Stephen Metcalf, Anna Strong Safford, and Ahmad Almallah joined Al Filreis to talk about one of the most well known poems in English of the twentieth century — Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” What hasn't already been said about this poem? Well, to our ears at least, this conversation goes in several unusual and, we think, fascinating new directions. What exactly is the nature of the poem’s (or anyway the speaker’s) cultural conservatism? Can the wall really be read geopolitically? Is it more about what is being walled out than walled in? Do the stalwart iambs themselves form a wall that is hard for readers to get across? Are the gaps in the wall wide enough for new readers to get through?
As part of my work to excavate, digitize, and contextualize one of the first poetry audio archives in US, The Speech Lab Recordings, I’m thrilled to announce a significant addition to the collection: new digitizations of previously unreleased Robert Frost recordings, made in the Speech Lab in 1933 and 1934.
These recordings, which may be the first recordings ever made of Frost, in one sense mark a departure from the aesthetic circumscription of the collection. Many of the poets who were recorded in professors W. Cabell Greet and George W. Hibbitt’s Columbia University lab built for the study of American dialects operated in a modernist tradition of formal innovation.
One October 11, 2012, I hosted a debate on Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Well, not quite a debate, but I knew that I, sitting in the middle of four poets, would be on the fence, as it were, with two on a side. The live webcast, hosted by the Kelly Writers House, was associated with the 36,000-person free online course "ModPo," and was viewed synchronously by dozens in the room with us and thousands watching digitally around the world. We made a recording immediately afterward, and have posted it to YouTube here (1 hour, 9 minutes). (And here is a recording of Frost performing the poem. We began our discussion by listening to it; the performance is certainly important to at least the beginning of the debate.)
The differences between the sides, two versus two, didn't really emerge until the end of a fascinating discussion, but they did indeed emerge, Rachel Blau DuPlessis first finally expressing concerns about the attitude of the poem’s speaker, then Bob Perelman joining the view, pointedly. To be sure, all four poets — Bob, Rachel, and John Timpane and Taije Silverman — spent much of the time assembling a full close formal (and meta-poetic) reading of the poem. Its thematics — and politics — derived, as is apt, from the poem's quality as itself an instance in form of the speaker's impulse to have and also to keep apart from the stilled human object of his beautiful but empty annual cultural rite. Later John Timpane thought some more about his own position on the poem’s speaker; I'm pleased that he has given me permission to publish his statement here.
The materials published in this feature are led by my introduction to a symposium on the poetry and poetics of 1960. The introduction you'll read here is more or less just as I spoke it a few months ago at the Writers House in Philadelphia. Since then, Gordon Faylor and I have gathered somewhat revised versions of the presentations made that evening. We then solicited responses from various others and we are happy to present these also as part of our 1960 feature, along with several other images and documents. I have been obsessively tracking 1960 doings and writings — reading, watching (film and TV), researching, interviewing, cross-referencing, following apparently meaningless leads; some of these have been posted to my blog “1960.” Needless to say, then, I was delighted to have 1960-obsessed company for a night in December 2010 — and then, further, throughout the following weeks and months as I worked with the original presenters and added respondents.