Making a Good Poem
Bread Loaf School of English, 28 July 1952
Typed transcript, 9 p. RBMS / C-4 / Cook, Reginald Lansing, 1903 – 1984 / Verbatim, vol. 2. Transcribed by Juanita Cook.

Cook: This is our chance to question Mr. Frost and he'll have the come-backs for us.

Cook: I'll give you one. What do you mean by progressive?

Frost: You did that last time. Mr. Adlai Stevenson. But that is in politics.

Cook: Yeats says there have been more great poets since 1900 than since the early part of the 17th C. Do you agree?

Frost: You mean has there been a lot of poetry lately? I'm stuck. Yeats means that we are all more important than they. Maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that to the crowd. I never have ideas like that. I remember hearing people say that the world is old and language is worn out and there hasn't been any poetry since the time of Shakespeare. I wouldn't think there had been any poetry in all our time that will be talked about for always. But poetry is always going on. I never get pessimistic about it. The notion that this is a non-poetic age Yeats seems to contradict from the dead.

Questioner: I came here to listen to Mr. Frost talk about his own poetry. I heard him in Charleston last winter, and I'd like very much to hear him talk instead of having questions.

Frost: I'll probably be in Charleston next winter…. I have been thinking about education. Art has more of a chance than ever before in the world's history. Nowadays children begin to paint in the kindergarten. I remember visiting a school in Plattsburg. All the children's paintings looked so Persian. Why? Oh, they told me, all that breaks out at a certain age. This was their Persian age. Maybe that accounts for the poetry of our time, although modern poetry came out before the spread of progressive education. In England, you know, it was considered a disgrace to be a poet. Francis Thompson's father threw him out. But in America there is a disposition to make it easy for art. Will this make poetry more and better? This probably comes under point 4.

Suppose I just tell you about my own experience. When I was very young I heard a disciplinarian say you learn now all about writing; then if you have anything to say, when you are forty you will know how to say it. I began to teach a little in the '90's. I began to think about him, and I said to myself, that won't do. My progressivism goes differently. The whole art of writing is having something to say. The idea better start now; by talking to your friends and watching their reaction you can tell whether it's a real idea. Never pass up a word that comes into your head simply because you can't spell it. Punctuation, grammar, all that, it's only the surface that doesn't matter. You must learn how to have something to say. Now that's a very repressive thing. It's meant to be frightening.

Now the other kind of progressivism I have made fun of rests on the idea that all is expression. Every time you refuse to say "wonderful," "marvellous," you are shutting yourself in for your own good. If you want to be a writer, never exclaim. I have never used the words "beautiful," "lovely," "wonderful," "marvelous," "glamorous." Shut in what will have to come later in a witticism or an idea. You can't rave. Now there was something blowing up from the lake tonight. But if you call it 'wonderful' you are not shutting yourself in. The mistake of progressivism is this raving over something… like the Greeks. I once saw a picture of two children playing the piano. They were small, not tall enough hardly to reach the keyboard. So they were showing off, pounding like the dickens, and they had their heads thrown back looking to be punished any minute. Now if their parents had been progressive the children wouldn't have been looking backward. The idea is don't learn anything—just express yourself. All the courses in my school would be so tight that at some point the pupils would squirt somewhere. They would have heard something long enough for it to become good. All good literature is emotion harnessed to the wit-mill. I love something with my wits, with a phrase I have made, a witticism, an idea. The question is all through school: what is an idea and in the full light of an idea what is funny? In a modern anthology of wit I couldn't tell whether they were funny or just modern.

I probably never used the word "lovely" more than twice in my writing. The same goes for "beautiful." No exclamation points and very few "oh's"—all that is out except sparingly. What are you writing poetry for? To be beautiful? If you can't make beauty, don't use the word "beauty." Every time you deny yourself one of these words you are strengthening your spirit for something better. Repression instead of expression—that's it.

Notice how it is in the papers. I read two editorials the other day—one all exclamations and one all witty and deep.

I was thinking today about Mark Twain and how he got himself into trouble by going into business. He failed and people took up a collection, but his family tried to stop it. "Family pride must be denied and thrust aside and mortified." It's always the spots in a poem where the meaning is the richest that come back to you. When Eliot says in "The Hollow Men"—meaning that you are all hollow men and I am not—"This is the way the world ends… Not with a bang…" but it didn't end either way—it won't end, the darn thing.

People dismiss Tennyson nowadays, but you remember, "And Freedom broadens down from precedent to precedent" and "The old order changeth, giving place to the new…" A good custom can corrupt the world. Like our present system, I suppose; that's what the Republicans are going to see. (Then Frost quoted Tennyson's "The Eagle") Now there's what I mean—traits, traits observed in objects, in people, they're what stick in your mind—if you don't exclaim and let it go at that. What I shut in won't hurt me—contrary to all of Freud. The question is how long to defer the expression.

Questioner: We regard you as a maker of poems. Would you mind telling us how these poems came into being?

Frost: They come into being from your being so pent up. A poem would never come into being unless an idea had been brought up on other people's poems—an immaterial idea.

Questioner: Does it come first in a verse or an idea?

Frost: "A poem is an idea dawning; if you have it before you write it, it will be like translating it into poetry; but if you feel it as it is making in your mind, then it is a poem. If it hasn't that freshness of dawn on it, it isn't a good poem. I have an idea disagreeable enough to be modern—if you shut your bad feelings in, they might destroy themselves as in a septic tank. If your idea is spontaneous, its probably a good one.

Everything increases as you make a poem. Or it may come to nothing.

Or a year later you may find you have nothing. Pleasure and excitement are part of making a good poem. A long poem would require thinking out before you began. Details are caught in flight as you go.

Questioner: The critics use the term pure. What makes a pure poem? One entirely repressed?

Frost: Yes. I have heard Yeats say a true poet would never write a thing. He would have a poem without saying it. If the dictionary fails you, then you are a true poet. Why need a poet have the trouble of rhyme and meter after a long search for words? Rhyme and meter is a kind of flourish. You suspect that the rhymes write a poem. I would hate to think that, that there was not a strong intention dictating a poem. I don't went any words that are not my speech words; I don't want mere dictionary words.

Merrill Moore writes eight sonnets a day. It is like stream of consciousness stuff. All expression, no repression. But there's a certain fun in seeing him go it. "Know one false step is never retrieved,/ And be with caution bold." (Gray's "On a Favourite Cat.") Writing through a poem is just that—being bold with caution—like creeping up on an enemy in a battle. Today emphasis has been put too much on expression. I'll go anywhere for an idea, no matter how horrible it is. Merrill Moore is a remarkably vital porpoise. Once at a summer hotel when I asked for him they said, "He's out on the ocean now. He ought to be in in an hour or so." (Frost told the story about his shoveling up tons of shells, for poets to sort.) He helps all kinds of young poets, but he doesn't influence the kind of poetry they write. A hundred thousand he's done. And he says, "Some days I get behind." You might say he turns out poems in between the red and green lights.

That saying should be over the door of a school:"'And be with caution bold." I say, Learn to catch myself and to get on top of any impression I was getting and make it deeper. And I'm going to know a limited number of words and be alive to them all. I was watchful too against learning too much history I knew I was going to lose. When I ceased to make connections between the parts of my knowledge, then I would get scared.

Questioner: Is an idea picked up from somebody else as good as your own to make a poem from?

Frost: I value my own too much. It's better to have been there and had the experience yourself.

Think about waste—the waste of liquor, for instance. It came to me that that is what it is meant to be; some things are meant to be wasted. Now you pour out a libation. Poured down yourself, it makes you no good for a while. What I talk about I don't usually write about. It's the excitement of the thing going on. "There is one art of the work," we used to say; "another art of getting paid for it."

Questioner: Why "friend, Tom Paine"?

Frost: "The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you abandoned better principles or whether you ever had any.'"I don't like that, but it is so well said. How could he be so wrong, but good to learn in school? Now we see through the press darkly. I don't want to judge Truman or Roosevelt. The only president I was never critical of was Grover Cleveland—I helped elect him when I was ten. I can tell what goodness is, but I can't tell a good man when I see him.

Question: Do you think world conditions today stifle poetry?

Frost (sharply): Yes—the same as at any time (i.e., it's no different today than in ancient Greece; it's no tougher).When Alcaeus and Sappho lived, the ruler was one of the seven wise men of Greece—yet he ran them both out of town. He didn't foster poetry.

I'm something that worried Tom Paine and Freneau. I'm a member of a society George Washington was also afraid of. It doesn't get you arty parsnips. They say he could swear like anything but that limits your vocabulary too.

Question: How much objective thought should be applied to the dawning of an idea?

Frost: There must be the idea. I have two Latin words that express it well: mens and animus, that is, thought and spirit. "The thoughts of my heart"—I don't see how you can make poems about anything else. The good words come from this, not just from the thoughts of my mind. Marvell's "Coy Mistress" is loaded with ideas. "He nothing common did or mean/ Upon that memorable scene, But with his keener eye/ The axe's edge did try." About the execution of Charles I. I can't remember any poems that don't have ideas in them, except some nonsense poems—"You are old Father William…" that's good. I have lost track of what objective means. I had such a dose of those terms in philosophy they cease to give me meaning now. Maybe—objective means objectionable.

Question: How about poetic drama today?

Frost: I'm always glad to see some poetic drama. T. S. Eliot once said they were too poetical for drama. I would have liked it had he said they were too poetical for poetry. I like a lot of it. (Quoted Louis MacNeice, "It's no go…"; also Christopher Smart's "Strong is the lion…" from Coleridge's (Kubla Khan). Those are the top places in poetry. Every word does something to the other words. (Witches' speech from "Macbeth.") "Munching, munching, munching." They're two kinds of peaks—the imaginative kind to the eye and to the ear—something in the voice speaking. (Keats's "Magic casements…") That adds up to another peak of spiritual insight too.

Inconsiderable things that happen to you that you don't realize are important often turn up in your writing. I never really used anything I thought I was going to use. I don't live that way. (Anecdote about a day of races—point-to-point—in the country in England.) That's why I don't feel at home traveling. I lived in England for three years, and I was afraid all the time—always uneasy about whether crackers didn't mean biscuits.

Question: Any advantage to solitude, to living and thinking alone?

Frost: Maybe the future poetry is going to be written by committees. No, I don't see how you would seek solitude. A Room of One's Own—that may say it. I bet abhorrence has been one cause of this need. You must have a door that you can shut and a key you can turn in the lock. You are never so much with people as when you are away from them. But you are never alone when you can write. Now I never had a desk in my life. I like to be a good deal alone. I like to walk alone. If I want to talk, I'd rather sit around. Take a political situation—if you can't tell what side I'm on from my poetry, I can't tell you overnight, I believe in one-man revolutions. I'm a free trade, old-fashioned Democrat. I saw the Republicans come to Washington for fifty years and get favors from the government; now they object to the Democrats wanting to do it. Washington's a cold place for the arts. Until 1932. The New Republic is being published there now, but the old group has drifted away.

[Reginald Cook comments on lecture]