Thursday, July 30, 2009

Robert Frost at Derry

images from the Robert Frost homestead at Derry, NH

Coming down from Maine, wandering through the winding New England roads, arriving in the early afternoon at Derry to visit a friend, it turns out there's a Robert Frost place there. This was his first independent home where he raised his family, a century ago now, where he first began to be a poet, to write and gather poems into what were eventually published as his first three books. (Originally published as books in London, when the Frost family was living in England, they were republished in the US when Frost brought his family home at the beginning of World War I. It was at this point that "Robert Frost, the Poet" began to become famous. This was the beginning of his long career.)

Touring the Robert Frost Farm at Derry was a good day well spent. This is the house where Frost was a failure as a farmer, where he tried to be a teacher, and wrote his first two or three books’ worth of poems.

In one of the publications for sale at the Derry farm, which I purchased, there are some passages about Frost at Derry that give some context:

. . . in 1900, when Robert Frost accepted his doctor's advice that he should get out of the city of Lawrence and into the countryside, somewhere, because it seemed that he might be suffering from tuberculosis, he found in New Hampshire exactly the kind of farm he wanted. It was a small farm, roughly two miles south of Derry Village, on the Londonderry Turnpike. But he needed some help because of his illness. . . . Frost, depressed by many troubles besides illness, needed all the help he could get. Perhaps the best indication of how near to suicide he came, during this period of discouragement, is provided by the poem entitled "Despair," written soon after he reached Derry. In this poem, the speaker is represented as imagining that he has drowned himself and is glad he is dead. In later years, Frost could not remember how he managed to overcome his recurrently dangerous moods of despair, during the first year on the Derry farm. . . .

In later years, when Robert Frost spoke of his life on the Derry farm, he was always quick to admit that he might have been a better farmer if he hadn't been so lazy; he never did make a financial success of it. Finally, his need for more money, to support his growing family, caused him to secure a teaching position at Pinkerton Academy in Derry Village, starting in March of 1906. . . .

—from Robert Frost's Affection for New Hampshire, by Lawrence Thompson (pamphlet reprint of a lecture-article given in 1967)

Many casual readers are used to thinking of Robert Frost as a bucolic, backwoods, pastoral, reflective and mostly positive-minded poet, a traditional rhymed verse poet of the countryside and woods and small towns. And he was all that, in many poems. But it was also a performance, a mask he presented in his poems. In fact, his poetry is often darker and more bleak than many casual readers ever suspect. He fought lifelong against the same depression he battled in Derry, and he could display towering egotism which he himself knew was a hedge against his own doubts and fears. Many of his poems contain undercurrents of shadow, of the awareness of the impermanence and hardships of life. Some later poems are explicitly violent and dark; not at all "pastoral" poems, except for their country settings. This is one sensibility that places Frost amongst the Modernist poets, rather than the last of the Romantics.

The barn is connected to the laundry room and kitchen via the enclosed woodshed, so one can walk in the coldest part of winter out to the barn without having to go outside. This is a typical New Hampshire and Vermont sort of farm home. The friend I was visiting, who lives in Derry, told me, this is just a normal house around here; he had lived as a boy in one exactly like it.

The tour guide was a local man who got an MFA in poetry under Charles Simic, then ended up back here, teaching. He loves doing this tour guide gig, and was very funny and full of stories about Frost and the family, including some stories probably not commonly known. It was very enlightening beyond what I already knew about Frost and his history.

The homestead here, even though Frost failed utterly as a farmer, and failed in particular as a chicken farmer, was the place he wrote many of his first, famous poems. The wall in the poem “Mending Wall” is right out back, across the meadow behind the barn.

the kitchen, the center of any home, as always

It was fascinating and inspiring to sit at this table in the kitchen and look around and think, those great early poems were written right here in this room. (It's just as likely that Frost wrote in the mechanical recliner chair in the living room; he tended to like to write at comfortable desks, or at his leisure.)

The house had other owners before the family reacquired it and restored it. (Frost tried to purchase it again in the 1950s, but the current owner declined; it was re-purchased after the poet's death, in 1963.) Now it has been returned to as close as anyone can recall, or see from old photos, as to what it used to be. I spent all afernoon here, and had a wonderful time.

I ended up hanging out with our poet-guide afterwards and talking shop for an hour. We talked poetry biz, but also music, bass playing, etc. This was for me a very enjoyable visit.

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Blogger Gar said...

This is a wonderful entry about your vist to the Frost Farm-Derry, and your nice meeting with the fellow poet-guide. And your collection of photos is just terrific. Thanks.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks! It was quite the day.

10:25 PM  

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