People want to save their souls by writing poetry, or so they say. Should we take that seriously? Did Smart save his soul in the madhouse writing all those lucid lines? Perhaps it’s enough to say that from primitive times there has been a need for expression.

Poetry is older than prose. Poetry was the morning cry when coming out of the cave to see that the sun had arisen again, a high song of joy in the treble clef It was also the low sounds of grief at the death of a child who had wandered away from the cave and been killed by an animal. Our early ancestors probably knew the whole range of emotions from joy to sorrow, from lyric cry to threnody.

Nowadays prose must outnumber poetry quantitatively nine to one. Millions of Americans get along from birth to death without poetry—well, maybe they read a poem in a newspaper, but they then forget it. Yet however mechanical our age becomes we have to deal with prose all the time. We have to read, if only traffic signs; we have to be instructed; we have to give instructions. The prose of the day may be some kind of computer language, part mathematics, part English, as a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa orator warned at a commencement not long ago; and it may be a dangerous sign of possibly losing the collective mind, as she put it. But at least prose is for everybody. Poetry is not.

New poems are sometimes new half a century later, as is the case with my own “The Groundhog,” or “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment.” Both are old but have lasted. Take a look at Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse. Flip back to the last half-inch of pages, where you’ll find a vast collection of poems by somebody called Anonymous. Mr. Anonymous, about two thousand years old, or at least a thousand, wrote some of the newest poems in that book.

On Saturday, March 26, 1988, at Thomas Center, Gainesville, a plaque was unveiled commemorating Robert Frost, who had lived here part time, in the winter, for 15 years or more starting in the early 30’s. He had given readings at the university, and his wife died here. In his citation President Reitz said in part, “He has shown us that it is possible to be both subtle and plain, both original and traditional, both direct and richly textured, both engaging and serious.”

In my Collected Poems: 1930-1986 there is one entitled “Worldly Failure,” which reads as follows:

I looked into the eyes of Robert Frost

Once, and they were unnaturally deep.

Set far back in the skull, as far back in the earth.

An oblique glance made them look even deeper.

He stood inside the door on Brewster Street,

Looking out. I proffered him an invitation.

We went on talking for an hour and a half.

To accept or not to accept was his question.

Whether he wanted to meet another poet;

He erred in sensing some intangible slight.

Hard for him to make a democratic leap.

To be a natural poet you have to be unnaturally deep.

While he was talking he was looking out.

But stayed in, sagacity better indoors.

He became a metaphor for inner devastation.

Too scared to accept my invitation.

There is a story behind the poem. At the time Frost was living on Brewster Street near Lake View Avenue in Cambridge, where my mother-in-law lives. My wife, Betty, and I were living at 10 Hilliard Place. On Betty’s suggestion I went over to see Frost and invited him to dinner on Saturday night to meet a British poet friend of ours. He said he would be glad to come. We talked outside his door for a long time. Betty had told me to show him a review, I think now it was a British one, of a current book of mine, which was positive but not all praise, to see what he thought of it. Upon perusing this Frost said he never read reviews of his own work, and paid no attention to them.

On Thursday Frost phoned to say he could not come on Saturday as he had been called out of town, or some such excuse.

Later we found out that the lady who took care of Frost, Kay Morrison, had informed him that the poet in question coming for dinner Saturday night was Kathleen Raine, one of the best English poets, a contemporary of mine from 1927 to 1929 at Cambridge. Frost remembered at once that Raine had written a review of his poetry in the London Times Literary Supplement that was not 100 percent praise. It was positive, but maybe only 90 percent. So Frost refused to dine with her at our house. He could not stand any critic saying anything against his poetry, even if only slightly dispraising.

Here is a stanza from “Vignettes” in my book The Long Reach (1984):

The day after the inauguration of President Kennedy

We went to a cocktail party at the Coxes,

Neighbors in Georgetown near 34th Street.

The Hindemiths were there, I had not known composers,

The talk was all of the new America.

Robert Frost was there. I went up to him eagerly, saying,

“I hear you talked with the President this morning.

What did he say?” Instant reply, “I did all the talking.”

This is a direct, true statement, no subterfuges, no ambiguity. Is this better than the complexities, artifice, and aesthetic distance in the other poem? Is the reality of poetry aided or lessened by comparison with actual facts behind a poem? If you love the poetry should you care about the biography?