Robert Frost on 'Listen America': The Poet's Message to America in 1956

By Cornett, Michael E. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Robert Frost on 'Listen America': The Poet's Message to America in 1956


Cornett, Michael E., Papers on Language & Literature


Though Robert Frost intensely enjoyed talking about and saying his poetry, maintaining a full schedule of public appearances even in his last years, he had little to no experience presenting his poetry to the public through radio broadcast. On one occasion, however, in 1955 at almost eighty-two, he took such an opportunity and recorded a thirty-minute lecture-reading at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for Listen America, a series nationally broadcast in 1956 on the National Association of Educational Broadcasters network. Despite the interest and potential importance of this broadcast to the biographical and literary study of Frost, Frost's recording has never been transcribed and edited to be made available to the scholarly community. Following is a discussion of the program series and Frost's participation, with the text of Frost's recording.

LISTEN AMERICA

In the fall of 1954, Robert Frost was contacted about participating in Listen America, a program series that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill public radio station, WUNC, would produce for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters network (NAEB). The series was to be produced by the playwright and novelist John Ehle and to be directed by John Clayton, both of the University of North Carolina Communication Center.

To solicit the participation of the writers for the thirteen-program series, Ehle enlisted Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green as the consultant and guiding-hand for Listen America. Green, and in some cases Ehle, contacted a long list of writers, many of whom were dramatists with radio experience, during the fall of 1954 through spring, 1955. The writers were asked if there was something they would like to say at this time through radio to the American people. They could, we said, choose any theme and develop it in any style pleasing to them. There were no restrictions imposed by the University of North Carolina.(1)

The thirteen who in the end contributed were Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Randall Jarrell, Archibald MacLeish, Norman Corwin, Pearl Buck, Noel Houston, Conrad Richter, John Gunther, Betty Smith, William Saroyan, and Green himself

Listen America was broadcast weekly over seventy-eight NAEB stations around the country from October through December of 1956, and the series or individual programs were rebroadcast on NAEB stations as late as 1964. Because of problems negotiating rights among so many authors and their publishers, Listen America was never broadcast commercially, and probably not internationally.(2)

Frost made his recording during one of his annual visits to Chapel Hill, usually in the spring on his way back north from wintering in Florida. For fifteen years from 1947 to 1961, he stayed with his long-time friends Clifford Lyons, a professor in the English department, and his wife, Gladys. He gave lecture-readings to standing-room-only crowds on campus, visited English classes, and spent long hours talking with the Lyonses and their friends. A letter from Paul Green to Allen Tate, 15 April 1955, states that Frost had already made the recording.(3) In 1955 Frost was in Chapel Hill giving a lecture-recital on 16 March, and he typically visited for a week. Undoubtedly he recorded his talk during this time.(4)

Robert Frost chose to do things as he usually did: without script he spontaneously discussed and "said" his poems. In March 1955 he sat on a couch in the studio before a microphone and proceeded, haltingly, until he finished the recording. John Ehle was there and remembered the scene for me. Struggling with his failing memory and tiring easily, Frost frequently paused to refresh himself before continuing. There was a "tragic moment," Ehle recalls, when Frost, in the middle of reciting "Mending Wall," abruptly stopped and sat in silence for a long space of time. Looking up, he said, "I've never forgotten |Walls' [sic] before. …

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