Robert Frost poem imagines losing a child

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SHAFTSBURY >> TIME magazine's "Best of the Century" list published on New Year's Eve in 1999 ranked Robert Frost's poem, "Home Burial" number three, beat only by W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming" and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."

"I think it's number one," said Carole Thompson, director of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury.

Frost never gave public readings of this poem about a father burying his child and his wife's response.

"... Don't carry it to someone else this time. / Tell me about it if it's something human. / Let me into your grief. I'm not so much / unlike other folks as your standing there / apart would make me out. ..."

Four of Frost's six children died before him — of cholera, suicide, puerperal fever and post-birth complications — and his wife died suddenly in 1938, while he lived until 1963 and died at 88.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, June 28, behind the museum in the Little Red Barn, two actors from Bennington's Oldcastle Theatre will perform a dramatic reading of "Home Burial," as part of the museum's "Sunday Afternoons with Robert Frost" series. Lea Newman, vice-president of The Friends of Robert Frost and Professor Emerita of American Literature at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), will also speak, asking why Frost may have never read the poem publicly.

Eric Peterson, the founder and Producing Artistic Director of Oldcastle Theater, will perform the two-character poem alongside longtime actor and Oldcastle director Daryl Kenny.

"Daryl and I have spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the poem and, as actors, trying to attack it from different angles," Peterson said. "You have to make the choice here: Are you going to recite the poem or are you going to act the poem and be the people? And we're actors, so we do more of the latter than of the former. But there are also narrative parts of it. It's a complicated piece, both to read and to perform. Every time we've done this it's been different, so we'll see how it comes out this time."

Peterson and Kenny will revisit "Home Burial" after performing it more than 10 years ago as part of a play Peterson wrote called "Frost Warnings," about Frost and his wife, Elinor. The Friends of Robert Frost commissioned the play.

He distinguished "Home Burial" from other Frost poems like "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" or "Fire and Ice," a shorter poem, which he described as having tart and funny elements.

"'Home Burial' is so ambitious," he said, and not what a casual reader of Frost's poems expects.

"It's a difficult poem in the best sense of the word," he said, "in that it's very dense. It's complicated — it's complex — it's tragic," he said. "I find it frightening."

"It almost starts like a ghost story," he added, as the first two sentences of the poem gaze up a flight of stairs at a woman from the eyes of her husband, though she does not see him as she looks "back over her shoulder at some fear."

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He believes the poem is, to some extent, based on Frost's relationship with his wife.

"He had a very interesting, at times contentious, at times very loving marriage," Peterson said.

Though he has not performed it for several years, he said being away from it can be very helpful.

"Text settles in, and your unconscious has done some thinking about it that you're perhaps not aware of," he said. "And so you maybe have a somewhat different take on it than you did before. Also, you're older — things have happened to us. There's more experience there."

Peterson's appreciation for Frost goes back to his growing up in Bennington. As someone interested in the arts since childhood, knowing that he walked the same streets as writers like Robert Frost, Bernard Malamud and Shirley Jackson has influenced his work, he said. Oldcastle Theatre often performs pieces that have to do with the surrounding region.

Carole Thompson, the Frost museum's founder, worked in sales in New York City for 30 years before retiring and becoming a self-proclaimed Frost scholar. Most Frost scholars, she said, are Ph.D. professors in university English departments around the country and the world. But Thompson's passion for the poet led her to read his biographies and do the research on her own.

"You don't become a scholar by taking courses," she said. "You do it by reading 100 starter books. As Frost said, 'You educate yourself inside college or outside of college.'"

OFF THE PAGE

What: Performance of Robert Frost's 'Home Burial'

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, June 28

Where: Robert Frost Stone House Museum, 121 Historic Route 7A, Shaftsbury

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday

Admission: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for children under 18 years old and free for children under 10

Info: frostfriends.org/stonehouse.html, frostfriends.org/calendar.html


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