UM Bicentennial Symposium, “Poets at Michigan: Then and Now”

Andrew Martin, Dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Literature, Science and the Arts introduced this full-day event April 7 at the Ballroom of the Michigan Union: “The vision for today’s program originated with a dear friend of the College - Paul Dimond.  Paul came to me with the idea of honoring the work of Robert Frost who spent some of his most important years at the University of Michigan, years you will be learning more about today.  Today’s symposium was intentionally timed to coincide with the University’s bicentennial and with the lighting of the carillon of the Burton Tower, a memorial to President Marion Leroy Burton who bet on Frost being a creative fellow and an example of exemplary UM leadership. He was right.  Paul’s interest in this project was ignited by his own research into Frost. He’s just finished his own book The Belle of Two Arbors. This historical novel intertwines the relationship of the main character Belle with three of the greatest 20th century poets, Auden, Roethke, and... Frost.   Told in the context of dramatic events at the University of Michigan, this book is certain to become an important part of Michigan’s literary fabric.”

In his remarks, Dimond detailed how two kindred spirits both age 46 — Michigan’s new President Burton and rising poet Frost — joined in common purpose in the fall of 1921 to host on campus “Creative Fellows” who “actually produce the results which influence the thought of nations” (Burton) and thereby bring “the creative and the erudite together in education where they belong, and [the former may] also make its demand on the young student” (Frost).  Begun as an experiment for only one year, the relationship proved such a success (including Frost’s first Pulitzer Prize book of poems, dedicated to Michigan), Burton eventually signed Frost for a lifetime appointment as a “Permanent Fellow in Letters.”  Alas, heart failure too-soon struck down Michigan’s President.  Before Frost negotiated a similar life-time appointment to return to Amherst College as a “Permanent Fellow in Letters,” he paid the highest tribute possible to Burton: in his eulogy for his good friend, Frost shared their views on the critical role of creative arts in higher education to another packed house at Michigan’s Hill Auditorium.

In Dimond’s historical novel in the fall of 1921, Frost also meets another kindred spirit, the lead character Belle. Upon reading and hearing the student’s draft elegy for her mother, Frost challenges Belle to compose a better poem.  Not taken aback, she challenges Frost to write a better elegy for his mother, who shared the nickname “Belle.”  The student and her mentor grow to become lifelong friends, colleagues and correspondents.  On Belle’s third try at an adequate remembrance for her mother, Frost honors Belle and her “Goodbye to Mama” at the first Hopwood Awards.  Seven years later, she reads his perfect sonnet “The Silken Tent” as the best elegy to a mother (or to a long-time woman friend) ever.  More than two decades later Frost reads these two poems at Belle’s memorial service to remember her.  As a personal example of Frost’s permanence, I like to think no poet could ever pay a higher tribute to a woman friend.     

Frost’s permanence at Michigan –and in the nation – is displayed more publicly for posterity in this 12-minute documentary we have prepared for you from the last three years of Frost’s life and the eulogy delivered for him nine months after his death by President Kennedy. The video opens with a clip from January 20, 1961 as the 86-year-old Frost recites his poem “The Gift Outright” at the Presidential Inauguration as requested for the first time ever by a President-Elect.  There follows in the spring of 1962 here to a packed house at Hill auditorium a glimpse into Frost’s insight and lyric genius as the 88-year-old poet reads from his sonnet, “Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same” to conclude his third encore.  A few weeks later, Frost receives a “Doctor of Laws” at our other “Big House,” Michigan Stadium.  The video closes with President Kennedy’s last major address, his eulogy to Frost on poetry and power at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Memorial Library at Amherst College in the fall of 1963.

From President Kennedy’s speech honoring Robert Frost:

“At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it's hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

I teared up witnessing this remembrance again, for I was there, met President Kennedy and shook his hand.  Then he was gone. 

Going on 54 years later, this I can still safely say: No President will ever again so honor a poet for his contributions to American life and democracy.