- “Falling Forward”: Frost’s and Stevens’ Public Readings
A FEW YEARS AGO, Harvard’s Houghton Library rediscovered a 1954 recording of Wallace Stevens reading from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and other poems. Similarly, every so often a lost recording of a reading by Robert Frost will surface, as occurred a few years ago in a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After the excitement of such moments has died down, a more considered interest is warranted in how two such contemporaries as Stevens and Frost, at times amicable rivals and both extraordinary public speakers, might be compared. We have a quieter opportunity to reflect upon the reasons each poet had for reading his work in public settings, as well as the ways in which audiences responded to such readings.1
Stevens delivered lectures and read his poems in public appearances from 1936 until the year before his death in 1955. Many of Stevens’ audiences were patently, though not universally, underwhelmed, a reaction seldom seen among Frost’s audiences. Stevens’ famous lines “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully” may have applied (CPP 306).2 Kia Penso offers a definition of what Stevens means by these lines as “that difficulty and strangeness which convinces you, or even only makes you suspect, that all your previous expertise and knowledge are no preparation for this new experience.” It may be that some sense of being shaken into this state was part of what those attending Stevens’ lectures and readings were experiencing. If, as Penso goes on to note, “Stevens wanted his poems to put up obstacles to the self-complacency of knowledge with which the best of us (as Stevens did himself) have to contend” (25), might Stevens not have felt the same subversive hope in reading before live audiences? Similarly, Frost enjoyed playing out a certain type of mischievous, teasing subversion in his own literary work. In a well-known 1927 letter, he wrote,
My poems—I should suppose everybody’s poems—are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to [End Page 23] fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark. I may leave my toys in the wrong place and so in vain. It is my intention we are speaking of—my innate mischievousness.(Selected Letters 344)
It may be that we can intuit a similar mischievous impulse toward the absurdly illuminating as one purpose of both Stevens’ and Frost’s readings. In listening to their recordings that reveal the essentially serious spirit of play at the heart of each man’s work—whether poem, lecture, or poetry reading—we can choose to be open enough to fall forward, head foremost into the dark, and into change and the “universe of inconstancy” in which we all live; not for naught did Stevens declare of the supreme fiction “It Must Change” (CPP 337, 336).
Reticence and Self-Promotion
John N. Serio, assessing Stevens’ reputation in relation to that of other poets, suggests that, “Reticent by nature, [Stevens] was not a self-promoter as were some of his contemporaries such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost” (1). Though the context for this observation is Stevens’ general avoidance of print media profiles and interviews, it applies equally well to his relatively late launch as a lecturer, which is in marked contrast to that of Robert Frost, who had a roughly twenty-year head start as a public speaker. Frost read regularly at colleges and universities beginning in 1915, shortly after his return from England with his first two books published and enough critical acclaim to make his presence on campuses much sought after. John Ridland, reviewing William H. Pritchard’s biography of Frost, notes that, “From 1915 on, Frost performed on the public stage . . . reading and commenting on his own poems to larger and larger audiences”; Ridland further notes, “Frost could be very very good, or un-endurably bad—‘horrid,’ as Donald Hall found him at Stanford, ‘trotting out...