Poetry and Performance

In an old Paris Review interview with Robert Frost, the interviewer mentions a poet who writes from six to nine every morning. Frost responds with, “I don’t know what that would be like, myself,” and then adds about writing couplets:

Very first one I wrote I was walking home from school and I began to make it—a March day—and I was making it all afternoon and making it so I was late at my grandmother’s for dinner. I finished it, but it burned right up, just burned right up, you know. And what started that? What burned it? So many talk, I wonder how falsely, about what it costs them, what agony it is to write. I’ve often been quoted: ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ But another distinction I made is: however sad, no grievance, grief without grievance. How could I, how could anyone have a good time with what cost me too much agony, how could they? What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score. They say not, but you’ve got to score, in all the realms—theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.

He adds that rhyming is a matter of performance:

performance and prowess and feats of association—that’s where it all lies. One of my ways of looking at a poem right away it’s sent to me, right off, is to see if it’s rhymed. Then I know just when to look at it. The rhymes come in pairs, don’t they? And nine times out of ten with an ordinary writer, one of two of the terms is better than the other. One makeshift will do, and then they get another that’s good, and then another makeshift, and then another one that’s good. That is in the realm of performance, that’s the deadly test with me. I want to be unable to tell which of those he thought of first. If there’s any trick about it, putting the better one first so as to deceive me, I can tell pretty soon. That’s all in the performance realm.

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