The day Robert Frost came to campus


The first issue of The Varsity News was published in 1918, 98 years ago. As part of the build-up to its centennial celebration, The Varsity News occasionally will be reprinting stories from its archives. These two, published on Nov. 16, 1962, report on the visit of iconic American poet Robert Frost to the university campus – almost three decades before the University of Detroit merged with Mercy College. He appeared before a packed house at what today is called Calihan Hall.

The day Robert Frost came to campus

Robert Frost, showing the passing of 88 years, but retaining the warmth which has made him perhaps the most beloved poet in this nation’s history, accepted the cheers of 8,500 people in the Memorial Building Wednesday night.

His appearance in the packed building climaxed a two-day visit for the poet.

He had been presented Tuesday with an honorary degree by the university, has held press conferences and met faculty members. But he had also managed to slip off by himself for an hour-long walk.

“My poetry has grown and grown, so that I am hopelessly American,” he said. He told, also, of walking the streets of Detroit, San Francisco, Boston and Moscow.

The audience erupted with applause when Frost walked to the stage, accompanied by Charles Feinberg, his Detroit host, and the Very Rev. Laurence V. Britt, S.J., U-D president.

He acknowledged the applause with a wave of his hand and remained seated as the U-D chorus performed for the first time the poet’s work “These Gifts Outright,” which has been set to music by Director Don Large.

Following welcomes by Father Britt and Feinberg’s introduction, Frost walked to the lectern, waited out the cheers and said: “Just look at you. I’m looking at you.”

The poet leaned forward on the lectern and faced a battery of television cameras and microphones. He spoke softly, and hundreds in the Memorial Building’s top tiers hunched forward to listen.

The harsh lights accentuated the thatch of white hair. Frost’s right foot nervously twisted the stage carpet as he went from whimsy to seriousness and back.

He started the informal program with a commentary on Detroit. He told about his walk that afternoon and said it added the city to his list – he has now slept and walked here.

The city, Frost said, is the home of polish, politeness – and the police. People love the country, but they come to the city “to sell their vegetables and to sell their poetry.”

But the bigness in a city is a necessary thing. “Big cities give me confidence; they hold the continent down,” he explained.

His first two readings continued the theme – “I Have Been One Acquainted With the Night” and “Now I’m Out Walking.”

This one he interpreted for the audience. “Everybody is making all kinds of meaning out of everything – well, that’s a straight-out death one.” But he cautioned the audience, “Don’t do something disagreeable with it.”

He skipped back several times to the “antagonism between city and country.”

“I don’t hold with the antagonism between city and country. I’m a mixed creature – some call it confused,” he said.

He gently chided modern poetry for being “too grim.”

“If I don’t catch up with modern poetry, it’s because I approach the humor of poetry a little too good naturedly,” he told his chuckling listeners.

Commenting on “Mending Wall,” the poet said critics had read too much meaning into it. “What I thought I was doing when I wrote it didn’t turn out to be that at all.”

Frost pointed to the meaning in poetry. He read Mother Goose rhymes and taunted the audience with their deeper meanings. “If you don’t like that, you won’t like my poetry,” he said.

He read a parable from his latest book, but skipped the conclusion. His eyes twinkled as he told the audience they would have to read the book to find how it ended.

The program ended with his recitation of “Choose Something Like a Star.” He interrupted the chorus with comments on the wave of applause: “And I thank you all. This is an avalanche.”

The program, slated to start at 8:30 p.m., got under way about 9 p.m., delayed by one of the largest traffic jams in years. The chorus entertained with several songs.

Feinberg said Frost seemed amazed at the number of buses outside the building. Many of them brought students from out of town. “How far is it to Lansing, to Toledo, to Ann Arbor, to Flint?” he asked.

Many in the audience were taken by Frost’s wit and leaned forward to hear his comments on areas barely relating to poetry.

Some samples:

n His favorite prayer – “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”

n Education – “Degree-dation, that’s the way I’ve been educated. Just goes to show that if it’s in you to get educated you can’t escape.”

n His personal philosophy – “I never dared be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old.”

He walked off the stage as the band played “Alma Mater” and the cheers washed over him.

Frost’s visit was sponsored by the Friends of the Library. The program was aired by WJR radio and videotaped by WXYZ-TV. The talk was also watched by several hundred students on closed circuit television.





“I meet you late in my life. Pleased to meet you.”

With that, Robert Frost introduced himself for the first time to the Detroit press Tuesday morning at the home of Charles Feinberg, chairman of the Frost program.

Although nearly 9,000 people crowded the Memorial Building to see Frost Wednesday, the personality and warmth of the poet were much more obvious at smaller gatherings.

At the press conference, Frost seated himself in an armchair and admonished reporters to move in closer and “speak up crisp and clear.” The photographers persisted in their camera attacks.

The poet glared at an offender who had thrust himself in front of a reporter and said, “You already had your turn. This was supposed to be a time for intellectual conversation.”

Then he returned to the discussion of young poets: “They need to be discouraged more than encouraged. You shouldn’t go into any of the arts unless you’ve got a snout for punishment.”

Speaking of his Russian visit last year, he said, “I didn’t get any explanations for what I saw, and I wasn’t asking for any.

“I went into it as I go into anything else, full of preconceptions, to see what I had to correct and what to confirm.” He added that in this case, he mostly confirmed.

But the poet was less sure about conceptions the Russians might have of his poetry: “One of the charms of translation is that they don’t know if my poems are really any good, and I don’t know if their translations are any good.”

Even when the conference had officially ended, Frost stood in the midst of the press and kept talking. When some suggested that time had proven the value of great works of art, Frost replied, “Some things survive only by chance. Time isn’t a sure judge any more than anything else is.”

Later Tuesday, Frost was presented with an honorary doctorate in humane letters from U-D. “If it’s in you and in the situation to be educated,” said Frost, “you can’t escape it.”

Although he never finished college, Frost said he was “educated by degrees.” The doctorate from U-D was one more addition to the more than 50 he now holds.

Tuesday evening at the president’s dinner in honor of Frost, the Very Rev. Laurence B. Britt, S.J., president, said the Frost program ticket sales rivaled the best athletic events.

Frost recalled a similar comment made about 20 years ago by Fielding Yost of University of Michigan football fame. Frost was poet-in-residence at the time.

The post proposed a showdown – a simultaneous football game and poetry reading. “But,” he said, “you won’t have anybody at all at the poetry reading. I’ll be at the football game.”

Joseph Nederlander, Fisher Theatre manager, had ticket sales in mind as he conducted Frost on a tour of the theater Tuesday night.

“Mr. Frost,” said Nederlander, “you are the hottest ticket to hit Detroit since ‘South Pacific.’ ”

“But I don’t have to wash my hair every night,” answered Frost.