By the age of 86, Robert Frost was a veteran lecturer. He was such an intrepid orator that when he was recommended to John F. Kennedy as a potential speaker for Kennedy's inaugural, the President replied, "Oh, no. You know that Robert Frost always steals any show he is a part of."
Frost's famous telegrammed acceptance to JFK shared in Kennedy's self-deprecating wit: "If you can bear at your age the honor of being made President of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration." Despite the now famous bungling of the poem, a poem he had written specifically for the occasion, his years of public speaking experience rescued a disastrous moment and the venerable poet recited, flawlessly, "The Gift Outright" (including an amendment to the last line of the poem, requested by Kennedy himself). Biographer William Pritchard wrote:
At this moment of disaster, he called on some resource and rose to a level in every way superior to the pumped-up one of the new poem's advertisement. Putting behind him the stumbling uncertainties of voice and tone which characterized his attempt to deliver the new poem, he fell back on an old one he knew perfectly, and in the most splendidly commanding of voices read "The Gift Outright" impeccably ... His performance thus attained a dramatic, even a heroic quality, which it would otherwise have lacked if things had gone off perfectly.
The Washington Post headline the next morning read, "Frost's Poem Wins Hearts at Inaugural."
Robert Frost developed his speaking proficiency while courting the collegiate lecture circuit (he called it "barding around"). Barding around was a sufficient way to remain conspicuous (a habit he relished), as well as a primary means of income. Some of his talks were entirely extemporaneous speeches; others were poetry readings. He was a respected and formidable speaker but, according to David M. Shribman in the book Robert Frost Speaking on Campus, "it hadn't always been that way."
Frost once "placed pebbles in his shoes, in the hope that the discomfort in his feet would distract him from his fear. ... Frost never mastered his stage fright, only controlled it."
We can glean much from Frost's speaking style. Frost, ever the eminent communicator, preferred "to have the house lights on, in order that he might clearly see his listeners."
More ink has been spilled about Robert Frost than Frost spilled himself. From the volumes of essays about him, the numerous talks he gave, and the speeches that have been transcribed, we begin to understand the thought process of a literary genius, conveying, as Shribman says, "not just what [the] speaker thinks, but how the speaker thinks". But moreover, they reflect a man to whom language never lost its first love: "I have made a life study of what I can say."
They also serve as a reminder that one of our most gifted bards and distinguished master of letters also faltered, fear-induced, when confronting any live audience yet whose lifetime of wordplay enraptured listeners then and readers now.