dimension of American history much more secure, year after year, because of the generous gift. We therefore rejoice in this largess to that which we esteem so highly.
The second event was the opening of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum, Shaftsbury, VT, on September 29, 2002. Though little noted in the national press, the acquisition by the Friends of Robert Frost of the stone house is an important testimony to the importance of poetry in American life. It was in the stone house where the Frost family lived between 1920 and 1929.
When the Frosts acquired the property, Frost wrote, “I mean to plant a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety.” While he lived here, he was at the height of his career and received his first Pulitzer Prize, for New Hampshire. This volume included Frost’s lyric masterpiece, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He wrote this poem one hot June morning in “pretty much in one stroke.” He had stayed up all night working on the title poem for New Hampshire and had not realized it was morning. He went outside for a breath of fresh air, and an entirely new poem came to him; he went to the dining room table and wrote it down. The dining room of the stone house museum is devoted to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Through his remarkable genius, Frost composed over the years a microcosm of American history from the pristine hills of New England. His poetry, memorable to so many, is the record of America’s emergence from its rural ambiance to that of world leader. The stone house is, in perpetuity, a memorial to Frost’s remarkable poetry and the American history so subtly and gracefully composed in its stanzas.
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