Before Robert Frost became Robert Frost, he was a chicken farmer. In 1899, at the age of twenty-five, he rented half a farmhouse for himself, his wife, his first two children, and several dozen Wyandottes. He soon ran out of room and moved to a larger farm in New Hampshire, where the local newspaper reported that "R. Frost has moved upon the Magoon place which he recently bought. He has a flock of nearly 300 Wyandotte fowls."
During the day Frost did what all chicken farmers do: he repaired coops, built fences, scattered grain, gathered eggs, and sold live birds to butchers for meat. He read poultry magazines, consulted with breeders, followed the market prices in the newspaper, and attended poultry shows. And at night, he wrote poetry.
The poetry wasn't exactly a hot seller: he'd sold one poem a few years earlier and, emboldened by his success, proposed to his future wife. She turned him down the first time, perhaps feeling that he ought to find a more stable occupation (like chicken farming) before she accepted.
Frost sent his late-night poems off to magazine editors, who mostly rejected them. That's when he got the idea to write fiction and sketches for the poultry magazines he subscribed to. He sent off a query letter to Farm-Poultry in Boston, offering an article "a little outside the usual line, but with instructive ideas." The editor agreed to take a look, and Frost wrote something up and submitted it. But it, too, was rejected.
Fortunately, a rival publication, The Eastern Poultryman, liked his style and started running his pieces. That got Farm-Poultry's attention, and soon he was writing for both magazines, always under the initials R.L.F. He wrote eleven pieces in all, earning about ten dollars each time.
By 1906, when he was in his early thirties, Frost was getting out of the chicken business and into the writing and teaching business, and from there–well. From there he became Robert Frost.
Fortunately for us, Frost's early writings on chickens were collected into a lovely little book called Robert Frost: Farm-Poultryman, edited by Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompson, and published in a beautiful (and still very affordable) edition by the Stinehour Press in 1963. (The pieces can also, apparently, be found in The Collected Prose of Robert Frost, but I'm not sure if you get the nice essay from the editors, which is where I learned most of what I've said here about his early days as a henman.)
His are charming stories about the lives of poultry fair judges, young ambitious chicken farmers, and editors of poultry magazines. The story about the editor begins like this:
"The editor sat at his desk. He had been writing about hens all day, and he hadn't heard a hen since he left home in the suburbs in the morning, and he was tired of it." It goes on to tell the story of an editor who is alarmed to learn that readers have actually been following the advice in his magazine Hendom to the letter, so he decides to go have a look at one such reader's chicken operation. Chaos ensures.
One problem with the chicken-writing: Frost was frustrated by the facts. One piece made a passing reference to a farmer whose geese roost in trees; it generated a sarcastic letter to the editor that began, "Will you kindly inform me through your next issue what kind of geese Mr.Hall has…Now I am 45 years old and have been among geese all my life, and I can never remember seeing a goose in a tree. I thought if I could get a breed of that kind I could dispense with coops." It's probably just as well that he went on to poetry, which surely gave him more freedom.
If this has you desperate to read a little Robert Frost, let me send you over to his 1914 poem "After Apple Picking." It's not about chickens, but it's about farming, and I guarantee it will make you want to throw your computer out the window and go tend to something outside for the rest of the day, or perhaps the rest of your life. I hope that a few of you do.Posted by Amy Stewart on March 16, 2011 at 4:36 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.