The Permanence of Robert Frost and His Poetry

On the 100th anniversary of Amherst College first hiring Robert Frost as a faculty member, Paul Dimond, ’66, hosted a symposium on “The Permanence of Frost,” at the Frost Memorial Library on March 23, 2017. Thus did the site for this event serve as the first reminder of Frost’s permanence. The symposium also occurred within a week of the publication of Dimond’s historical novel in which Robert Frost plays an important role as teacher, mentor and then lifelong friend, colleague and correspondent with the lead character of the book, The Belle of Two Arbors. For much of the past decade, Dimond researched and lived with Frost as poet and man writing his novel.  Three colleagues who deeply influenced his work joined as panelists. Thus did his novel and this very symposium offer additional evidence of Frost’s permanence.

William Pritchard, Folger Distinguished Professor of English for six decades and counting and author of the best literary biography of the great poet and his poetry, reviewed Frost’s first three-year trial at Amherst and his “rhymes” from this period.  He concluded:  “Frost now stands as the acknowledged lead of all 20th century American Poets, the most taught, the most read, the most influential.” Donald Sheehy, lead editor of the five-volume Frost Letters (volumes 12 through 1928 published), illustrated the wide variety of forms of poetry Frost mastered over his long career.  He concluded, “Frost is still the most surprising, varied, studied, and, yes, the best American poet of the 20th century.”  Vievee Francis, Dartmouth Professor of Poetry, long-time Detroit poet and recent winner of the Hurston-White Black Writers’ Poetry Award and the Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award (the largest money prize for poetry save for the Nobel Prize), recited several examples of how Frost poems influenced her work.  She added: “The greatest American poet is also the foundation of the lineage of more American poets today than any other, dead or alive, and regardless of race or gender.”    

Finally, Dimond introduced a 10-minute documentary film of two events he witnessed of the enduring connection between Robert Frost and President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The video opens with the poet trying to read the poem “Dedication” he composed just before the new President’s inauguration. The brilliant sunshine and faint type on the page conspired to form an endearing human moment as the 85-year-old Frost struggled to read the words in the 88 lines he had typed at his hotel the previous night. The Washington Post reported that in that moment Frost “stole the hearts of the Inaugural crowd.” The poet recovered to recite “The Gift Outright” from memory, the poem the President-Elect asked him. The second includes the key parts of President Kennedy’s fateful eulogy for Frost on poetry and power delivered on October 26, 1963 at the groundbreaking for the very Frost Memorial Library in which we now sit.

From President Kennedy’s speech honoring Robert Frost:

“[Those] who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but [those] who question power make a contribution just as indispensable…, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”




All this begs the question: After four decades pursuing diverse careers as a civil rights and education advocate in the 1970s; as a professor of law, author of numerous articles and three books on the Fourteenth Amendment, major race and education cases in the Supreme Court, and the limits of judicial review in a democracy, and five years as a partner in real estate investment firm the 1980s; serving as a lawyer in a private firm, Assistant to President Clinton for Economic Policy, and Chairman of a national real estate firm in the 1990s and 2000s, why did the author turn to writing this historical novel in his seventh decade?  Here’s his answer:

I grew up and lived most of my life in Ann Arbor in the shadow of the University of Michigan with my feet between town and gown and summered in Glen Arbor in the lee of Sleeping Bear Dunes on the shore of Lake Michigan.  I read Frost and Dickinson poems at home and at Ann Arbor High School and entered Amherst College (the long-time home of both great American poets) thinking I’d major in English.  Instead, I got buried in the archives of the library studying medieval and renaissance history of England.  I also witnessed President Kennedy’s remarkable final address on Frost, poetry and power; shared in the shock and longer mourning of our young President’s assassination too soon thereafter; and sat on my hands as my braver classmates protested the at best strategically misguided Vietnam War at our graduation in 1966. I fled back to Ann Arbor for law school, where I began my long research and work on the text, framing, history, interpretation of the Civil War Amendments and Civil Rights Acts.  In the spring of 1993 I took a break from the seemingly endless days and nights working as a senior White House staffer to visit my daughter studying pre-med courses in Boston.  We visited the JFK Presidential Library:  at the end of the tour, we found a large poster of President Kennedy thinking, wandered over to read the fine print and saw the tag-line “J.F.K., Amherst College, October 26, 1963” and the famous line from the speech quoted above.  I put it in my office in the Old Executive Office Building to remind me and all the other big egos and sharp elbows who might wander over that we did not know it all and should be open to tougher questions.

In 2006, not satisfied with the endings in any of my several careers, I decided to try my hand at writing fiction to see if I could imagine better endings.  Given my long association with Ann Arbor, Glen Arbor and Amherst as places, I remembered Frost’s joining the Michigan faculty in the 1920s and wondered whether this might fit with a story embedded in the three towns I knew best. I also wondered how Emily Dickinson might play a role.  I began to study the poems, archives, and many biographies of the two poets, and the answer emerged: a reclusive woman poet — born in Glen Arbor at the end the 19th century weaned by her mother on Emily Dickinson’s poems — would play the lead.  She goes to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1921 to study poetry, her star-gazing younger brother in tow; and there they meet Robert Frost, who takes them under his wing.  The younger brother follows Frost to Amherst for college, and there Belle confronts the battles over Emily Dickinson’s archives and legacy and Frost’s hopes for his. 

After a decade of hard work, including with a co-author poet, and gestation, The Belle of Two Arbors is born.  Once we got into the final drafting, Belle mostly wrote herself: from this lead character’s first-person narrative perspective, Emily Dickinson is reimagined and Frost lives anew.