From “Dabbling in Corruption,” an essay by W. D. Snodgrass, in our Spring 1994 issue. Snodgrass was born on this day in 1926; he died in 2009. Here, he recalls seeing Robert Frost read at a Washington D.C. poetry conference in October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was at full tilt. Frost was eighty-eight then, and, as Snodgrass writes, “obviously in his last months”; he died the following January.
Our luncheon with Jacqueline Kennedy that day was suddenly canceled—rumor had it she was in a cave somewhere in a western state. Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles were steaming toward Cuba; American war ships were steaming toward them. If they met in mid-Atlantic, World War III would almost certainly begin; Washington would be wiped out in hours …
By the time [of Frost’s reading], I was even more drunk and … did not dare register what was happening until a day or so later. Frost began, as he almost never did, by reading someone else’s poem: “Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers. The title alone might have outraged his audience but they were so preconditioned to reverence that nothing else could reach them. Moving to his own poem, “October,” he drew special attention to its relevance for the current autumnal crisis:
O hushed October morning mild.
The leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
His next poem, “November,” developed that figure:
We saw leaves go to glory, …
And then to end the story
Get beaten down and pasted
In one wild day of rain.
We heard “’Tis Over” roaring.
A year of leaves was wasted.
Oh, we make a boast of storing,
Of saving up and keeping
But only by ignoring …
By denying and ignoring
The waste of nations warring.
He said that this was no waste “if it’s toward some meaning. But you can call it waste you can call it expense. Just for this evening.” Then he added a new line of his own:
By denying and ignoring
The waste of nations warring
And the waste of breath deploring.
This was a direct slap at those whose attitude toward the crisis differed from his own. In him, it produced an immediate exhilaration and pugnacity, not against the Russians or Khrushchev (whom he called “the greatest ruler in the world, you know, the almighty”) but against the liberals, most of his audience. They had often criticized his politics (e.g., his saying that no one should get rid of the poor since he needed them in his work); throughout the evening he kept gibing at their attitudes in general and, specifically, toward this crisis. He spoke of “Dover Beachcombers” and those who “would rather fuss with a Gordian knot than cut it.” He went on to say that “every liberal I know of has a tendency when his enemy works up against him … to try to remember if he isn’t more in the wrong than the enemy … a liberal is a person who can’t take his own side in a fight.” As the evening went on, he came to be pumping himself up and down at the lectern like a rooster about to crow. Breaking into what seemed a laugh, he referred to that fearful crisis exultantly, “You didn’t want to just fade out, did you? Why not go out in a blaze of glory?”
After he had received a standing ovation and everyone started to leave, he returned to the podium and called us all back to hear some inconsequential comment. Again he received a standing ovation and everyone started to leave. And once again, he called everyone back for another empty comment and a third standing ovation.
Meantime, R. P. Blackmur, sitting near me, was growling loud obscenities: “You dirty old bastard! You rotten … ” I did not understand, though I’d heard Blackmur had never liked Frost. As we surged out of the hall … I heard myself (to my own astonishment) singing loudly an old Scottish ballad:
She was trantin’ and dancin’ and singin’ for joy;
She’s vowed that very night she would feast Inverey;
She hae laugh’ wi’ him, danced wi’ him, carried him ben;
She was kind wi’ the villain that had slain her guid man.
I had no notion why either Blackmur or I were behaving so badly. Days later I asked myself why I had been singing that song—“The Baron of Brackley.” Earlier in the song, Brackley, head of the clan Gordon, had been urged by his wife to ride out and fight against a pack of hired cattle thieves and gallows birds who finally butcher him. Now, triumphing in his death, she spends the night with Inverey, the leader of that gang. Only when I had recreated the song did I realize how betrayed I had felt by Frost’s speech and his attitude. Of all the people in that packed hall, only Blackmur had recognized that Frost was not only triumphing over those in his audience he thought over-scrupulous in conflict, but laughing at the probability of that audience’s imminent death. Now he would not have to die alone; he had had his full career; they would not. Meantime, they were so worshipful that he could mock them to their faces and receive, in return, not one but three standing ovations.
This essay later appeared in Snodgrass’s book After-Images: Autobiographical Sketches.