A Tantalizing Vagueness

Robert Frost Farm (South Shaftsbury, Vermont).
Photo by Beth Ben-Avraham, 2012.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) is one of the most popular—if one can use that term when speaking of a serious poet—American poets of all time. He wrote poetry, but he also said many wise and beautiful things about it. Here are three of my favorite examples.

In a letter he wrote in February 1914, Frost said: “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.” 

Over the years, to the annoyance of my wife, I have developed the habit of reading aloud. Doing so enriches my reading experience enormously, especially if I’m reading poetry. Nowadays, however, I first have to ensure that I am in a room, alone, preferably with the door closed.

My second example is from a letter written in 1916 to a man who became one of Frost’s life-long friends, the American poet, editor, and literary critic, Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977). Frost wrote to Untermeyer, “A poem… begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” Poetry begins in feeling, not thought. Aah!

And then, there’s this one. It’s from the Preface to his Collected Poems, 1939. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

Frost’s poetry writing ended with his death in the winter of 1963, almost sixty years ago. But that does not mean that he is silent. Far from it! For every time we read him, it is as though he’s still alive, sitting beside us, mingling his tears with ours. Oh, how I love that! Memorizing Frost’s words and reciting them on long walks with my collie, who never complains, is a joy. I never grow tired of it.

I treasure many poets, but for me, no other poet has had such a profound, searing impact on my heart, on my feeble attempts to create something beautiful myself, something meaningful. 

Frost’s diligent attention to rhyme and meter does not sit well with many contemporary poets. Today we are preoccupied with free verse or experimental poetry. There are even poetry journals that warn submitters not to send rhymed verse. This preference is not due simply to the passage of time. Even in Frost’s day, it was problematic for some people. He once said in an interview, “I’ve given offense by saying I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” He was not bashful about his opinions. 

However, often it seems that the issue is not the meter or rhyme per se; it’s the lousy poetry so frequently written in rhymed meter, the type that bangs you in the head, that says, “Hey, listen up, we’ve got a poem going here.”

It is challenging to write the kind of poetry that Frost wrote and do it well. One needs to be gifted. One needs to be a poet.


I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls,
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star,
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me—
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad—
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. by Edward Connery Lathem.
(Henry Holt and Company) (pp. 5-6).

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

One thought

  1. Those are all good quotes from Frost. I hadn’t read Ghost House before, so thanks for sharing that. I shared two other Frost poems in a recent poetry class I was teaching. One of the participants told me that a previous tutor had told him his (actually excellent) poems were rubbish because he uses rhyme. Rhyme can be problematic, but in the right hands it can be brilliant.


    Liked by 1 person

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