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Local interest in poet Robert Frost reinvigorated

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BECKY TREADWAY READS to her daughter, Kelsey, 5, and nephew, Joshua, 5, on the lawn in front of Shoreham’s Platt Memorial Library last Friday afternoon during a read-in. The library invited people to read on the lawn for an hour and then hosted an ice cream social.<br /> Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By KATHRYN FLAGG

RIPTON — Writers traveling the flood-damaged Route 125 to the Middlebury College Bread Loaf campus last week passed a familiar landmark on their way to the annual writers’ conference: the cozy white Homer Noble farmhouse, where poet Robert Frost spent his summers from 1939 until his death in 1963.

The farmhouse was the object of sadness for many Frost fans last winter after a group of local teens vandalized the property, which is a National Historic Landmark and much-loved literary attraction.

But interest in the four-time Pulitzer Prize winner has been rekindled, with two celebrations of his life and work planned for this fall in Middlebury and a move by Middlebury College to strengthen its historic relationship with the poet.

The college last week announced a new Robert Frost Farm and Cabin Preservation Fund aimed at protecting and maintaining the property that should alleviate concerns about the fate of the oft-visited Ripton landmark. Unveiled alongside the fund were plans to employ a writer-in-residence — likely a poet — who will occupy the farmhouse year-round.

“This is going to bring the farm back to life,” said Daniel Breen, director of graduate giving at the college. “We’re very happy that we’re taking something that was negative and turning it into a positive. We’re proud to be stewards of this part of Robert Frost’s legacy and we look forward to continuing that.”

According to Breen, discussion of ways to better protect the property cropped up immediately following last December’s break-in.

“The college was looking at what we could do to keep the farm safe,” said Breen. “A natural way is to have someone live there.”

But the plans have loftier goals than simply security, college officials were quick to point out. The writer-in-residence, who the college plans to hire by next summer, will teach at the college during the academic year, and at the Bread Loaf School of English or the writers’ conference in the summer.

According to Acting Provost Tim Spears, the writer-in-residence will ideally be a valuable link between the undergraduate college and the Bread Loaf project. And, following an unsuccessful search last year for a tenure-track professor of literature and poetry, the poet could well fill a current hole in the college’s writing faculty. 

“There are so many good reasons for this,” said Spears.

In that sense, according to Jay Parini, a Frost biographer and professor of literature and creative writing at the college, the fund and accompanying two-year residency “killed two birds with one stone.”

The college has just begun fund-raising efforts for the project, and Breen said the initial goal is to raise $100,000 to put toward winterizing the farmhouse.

“We heard from alumni all around the world” who were saddened to learn of the break-in, Breen said. “This gives them an opportunity to look forward and move in a positive direction.”

FROST FESTIVITIES

But the fund and residency are only one way Vermonters are turning their attention once again to the area’s arguably most famous former resident.

On Sept. 6, Middlebury will play host to the second annual Vermont Story Fest. The daylong event, sponsored by the Henry Sheldon Museum, the Ilsley Public Library, the Vermont Folklife Center and the Vermont Humanities Council (VHC), will combine music, graphic art, poetry, historic exhibitions, puppetry, food and storytelling and a tribute to Frost and “his Vermont.”

The fest is part of the Vermont Reads program, a one-book, statewide multigenerational reading program sponsored by the VHC. This year, the program’s selection is Natalie Bober’s “A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost.”

As part of the festival Bober and Robin Hudnot, one of Frost’s granddaughters, will discuss the former U.S. poet laureate’s writing. The Middlebury Community Chorus will sing selections from Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana,” a suite of seven Frost poems set to music, at the Town Hall Theater.

In November, the VHC will convene its fall conference,  “Delight and Wisdom: The Life and Poetry of Robert Frost,” in Middlebury. The Nov. 14 and 15 conference is part of a yearlong effort by the Council to celebrate and re-examine Frost’s legacy, and promises to dig beyond the popular — and often incorrect — image of the poet to consider broader body of work and biography.

In addition to his poetry, the conference will investigate Frost’s prose, notebooks, public talks, and thoughts on parenting, education, and science. The conference, presented in collaboration with Middlebury College, is designed to appeal to both students of Frost and more casual readers of his work.

Highlights include a walk-and-talk on the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail in Ripton led by Middlebury College professor John Elder and a plenary address by Parini.

Saturday sessions will explore the college’s Frost Special Collections; Frost’s notebooks, public talks, and published prose; and Frost’s poetic responses to scientific thought. Another Frost granddaughter, Lesley Lee Francis, will share her assessment of Robert and Elinor Frost’s education of their young children, and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania professor Donald Sheey will examine the nature of Frost as father to his adult children.

To learn more about the conference and to see admission charges visit www.vermonthumanities.org or call 802-262-2626, ext. 304.

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