Robert Frost

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Frost on Writing Poetry


Reading Robert Frost on writing poetry is nice ice after the fire of his poems. You can tell the man was a teacher once upon a time.

Frost can be forgiven his prejudices and miscues. He disliked the poetry of Wallace Stevens, for instance, comparing it to “bric-a-brac.” He was not a fan of Walden or Robinson Crusoe. But if you focus on quotes about the writing life alone, it’s like a sweating glass of iced tea on a hot summer day. Bracing!

Below, then, a few quotes to distract you from that blank page or screen:


“To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.”

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”

“The artist in me cries out for design.”

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

“I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.”

“The surest way to reach the heart [of the reader] is through the ear. The visual images thrown up by a poem are important, but it is more important still to choose and arrange words in a sequence so as virtually to control the intonations and pauses of the reader’s voice. By arrangement and choice of words on the part of the poet, the effects of humor, pathos, hysteria,  anger, and in fact, all effects, can be indicated or obtained.”

“The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.”

“The best way out is always through.”

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

“A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written…Progress is not the aim, but circulation.”

“Enthusiasm must be forced through the prism of metaphor.”

“For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.”

“Every poem is the epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements.”


Not sure I can buy in on the free verse quote, but it’s to be expected from a guy married to form poems. Me, I don’t much traffic in form (only one published form poem to my credit so far), but my ear DOES enjoy stopping by woods on snowy evenings. Ah, the sound of snow!


Random Thoughts: MLK Eve Edition

  • There’s a certain poetry in quotidian things, like getting out of bed, for instance, when the room is cold and the bed is warm. It gets you thinking ahead: the cold of bathroom floor tiles on your soles, the gooseflesh on your exposed body as you dress, the tiny jingle of license tags as the dog lifts his head when you come down the stairs, and mostly, the vigor of outdoor air rushing in and out of your nose, sometimes smelling piney and sometimes just dry and wintery, while the crows who have been up for hours laugh overhead. All this, while you’re still in bed!
  • This is why mentors advise you carry a small pad of paper with pencil: those snippets of thought, that mortar that will some day hold the bricks of a mighty poetic wall. Yes, it’s tough finding pencils in bed and when you’re in the shower, but I just make a rhyme of the idea, singing it in my head, until I can get to the paper.
  • A 3-day weekend is a marvelous thing. I especially like the “island day,” Sunday, a piece of luxury real estate in the middle. Usually Sunday carries a pall–wherein the monkey mind thinks of Monday, but on an island day? No. Just turquoise ocean, palm trees, and coconuts on the beach.
  • This weekend we meditate on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his message. Especially this weekend. MLK had a dream, but he’d have a nightmare in the decidedly White House were he alive today. “We shall overcome.”
  • This year, the MLK federal holiday falls on his actual birthday: Jan. 15th. (King was born in 1929.)
  • The best vow I ever made as a reader? Diversifying. If you thought that was financial talk, think again. Last year I branched away from my steady diet of fiction (comfort food) and started putting more fiber in my reading diet with nonfiction, short story collections, YA, and especially poetry. Oddly, it’s changed the way I read everything–even my comfort food–because these genres use different techniques and thus require of the reader different skills. Poetry, for instance, slows me down, invites rereading and marveling at how words are used. Reading it makes me notice the sloppiness of many novelists (where words are a luxury often abused) and the beauty when novelists (writers’ writers) treasure words like a poet. I’m seeing that now as I read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.
  • It’s never too late for a “New Year’s resolution,” by the way. I hope you’ll try the Eclectic Reading Plan in 2018 yourself.
  • The more I write poetry, the more I realize the toughest part is nailing the end of a poem. True of novels, too. How many novels have horrible endings? Too many.
  • Which is why I so appreciate James Wright’s ending to the oddly-named “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “I have wasted my life.” This while he is engaging in an activity most westerners would consider a “waste of time”–lying in a hammock! What’s irony to some is all-too-obvious to Buddhists.
  • Seems every time I experiment with my poetry, I get some reader who critiques it by advising that I change the part I experimented on. I’m beginning to think that you can’t experiment unless you go solo and just send the poem out, unvetted. I mean, of course it’s weird! It’s an experiment! Flying kites in lightning storms is weird, too!
  • How do you know you’ve made it or are on your way to making it in the poetry world? You publish a “Collected Poems.” (Meaning: You have enough poems to collect, so they’d better be good!)
  • Although society is less religious than it used to be, there’s no denying the innate appeal of church bells riding the crisp air to your ears. The sound is both sad and beautiful, a wonderful match.
  • I love it when writers from the past visit your poetry and make themselves at home. In my first book it was Turgenev and Tolstoy. In my latest it is James Wright, Jack Gilbert, and Ernest Hemingway. They’re good company, all of them, and make for good cameos in a poem.
  • Favorite good deed: Pushing Raymond Carver’s collected poems on unsuspecting readers. The man’s unjustly labeled as a short story master when, in fact, he is a short story AND poetry master, especially if you like narrative poetry and simple poetry that does not do its best imitation of a Rubik’s Cube.
  • Some of my poems are starting to rhyme unbidden. What’s up with that? I’m not going to question it, though. Never question something Robert Frost ran with.
  • Speaking of, it took England to discover what America had the chance to figure out first: Frost was one bad-ass poet! Thank you, England, and sorry about that little Tea Party thing in Boston Harbor.
  • My wife still isn’t sure about the title Lost Sherpa of Happiness. My daughter loves it.
  • Between Christmas and January birthday, I am (and will be) happily awash in new books, including new poets: Barbara Guest and Wendell Berry so far, with more on the way (like the poetic cavalry riding over the hill in stanzas to the meter of horse hooves).
  • Some say writing a blog distracts you from the real deal (writing poetry). Some say it’s an essential warm-up for the real deal. And some say the world will end in fire, some in ice. (Frost would say “either will suffice.”) For now, I’m sticking with the blog.
  • Thanks for putting up with another in this regular feature called randomness. Happy Day of Rest. I hope you make like Wright in a hammock today. Read, write, muse. Let it be. The world is much ado about nothing, after all….



Unlike major publishing houses, small, independent publishers have no marketing budget to speak of, so they depend upon word-of-mouth enthusiasm among their readers. I hope you can help keep the word-of-mouth buzz rolling for Lost Sherpa of Happiness by visiting Amazon for a copy. Thank you, and may the book’s 63 poems bring a little Buddhist & Taoist joy into your life!

One Man’s Loss Is Another Man’s Win


Every once in a while, you stumble across a book that proves an unexpected charmer. David Markson’s Reader’s Block, the book I am presently reading, is one of those rare treats.

Ostensibly, it’s about an old reader who has sat down to write a novel. Trouble is, he suffers not so much from writer’s block as reader’s block. He is so well-read and knows so many facts from the arts that he would put Alex Trebek to shame. His head is literally swimming with knowledgeable obstructions.

The book, then, is not laid out in paragraph form so much as stream-of-consciousness form, where the stream is a roiling with trivia about poets, artists, composers, painters, philosophers, etc.

To give you a taste, I’ll share a few notable ones about poets and other famous sorts below. Some I knew already, but most I did not. I wonder how many I’ll remember when I’m done? Probably more than I think. I’m pretty good when it comes to the “Useless Facts for $500, Alex,” category.

  • There is no mention of Ockham’s Razor in anything Ockham ever wrote.
  • Not one of Thomas Hardy’s first three novels sold more than twenty copies.
  • Wallace Stevens told Robert Frost his poems were too often about things. Frost told Stevens his were about bric-a-brac.
  • Tolstoy and Gandhi corresponded.
  • Berryman’s name was originally John Smith. He adopted his stepfather’s name when his mother remarried.
  • Walt Whitman more than once wrote anonymous favorable reviews of his own work.
  • Thomas Hobbes was born prematurely when his mother became hysterical at the approach of the Spanish Armada.
  • The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time. Said Einstein.
  • Balzac called Ann Radcliffe a better novelist than Stendhal.
  • Pouring out liquor is like burning books. Said Faulkner.
  • Robert Frost had exactly five poems accepted in the first seventeen years in which he was submitting.
  • Baudelaire spent two hours a day getting dressed.
  • Being a successful reader of poetry on stage, said Akhmatova, is not necessarily the same as being a writer of successful poetry.
  • Twenty American publishers rejected Elie Wiesel’s Night.
  • Johnny Keats piss-a-bed poetry, Byron called it.
  • Aesop was executed for embezzlement.
  • Philip Larkin: I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay died at the first light of morning after having sat up all night reading a new translation of the Aeneid.
  • Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. Said Eliot.
  • Housman published a volume entitled Last Poems in 1922. And lived until 1936.
  • Captured by Moorish pirates at sea, Cervantes spent five years as a slave before being ransomed.
  • Stalin was one of Maxim Gorky’s pall bearers.
  • An enormous dungheap, Voltaire dismissed the sum of Shakespeare as.

You get the idea. One man’s block is another man’s page-turner. And I’m only on p. 88 as I write this!

Have a Ruby Tuesday, all….

A Sunday Stream of Consciousness


  • It’s Sunday, but there are no Sabbaths for the monkey mind.
  • “Monkey mind” being the enemy of Buddha-like meditation and the friend of poet-like brainstorming-without-a-banana.
  • I kind of like the “free” subscriptions you get when you enter a poetry publication’s annual contest. It kind of makes up for the expense of missing first place by kind of making you deceive yourself about the meaning of “free.”
  • In poetry, you cut to the bone, taking a scalpel to expressions like “kind of,” for starters.
  • While drafting poetry, I have found that many bad long poems are hiding good short poems. Ones in the second trimester or so.
  • I proved this to myself by rewriting a long poem Dickinson-style. All I needed was a few random dashes and capital letters (found in Aisle Emily, bottom shelf, at Ocean State Job Lot).
  • The cover of the October issue of Poetry reminds me of the BeatlesWhite Album.
  • Speaking of, I wonder how Jorie Graham feels about being the centerfold.
  • There’s a new sheriff in town (starring Kevin Young) at The New Yorker. Too bad they had to close submissions on July 3rd. The good news? The market reopens on Nov. 1st, and just because your poems were sent home before doesn’t mean they will again
  • Which reminds me: Poetry is subjective. A lot rides on particular editors’ eyes. If it gets that far.
  • Which is not to say there’s no such thing as “bad poetry” (I often send it to its room without supper).
  • Still trying to get over my prejudice against form poems by reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax.
  • Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who warned about two sure things in life: death and syntaxes?
  • As usual, the list of National Book Awards for Poetry includes books and authors a.) I haven’t read and b.) I haven’t even heard of. Guess I need to listen better.
  • Does anyone still write poems with pencil and paper? I do. But it’s ideas for poems only. Once I start writing, it’s on the trusty word processor.
  • When a poetry manuscript is accepted for publication, the toughest part is starting the next poetry manuscript. Especially with so many laurels lying around, waiting to be rested upon.
  • Poets need more patience than doctors. Can you say “wait time”? As a submitter of your work, you’d better be good at it. The competition is fierce and the numbers are legion.
  • My first love in poetry is predictably Frost.
  • I do not think “Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening” is corny. So sue me.
  • If you call yourself a reader but don’t read poetry, are you really a reader?
  • If a tree falls in the wilderness, does it make a sound?
  • No and yes.

Poems That Stick


For many decades, I was a plainclothes reader of poetry. I took a course at university, like people do, but wasn’t terribly impressed. Still, impressions were made. A few poems, for reasons quirky to me, stuck. That is, I remembered certain lines and, like stubborn lint that’s taken up residence in wool, they refused to give. Strands of them took up permanent residency in those out-of-the-way lobes of my brain.

One “sticker” was some poem a guy wrote about his cat, Jeoffrey. Perhaps it was the poem. Perhaps it was the idea that a poet would riff for an entire poem on his cat. And I’m a dog guy, so don’t get it in your head that I like the poem because I watch inane youtube videos about kitties. This poem transcends all that silliness.

The poem in question? “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher “Really” Smart, a guy who spent seven years in an insane asylum (while Jeoffrey ran affairs back home, no doubt). A taste (brace yourself for a strong dose of anaphora):

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. 
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep. 

To qualify as a “stick” poem, the poem doesn’t have to be remembered whole hog. Oh, no. One line will do. The best example is a two-word line from a poem that I frequently mutter as I look up at raucous crows in the sky, on tree limbs, or on the peak of the roof. It is, simply, “Pass, crow.” The words rattle like two marbles in the empty cup of my mind every time I see my dark-feathered friends.

And what a lovely conceit! I mean, the very thought of man commanding crow! If crows appear to laugh, their heads bobbing with due caws, this final line from this poem is the reason. Ted Hughes, a crow specialist, is the deluded poet:

“Examination at the Womb-Door”

Who owns those scrawny little feet?    Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face?    Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs?    Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles?    Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts?    Death.
Who owns these questionable brains?    Death.
All this messy blood?    Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes?    Death.
This wicked little tongue?    Death.
This occasional wakefulness?    Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth?    Death.
Who owns all of space?    Death.

Who is stronger than hope?    Death.
Who is stronger than the will?    Death.
Stronger than love?    Death.
Stronger than life?    Death.

But who is stronger than Death?
                          Me, evidently.
Pass, Crow.

Of course, you cannot be a registered reader of American poetry if you don’t have some Frost covering the frozen grass of your mind. For me, it’s two lines: “Whose woods these are I think I know” (though, like Frost, I don’t really) and “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”

If the roads had diverged in a red wood, it wouldn’t work as well. Yes, it’d be a nod to Frost’s birth state of California, but memorable? No. It may be read multiple times, but it just wouldn’t stick.

I should know. I’ve been going left at every fork in a yellow wood I’ve come across. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Why You Should Memorize a Poem


One of the profoundest things I learned in college came from an English professor who was once a prisoner of war during WWII. He said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout the drudgery and misery of his captivity, he would recite poems in his mind – words he had captured himself during schooldays. These poems became his company. His friends and succor. Without that, he said, he would almost surely have gone mad.

This morning, venturing into the crisp, 30-something degree dark with the dog, I was greeted as usual by the cheerful stars. It’s in those darkest-before-dawn hours that they seem sharpest, brightest, as if they save their diamond best as a treat for early risers.

And the friendliest October constellations to greet me? Orion, of course, with Canis Major, his faithful hunting dog, at his heels. I greet both dog and hunter by reciting aloud a Robert Frost poem I memorized long ago. Owning that poem makes me feel good, and the celestial dog seems to appreciate the attention to. Here’s what I say to the dark (“Canis Major” by Robert Frost):

The great Overdog,
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye,
Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.

I’m a poor underdog,
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

Each cloud-free morning, when I recite the poem, I watch the words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. Together they rise in the sky to join Canis Major, and Orion doesn’t seem to mind a bit. (I’m Sirius!)

On days starting like today, I often think of my professor and how right he was. And you don’t have to be a prisoner of war to benefit, either. You might be a prisoner of sadness. Or circumstances. Or boredom. Memorizing a poem will take care of your blues, I promise. Try it!

Ekphrastic Poetry (of a Sort)


“Ekphrasis” is a Greek word meaning “description.” In poetry, it conjures a poem describing a painting or sculpture. Using the adjective form, we get “ekphrastic poetry,” and although I have not written about a painting or a sculpture, I have written about a photograph.

Is this “ekphrastic poetry”? Durned if I know. I suppose strict interpretation sorts will say, “Sorry, but no,” but strict interpretation sorts aren’t allowed on my lawn, so I’ll take credit for one ekphrastic poem even though it’s shy about announcing itself as such.

It is “Provide, Provide” (thank you, Robert Frost), and what I love about the photograph (besides its inspirational value) is its symbolism. It shows an old Maine farmhouse in November. The perimeter of the concrete foundations are skirted with rectangular bales of hay. Nearby is a wood shed filled neatly with cut wood. Photograph or no, you can almost smell the scent of the wood, the shavings, the cold November air.

And the old man who has authored it? Been doing it all his life. Taught by his father, no doubt. All business. Old New England. Taciturn, but seemingly saying, “Bring it on, Old Man Winter!” (And Old Man Winter never disappoints.)

Here’s what became of the photograph when it took on an alter ego in words:

Provide, Provide

Clem buttresses that old house
with bales of hay against the foundation,
rivets metal roofing over buckled
tar paper, and feeds his splitter, revealing
the striated blond bellies of halved maple
logs and spewing the fine dust of sweet
wood into his khaki-confettied hair.
As if he sat at Job’s knee as a child,
that old man stacks his wood into a cord,
builds a square meal for his winter stove,
and doesn’t glance up once at the leaden
bottoms of November’s indifferent clouds.

— Ken Craft, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press, 2016)

Like Frost, I’m a fan of the fall. Summer heat and humidity are OK in small doses, but the cool-to-damned-cold autumn? I never tire of it. Stark realism, thank you. The world without pretensions or make-up (I’m talking after the leaf show, folks). A season custom designed for the Protestant work ethic if ever there was one. No room for old slackers.

And then there is Clem and his splitter. The wonderful look and texture of cut wood. The stacking into a new design (order as beauty). The concomitant feeling of satisfaction and fatigue.

Oh, yes. And the ant ascendant. Grasshoppers and their cellphones are long vanquished from the scene.

Providence (sans Rhode Island) at its best!