Even though I had to take a break from participating, I’ve been keeping an eye on the Kick-Abouts over at Phil’s Red Kingdom blog – the creativity is always phenomenal. Two weeks ago he announced that the prompt for Kick About #16 would be the last verse of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
This poem was my first poetry love: I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know this poem and didn’t find it magical. I distinctly remember being in my grandmother’s house when I was 8 years old, in my mother’s childhood bedroom, reading it in an old school book anthology I found on a shelf. If my childhood in Southern California was filled with parched chaparral, cars, and Santa Ana winds, Frost described a world that seemed to me in a snow globe or fantasy book – harness bells, snowy woods, deep silence, and solemn promises. I’ve always held this poem close – and I’ve found that has made it difficult for me to make art about it. But I still wanted to participate in the Kick About, so I decided to revisit a trip I took 6 years ago to the Robert Frost Family Homestead in Derry, New Hampshire. All photographs by me on my old iPhone then equipped with a now ancient photo filter app.
The farm is a day trip from Boston – where I was living at the time – and is absolutely worth the trip if you are ever in the area (their website is here). I went in August, so everything was as green and humid as it could be.
It’s hard to fathom writers as famous as Robert Frost being anything but famous and successful – how could anyone have ever doubted the man, after all, he’s Robert Frost? But the origin story of the farm speaks to the fact that there was a time before he was famous, before the Pulitzer and the Congressional Gold Medal. Despairing for the fate of his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, Frost’s grandfather bought the farm for Frost to ensure he had a means to feed and support his family. You can almost hear Frost’s grandfather now, more than a hundred years later: “You want to do what? Be a poet? What – how – how will you feed the children?” Frost enjoyed the farm for the solitude and privacy to write, but was, by all accounts, a half-hearted farmer. He did make a go of it, however, and it was a working poultry farm for a few years.
It is amazing to walk the nature trail around the farm and see the inspirations for his poems for yourself: the woods, dark and deep; the mending wall; the old barn and farm tools.
The Frost family sold the farm in 1911 and it changed owners many times until it became a car junk yard in the 1940s. There is a heartbreaking display on the nature trail with a black and white photograph showing the meadow gone and buried under a sea of wrecked and twisted cars, nothing but thick and clumpy mud. Fortunately, after Frost’s death, the state of New Hampshire recognized the historic value of the property and purchased it. Restoration was undertaken with the help of Frost’s daughter Lesley and the farm was opened to the public in 1975. It is a peaceful and beautiful place to visit. When I read the words of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, I see the woods around the Derry farm, the road curving past on its way from town. I think everyone reads their own life promises into that last stanza – but standing in the meadow behind the Frost farm, it made sense to me that at least some of Frost’s promises were made right here, on an old farm in the New Hampshire countryside.