The Making of Form
Bread Loaf School of English, 20 July 1936
Typed manuscript, 8 p. Abernethy Manuscripts [Frost].

Last time I came, I brought a lot of manuscript with me and read from the manuscript. I have it all now in a book and don't have to carry it around.

I always start thinking every year when I start from South Shaftsbury in this direction and I thought of a lot of things coming up today, and whether they all get into this talk or not, I don't know. I will try to get some of them in, anyway. I suppose I resent it a good deal some of the time that people treat poetry as if it was the special repository of ideals, as if poetry was where ideals are kept alive—kept going, and that all poets are, by virtue of being poets, idealists. I wonder whether a national poll on that would show that everybody thinks they are. Of course, it isn't so, is it? If it were so, then I would have to look my peers over and touch them up to make them more idealistic, I am sure.

Where do idealists abide? Where are they endemic, I wonder? Well, when I am sentimental, which isn't very often, I am inclined to put the idealist in the skilled artisan class where education is, apparently; but I know well enough that is not the real place for them. I would like that idea very well, but I suppose, most always artisans would resent that charge as much as I would resent having all ideals shut into poetry—I wonder do we think of idealists being masculine or feminine? As a matter of fact, are they not more feminine than they are masculine? Well, you are not going to tell me and I am not going to tell you.—What are they, anyway? Why is it that people are so ready to blame poetry for idealist It is because they think that poetry is all permissible lies. I get that said to me: "Oh, that is just your poetry," meaning, "it is a lie." "More truth than poetry." That attitude cannot be tolerated.

Then there is always the possibility that people at large think poetry is all that ought to be, but can't.—All that ought to be in the world, but can't,—and to make less of life is—what?—Compromise. It is a compromise of poetry with the way you have to live. I can't stand that either—as one of the guilds. I am just going to make short work of that and tell you where poetry—where ideals—may exist. I suppose they exist in the making of form—wherever that is. You take a poem, a picture, a garden, a family, a state—all forms achieved in different media. I like myself best to work in words and rhymes and meters because I have it to do myself. I should hate the job of having to shape up a state and hold it in shape. I could stand it if that were out out for me—I am enough of a ruffian to take that roughly with all its approximations and I would not call it "compromises"—I hate the word—never use it—; but if I were working in marble, carrying out ideas in marble, should I find I had to compromise my ideals with the marble? No! My whole aim includes both the ideal and the marble. It would not be the same—different grains would make it different, but I cannot bring myself to expect to compromise my ideals. My ideal and my medium are one.

Making a form—I don't know what some may think about this—a personal thing—I have just been thinking about a young poet, a friend of mine,—not so young—he must be toward thirty-five now—and he has just written a long poem called "Peter Goes to Work"—you may see it in print some day—I hope so. And it is the life story of a casual laborer. He took Wolsey's advice to Cromwell, and he flung away ambition. He decided to stay at the "Beginning" in all sorts of things, and expected the world to treat him with respect. That is the story—it hasn't done it. He read an advertisement and went into an art factory where with some sort of blow torches they painted pictures—yes, they used blow torches—and he thought that was horrible, and he said, "I will not do any work that I do not love"—and he left—; and he went into a bookstore in a large city and heard the owner say that he was not interested in books, but his main object was to keep people from stealing them. So he left the bookstore. Then he tried a lumber camp and found that life was absolutely gross in the camp—and he left. He didn't try teaching. He always saw life from underneath and always found it unsettled. His last adventure was with editors—he had been carrying poetry on in a very haphazhard way for a number of years, and finally brought himself to the point of trying to earn a living with editors. He went to see one editor who told him that it was just what he would like to print, but the public would not let him. He went into another editor's office and he took him in hand to teach him how to write, and he decided that that editor was merely interested in asserting his own ideas.

He tells the story very well, but it is a story of a person who always stays on the underside of everything and cannot see any of his own ideals in the world and he never comes to any conclusion. (I am going to help him). The only way we see ideals in the state, in the family, in teaching and politics—is when you put them in yourself by mastery and skill—in the place for form. Now that does not mean a Platonic thing at all—I am talking Anti-Platonism. That does not come from looking at perfection. It means just the desire to take whatever comes to hand—whatever is in front of you and shape it. Shape is something to do with the consistency of parts, and there is this more to it—that the form you work in has got almost to have some relation to the larger form around you or it is not "national" enough.

Now, before I read any poems, that leads me to say something about this school that have been interested in so many years,—about schools in general, summer schools and summer school of English, especially of writing. I have been, in the last three months,where I have had to think a great deal about that; I have had take sides with the teaching of English against a good deal of opposition. My answer would simply be that the teaching of writing exists, and I am so made that I accept almost anything that exists, that really is going—I accept going concerns and I expect everyone to do the same.

I heard reports of a very successful lecturer at a big university this year. I didn't get to the lecture. It was successful because it affronted everyone who heard it. Everyone was mad. All it asked for was a complete revolution in our colleges and universities, and the revolution would be a return to the kind of university where philosophy was the center of everything. Now we—in these English schools—we are very nearly there where he would have us, with concern for expression, we say, but I carry that further—I would say we are concerned with the expression of what we have to report—reporting from the outside and the inside.

I have said here in times past that when I was told years and years ago—"Now you learn to write, and in the next twenty years, when you have anything to say, you will know how to say it," my answer to that then was; "All there is to know is how to express yourself and knowing how to have something to say,—the wisdom and the fact—and I am very sure that the ultimate of this kind of school—I will say that frankly—what we have you here for is to teach you how to have something to say. But this is so very close to insight—penetration—it is knowing how to show your wit. It is to hit people where they live, with a phrase—make them respond—make them murmur—assent or dissent—make them smile with corroboration or objecting. Examine the people you are with and see whether you know where they live—whether you are touching them where they live.

This school in its ideal form—which it is tending towards—is as school of wisdom and fact—the expression of wisdom and fact. If I were teaching, I would simply say, "Now you are to report to me as hard as you can!" That is the way I would outline a year's work. Bring in words that belong to your family and locality—words, then incident—characters, family stories and, best of all ideas of your own—insights of your own into people and affairs—it doesn't matter what. Then I should say, "What's to prevent that from being very tiresome? Why shouldn't that be just like Thomas Wolfe's novels? Whats to prevent that from being just the wholesale? FORM—FORM—You can't bring anything in here that you can't bring in form. It has got to make up—to shape up and only that can get in which can shape up. Form is a very exclusive thing. That would be my notion of a course in writing—always insisting on the subject matter and where to get it. If some one should say, "but I haven't lived in an interesting way"—I would simply put them on the operating table and begin to take rabbits out of them.

When they complain of the division of subjects in our schools, I am with them. I think we are too much divided. But I say this supplies a different kind of subject matter—and this supplies another. A person should not get too much of the academic and then write only about undergraduate love affairs. I can tolerate all that. You must remember that material lumps together. I value many of the courses as to material—not quite as good material as some of that you get out in the world—but it is still material.

The English philosophy encourage—the kind of school Plato ran—that was not the one central thing through any year of school—the central thing was expression of wisdom. "Expression of wisdom"—reporting from within—reporting from without. Reporting from without is easier. I favor special schools for the expression of what is within you and what is without you.

The only ideals I have any interest in are the forms that I try to achieve and they are not perfect. You can read better poems than mine.

Bread Loaf
July 20, 1936