In the summer of 1976, just a few weeks before matriculating at Amherst College, I went to Manhattan to see Julie Harris in her celebrated one-woman show, “The Belle of Amherst.” Watching Harris’ luminous performance as “Squire Dickinson’s half-cracked daughter,” awed by the magical way she made the poet’s lines live intensely on the stage, I felt a curiously literary pride. Other colleges might be known for football, but how much better to be headed to a place famed for poetry!

Reckless booklove traces to the very conception of the College, in 1821, when a group of renegade faculty absconded from Williams College and rode east, toward civilization, to found Amherst—taking half the library with them. That literary heist may be apocryphal, but I like the story anyway, cueing up as it does T.S. Eliot’s remark about how good writers borrow but great writers steal, and bespeaking the priorities of an institution that would prize literature above all else. And indeed, in the 19th century, while Squire Dickinson’s daughter nursed her secret love of language in the stately brick house on Main Street, the college just a few paces to the south was regularly visited by giants of American literature from Emerson to Twain. 

Amherst didn’t just prize literature but came to produce it as well, through the efforts of the many poets, novelists and story writers over the last hundred years or so—faculty and graduates alike—who have left the College’s mark on American letters. The names are many, but a few loom larger than others, and I’d make the case for three in particular: a trio of writer-artists, spanning the 20th century, whose innovations altered literary forms and influenced generations of critics and fellow artists.   

Robert Frost
As a teacher, Frost was, to put it mildly, unconventional. A poetry writing class might last until midnight— the poet discoursing on sundry topics, gossiping about faculty colleagues, dispensing peremptory judgments. Art by John S. Dykes.

First and foremost, of course, is Robert Frost, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes, inaugurer of a president and creator of poems that worked their way into the fabric of American life. His 1916 hiring at Amherst was part of President Alexander Meiklejohn’s effort to transform the College from the training ground “for young men of piety and talents for the Christian ministry” specified in its charter into a modern institution where intellectual inquiry would be exalted, and living writers might be as welcome as dead ones.

And so Frost was invited to give a reading—“a sturdily built man in his early forties,” one English professor described him, “wearing rumpled clothes and a celluloid collar, with unruly brown hair, blunt features, and eyes of seafarer’s blue.” A few months later Meiklejohn gathered the College’s students together in Johnson Chapel, read “The Road Not Taken” aloud to them and announced that Frost would be coming to teach. “They applauded vigorously,” Meiklejohn wrote to Frost, “and were evidently much delighted.”

Thus began an on-and-off association that would span four decades. As a teacher Frost was, to put it mildly, unconventional. A poetry writing class might meet in the evening at a fraternity house, the poet sprawled in an easy chair, the “boys” arranged around him, and last until midnight—Frost discoursing on sundry topics, dispensing peremptory judgments, gossiping about faculty colleagues and asking provocative questions about the point (or pointlessness) of a college education. Mischievously he advised his brightest students to drop out, setting his own chronic rootlessness (and lack of college degree) as a model for any bold enough to follow.

In the pantheon of American writers, Frost was a great bridge-builder, like Whitman or Twain or Faulkner, marrying “unliterary” American vernacular to traditional forms in a way that made the local universal, and vice versa. In Lives of the Modern Poets, English professor and Frost biographer William H. Pritchard ’53, who as a young faculty member frequently squired the elderly poet about campus, argues that the “presumed simplicity” and “folksy charm” Frost acquired in the public mind hardly does justice to a poetry that possesses “the larger ambitions and risks of a major writer,” evidenced in such subtly challenging and rewarding works as “Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “West-Running Brook” and “Carpe Diem.”

Pritchard makes a case for the “playful, complicated, devious” Frost. That complication, as critic I.A. Richards once observed, reflected the fact that Frost “had an unusually theoretical mind, and liked to talk about language and meaning;” the deviousness included camouflaging this hermeneutical bent in a deceptive folksiness. Frost was far more modern than he was given credit for, a deviser of poems, as Pritchard writes, that work on us slyly but insistently, “as if something in ourselves had been called forth to participate in a fresh realization of the nature of things.”

James Merrill
He devoted the latter part of his career to the mother of all quixotic projects: a 17,000-line epic poem of occult communication with spirits and angels, channeled during years of sessions at a Ouija board with his partner. Art by Vivienne Flesher.

The second titan of Amherst literature could hardly have been more unlike Frost. Born to enormous wealth, an aesthete deeply versed in the arts, James Merrill ’47 practiced a cosmopolitan poetry of profligate formal inventiveness. His poems had little to do with spoken language; in his memoir (A Different Person, 1993) Merrill recalls being invited, as a recent graduate, to give a reading at Amherst, and realizing as he read aloud that “despite the presence on campus of Mr. Frost and his campaign for the sound of sense,” his own poems, “polished and begemmed,” were “set on the page with never a thought of their being uttered by a living voice.” Merrill’s jewel-like poetry gleams with wordplay in multiple languages (he spoke five, and read Latin and Greek), far-flung cultural allusions, complex effects of rhyme and meter, and displays of incorrigible cleverness. Take for example “Domestic Architecture,” which describes a poet’s life as haunted by ghosts “exiled to the poem’s attic,” and closes with this punning advice: “Stick to the parlor, Reader, where it’s brightest,/ Though even here—! Foul drafts and dragging feet/ Haunt this house once white as a blank sheet.”

The precocious gymnastics that marked Merrill’s early lyric poetry yielded to the less showy mode of his mid-career poems, reflecting a confessional impulse akin to Lowell or Plath, in which his formally elaborate style was increasingly augmented by feeling. My favorite is “The Broken Home” (1966), Merrill’s moving account of the domestic unhappiness of a childhood lived amid his parents’ alcohol-fueled acrimony: “a marriage on the rocks,” he writes with typical mordant wit. The poem contains trenchant lines about his father, the financier Charles E. Merrill, class of 1908:

My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was won below, and the point was to win.

And, two stanzas later:

Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves.
We’d felt him warming up for a green bride.
He could afford it. He was “in his prime”
At three score ten. But money was not time.

The poet’s memoir relates the scandal that erupted in his family when his father discovered  Merrill’s undergraduate affair with his Amherst teacher, the Greek scholar and translator Kimon Friar. After threatening to sue the College, as Merrill tells the story, his father consulted a psychiatrist for advice “on sexual matters,” and also “sought opinions about my poems.” One opinion was that of Amherst president Stanley King, class of 1903 —“and on hearing from the president of Amherst that [the poems] met, or even surpassed, ‘professional standards,’” Merrill writes ruefully, “he gave them from then on his full if never wholly comprehending approval.”

Professional standards: after spending years as a poet meeting them, James Merrill went on to transcend them, with a vengeance. The latter part of his career was devoted to the mother of all quixotic projects—a 17,000-line epic poem of occult communication with spirits and angels, channeled during years of sessions at a Ouija board with his partner, David Jackson, and various friends. The results were published in the three books that make up The Changing Light at Sandover (1976-1980), which poet and critic Dan Chiasson ’93, in a perceptive New Yorker essay, judged “the most ambitious American poem of the past fifty years ... [a work] that has few analogues in literature.” In moving from tightly controlled lyrics to an epic conjuring of the spirit world, Merrill dramatically upped the scope and stakes of his poetry, assaying a Blakean or Miltonic ambition while taking on large modern questions. With theological underpinnings gone from our lives, how do we account for evil? How do we touch the dead or hope to commune with them? What prospects do love or art pose for some sort of transcendence?

During those years of Sandover, as Merrill and Jackson manned the Ouija board in their apartment on Water Street in the quaint Yankee village of Stonington, Conn., I was just down the block, spending my summers working in the ice cream shop my mother owned. One day Merrill came in for a cone (coffee, I recall), and when I summoned the nerve to mention that I was an Amherst student and hoped to be a writer, he courteously invited me to stop by at his home. I didn’t know it, but he was already reading the poems of Sandover aloud to the “summer people”—“retired naval officers and frisky elderly Brahmin ladies,” as Chiasson puts it—who were his Stonington neighbors; and if I’d been bold enough to take up his offer, I might have witnessed with them the unveiling of one of the signal accomplishments of modern American poetry.

David Foster Wallace
Where Frost would have parried, and Merrill transformed pain into wit, Wallace went inward; his voracious mind presented the prospect of genius devouring itself. It was a hard way to become his generation’s F. Scott Fitzgerald. Art by Polly Becker

It was surprising, given Merrill’s patrician pedigree, how his evolution as a poet over the decades reflected changes in America and in Americans themselves, freed up from tradition and increasingly open to the idiosyncratically spiritual and the therapeutic. Such terms also describe the last and most recent of my trio of Amherst literary luminaries, David Foster Wallace ’85.

In 1981, when I was a senior at Amherst, Wallace—future author of the novel Infinite Jest and other unclassifiable books of genius—was a freshman already making a reputation for brilliance in the classroom. At Amherst he wrote not one senior thesis but two—a Pynchonesque novel, The Broom of the System, and a critical inquiry into the work of philosopher Richard Taylor—and graduated with a double-summa degree. Later he would add to his corpus a philosophical study of the concept of infinity, along with quirkily brilliant essays on topics ranging from rap music to cruise ships to John McCain. His restless mind recognized few boundaries.

The Broom of the System was published soon after his graduation, and New York Times book maven Michiko Kakutani praised “its young author’s rich reserves of ambition and imagination” and the novel’s “portrait, through a combination of Joycean word games, literary parody and zany picaresque adventure, of a contemporary America run amok.” For a reader, Wallace isn’t so much an acquired taste as an overwhelming force. He can do everything—and does. Much of his writing took place where madcap scholarship (expressed in a mania for footnotes), wanton narrative inventiveness, a tenacious philosophical bent and a readiness for self-interrogation converge. Need I say that this marked off a sui generis sensibility? His literary m.o. betrayed a touch of the idiot savant.

Wallace suffered from depression and took his own life in 2008, but his literary rock-star status survives him; a recent lecture at Amherst by his biographer, D.T. Max, drew a standing-room-only crowd. Max calls Wallace “the foremost writer of his literary generation, the one who forged the newest path and from whom the others, directly or indirectly, took their cues.” Some of this influence was purely literary; Wallace helped purge American fiction of a lingering minimalism via prose notable for its baroque extravagance and jubilantly wonky obsessiveness. His remarkable 2004 Gourmet essay, “Consider the Lobster,” turned a standard travel piece into an elaborate inquiry into the ethics (and aesthetics) of killing and eating lobsters. The essay’s preoccupations are historical, sociological, etymological, neuroanatomical—everything, in fact, but culinary—and its ambitions audacious: Wallace succeeded in getting a mainstream culinary magazine not only to print 2,000 words of footnotes but also to include references to “nociceptors” and “prostaglandins,” and to showcase prose like this: “PETA’s been around so much in recent years that a kind of brittlely tolerant homeostasis now obtains between the activists and the Lobster Festival’s locals.” Brittlely tolerant homeostasis? Such phrases confirm D. T. Max’s description of “a syntax that at times approaches a Gerard Hopkins-like rhythm.”

There’s also a zeitgeist component to Wallace’s grip on the imagination of millennials and his emergence, in Max’s phrase, as “representative of a generation.” Wallace’s sensibility concocted irony and sincerity, joining a slacker/stoner cool to polymath aptitudes and interests, intellectual intensity and a capacity for moral indignation. A virtuosic writer who adamantly refused to be satisfied with producing a merely well-made thing, he instead habitually questioned the point and purpose of the undertaking. He always paid attention to the man behind the curtain, even (or especially) when the curtain was in his own head. There was a cost. Where Frost would have parried, and Merrill transformed pain into gleaming and poignant wit, Wallace went inward; at times his voracious mind presented the prospect of genius devouring itself. It was a hard way to become his generation’s F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Richard Wilbur and David Ferry
The celebrated poet Richard Wilbur (l), and poet and acclaimed translator David Ferry ’46 (r)

Two culture-bearing yeomen of letters, both of the World War II generation of American writers and both, remarkably, still alive and working, deserve pride of place in any accounting of the College’s contribution to American literature. David Ferry ’46 is a poet and translator whose renderings of Horace and Virgil are celebrated by academics and fellow poets alike. Ferry’s own poetry has been infrequent but noteworthy: his 2012 book, Bewilderment, won the National Book Award, and was praised by W.S. Merwin for conveying “complexities of feeling with unfailing proportion and grace.” 

Four years ahead of Ferry at Amherst was Richard Wilbur ’42, who went on to become perhaps the most celebrated poet Americans by and large have never heard of. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, National Book Award winner, Poet Laureate of the United States, translator of Racine and Molière, Wilbur writes lyrics of everyday life touched with wisdom, wit and melancholy. A poet “obscurely yet most surely called to praise,” as he confesses in his poem “Praise in Summer,” he has produced many books of poems unusually rich in metaphor, not a few of them bearing a trace of Robert Frost. Wilbur’s best-known poem, and title of his first book, “The Beautiful Changes,” tenderly joins nature’s cyclical renewal to the act of imaginative renewal and the power of love:

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

Wilbur’s formal deftness and his relatively sunny outlook—his dedication to “joy in life and art,” as he said in a 1977 Paris Review interview—kept him out of the mainstream of the darkly confessional free verse that defined his postwar generation of poets. His “brilliantly affirmative” poetry, as critic Adam Kirsch has described it, includes a favorite of mine, “Winter Spring,” which tours the reader through an early spring afternoon outdoors, and expresses a small, passing ecstasy at “this somersault of seasons.” A friend of mine who also loves the poem says that “it’s just one of those poems that makes things better.” And who doesn’t need more of that?

While Frost and Merrill have escaped being buried by time, and Wilbur and Ferry continue to defy it, other Amherst writers, farther back, require excavation. Oblivion distorts our sense of the dead; we imagine, because they are not now remembered, that they never really lived. But rediscovering these forgotten figures and their busy, engaged, productive careers sets us bobbing on the current of life, and literature, as it was then. One such figure is John Erskine, who taught at Amherst from 1903 to 1909, then went on to a multifaceted literary life in New York City, publishing more than 100 books of fiction, criticism, essays and memoirs. A noted bon vivant, Erskine was romantically involved with the young Anais Nin, whose husband had been a protégé of Erskine’s at Columbia. Nin was obsessed with Erskine, and their flirtation inspired ecstasies of prose in the diaries for which she would later become famous.

Stark Young
Stark Young taught at Amherst until 1921. He gets credit for having been the one to urge President Meiklejohn to hire Frost. Young had ulterior motives in doing so, and his plan backfired doubly.

Another forgotten figure is Stark Young, who taught at Amherst from 1915 to 1921. Young’s 1934 magnolia-scented Southern novel, So Red the Rose, was a precursor to Gone With the Wind. At Amherst he gets credit for having been the one to urge Alexander Meiklejohn to hire Frost. Young had ulterior motives in doing so, hoping to persuade Frost to smooth the way for a volume of Young’s poetry with editor Alfred Harcourt at Holt. His plan backfired doubly: not only did Frost give Harcourt an emphatic thumbs-down on the manuscript; but once hired, he came to despise Young in what clearly seem to have been homophobic ways, and continually plotted to get him fired.

Joseph Moncure
Joseph Moncure March ’22 achieved notoriety for a long narrative poem, “The Wild Party,” which told the racy story of a vaudeville dancer, Queenie, who throws a booze- and sex-filled party in Greenwich Village.

One of Frost’s protégés at Amherst during this period—one who took up his  mischievous advice to drop out—was Joseph Moncure March ’22. An editor at the New Yorker at its 1925 inception, he helped create the magazine’s trademark Talk of the Town section, a proving ground for generations of American writers to come. March achieved notoriety for his long narrative poem, “The Wild Party,” which told the racy story of a vaudeville dancer, Queenie, who throws a booze and sex-filled party in Greenwich Village. Slaloming past obscenity laws to make its way in the world, “The Wild Party” became a noted succès de scandale, a proto-Beat narrative that writer and editor Louis Untermeyer celebrated as “uncompromising, unashamed and unremittingly powerful.” It was a favorite of William S. Burroughs, who called it “the book that made me want to be a writer” and loved to chant its opening lines, with their Vachel Lindsay-esque, tom-tom beat:

Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in Vaudeville. 
Grey eyes. 
Lips like coals aglow.
Her face was a tinted mask of snow.

The poem has enjoyed a long afterlife: a 1975 Merchant-Ivory film starred James Coco and Raquel Welch; an illustrated version with drawings by Art Spiegelman came out in 1994; and a pair of musicals brought the poem to New York stages in 2000. As for March, he followed up The Wild Party’s success with another long poem, The Set-Up, about a washed-up black boxer (“Mean as a panther, /Crafty as a fox, /He could hit like a mule,/ And he knew how to box.”). March died in 1977. But his legacy persists in those two poems, praised in their time by Edmund Wilson, Conrad Aiken, and James T. Farrell, who described them as “written with such force that [they] remain part of your own remembered past.” 

Sonia Sanchez

The roster of Amherst writers also features faculty members who came and went too quickly, like Sonia Sanchez, who stayed for a three-year cup of coffee in the 1970s, as founding chair of the Black Studies department and the first African-American woman to teach at the College; her brio as poet, essayist, playwright, scholar and activist for racial justice led Maya Angelou to call her “a lion in literature’s forest.”

PD Eastman
The roster of alumni writers contains unexpected curiosities, like P.D. Eastman ’33, author of Go, Dog. Go!, Are You My Mother? and other exuberantly Seussian children's books.

It contains unexpected curiosities—like Philip Eastman ’33, better known to my admiring young daughter as P.D. Eastman, author of Go, Dog. Go!,  Are You My Mother? and other exuberantly Seussian children’s books. (Those books are Seussian because Eastman, as an Army inductee in 1942, was assigned to the U.S. Signal Corps Film Unit headed by none other than Theodor Geisel, a.k.a Dr. Seuss.)

The list features acclaimed authors whose writings combine literature with other pursuits. Scott Turow ’70 took a career in law and ran it through the fiction-writing machine to produce a string of wildly popular novels, beginning with Presumed Innocent, that pioneered the legal thriller. Julie Powell ’95 took a culinary obsession and ran with it online, starting a blog that chronicled her attempt to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Its popularity led to a book and Hollywood movie, and in the process showed the new power of digital media, the blogging tail wagging the publishing dog.

And the list includes—of course—Dan Brown ’86, no mere writer but a one-man pop-cultural marketing tsunami, with 200 million books in print. The Da Vinci Code and Brown’s other page-turners adroitly serve up a world of ancient portals, clues coded in Latin anagrams, magic Dürer squares, and human skulls hidden in secret storage rooms below the Capitol. His brand mixes the sinister and the scholarly in equal measure, its hermeneutical heroics joining lowbrow and highbrow in a never-ending series of murky crypts and encrypted messages. See what an Amherst education will do? It’s Indiana Jones meets Paul de Man.

A literary look back at Amherst unavoidably reflects the fact that for 155 years this was a college for men, and overwhelmingly for white men.

Nuar Alsadir ’92
Nuar Alsadir ’92 wrote More Shadow Than Bird, a book of poems that won comparison with Emily Dickinson. She is among a busy cadre of contemporary writers with Amherst degrees who continue winning fans and prizes.

Today, 40 years after coeducation, and with a more recent commitment to racial, ethnic and economic diversity, Amherst is one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the nation, and this diversity is increasingly apparent in the busy cadre of contemporary writers with Amherst diplomas who continue racking up prizes and winning legions of fans: Chris Bohjalian ’82, a novelist (and two-time Oprah Book Club alumnus) who has pulled off the magic trick of getting better with every book; the prolific and bestselling mystery writer Harlan Coben ’84; Rafael Campo ’87, physician, poet, memoirist and advocate for gay rights; poet and psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir ’92, whose 2012 book of poems, More Shadow Than Bird, won comparison with Emily Dickinson;  Pushcart Prize winning story writer Nalini Jones ’93, whose 2007 book, What You Call Winter, describes a small Catholic community in India; poet and critic Dan Chiasson ’93, whose writings in the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books are unfailingly lucid, resourceful and surprising; novelist and memoirist Deanna Fei ’99, whose 2015 memoir, Girl in Glass, explores the harrowing complexities involved in giving birth to a severely premature baby; poet and NPR poetry reviewer Tess Taylor ’00; and Lauren Groff ’01, whose debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, was deemed “a magical experience” by Stephen King, and whose latest effort, the terrific Fates and Furies, was a 2015 National Book Award finalist. 

I can only mention current faculty members who, while primarily teachers, moonlight as writers of imaginative literature, including poet David Sofield, novelists Lawrence Douglas and Judith Frank, and story writer Ilan Stavans. And then, of course, there is the glittering list of poets and novelists brought to the College as visiting writers over recent decades: Robert Stone, Mary Gordon, Caryl Phillips, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Tillie Olsen, Susan Kenney, Henry Bromell, Alan Lelchuk, April Bernard, Amy Clampitt, Glyn Maxwell, Brad Leithauser, Claire Messud, Alexander Chee and Amity Gaige.

Alexander Chee
Alexander Chee is among the glittering list of novelists and poets brought to the College as visiting writers in recent decades. Chee’s new novel is The Queen of the Night.

As an undergraduate I was lucky enough to be taught by Robert Stone, who was best known for his Vietnam novel, Dog Soldiers, and for his escapades with novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, captured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One afternoon a week, a dozen of us in his fiction-writing class would sit in a seminar room in Johnson Chapel, discussing our stories and monitoring the intense and enigmatic presence of our teacher, who chain-smoked cigarettes as he spoke, the smoke wreathing his head and amplifying the oracular quality of his utterances. Bob’s approach to literature was lofty, his principles summed up in Joseph Conrad’s description, which he recited to us in class, of “the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—before all, to make you see.”

To make you hear, feel and see: it is the writer’s challenge, and Amherst has put its stamp on American literature not only by inviting peerless practitioners to campus, but by teaching literature in a way I can only call profoundly writer-friendly. In the first English class I took at Amherst, English 11, we wrote a lot—short papers, every other class or so, a kind of calisthenics for the writing muscles. More important, the comments on those papers aimed to shake us out of how we had learned to write about literature in high school, that confidently “objective” recitation of big themes, and into something new. Recently I unearthed my old English 11 papers to see how Amherst English remade my way of encountering literature. My teacher, John Cameron, rejected the dutiful trotting-out of literary terminology in my response to a Tennyson poem, advising me to stop being “fussy about imagery, personification, etc” and try instead to “move with the poem—for the sake of the reading.” He wanted me to be less secure, less certain. And more personally invested.

“For the sake of the reading” turns out to be another way of saying, “for the sake of the writing.” How is it, exactly, that one moves with a poem or a passage in a novel? In pinpointing what is so writer-friendly about Amherst, one can trace a line all the way back to Frost and his emphasis on performance and surprise, his insistence that, quoting Hamlet, “the play’s the thing.” All good writing, Amherst English taught, was a performance that captivated and surprised; the challenge in responding to it was not to squash that performance with the steamroller of what my teacher Bill Pritchard called “grad-school English,” but rather to keep it in play a little longer. Good writers were never boring, never dull; why should you be? You had to answer style with style. As he reflected years later in his memoir, English Papers, Pritchard encouraged students to “put a high premium on literary performance as something to admire, both in works of art and in the critic’s sentences about those works.”

The approach was encapsulated in the recurring question put to us in English 11: “What is the experience of reading this passage?” That question baffled at first; but decades later, I can hardly imagine a more apt one. It insists that the essential character of literature is not to be a compilation of themes, not a message or argument or idea, but a work of art. And art is an experience. The point is not to explain what it means, but to engage what it does. For me, as for many other writers educated at Amherst, these were revelations of lasting consequence. Amherst pushed you toward being the kind of reader you needed to be in order to be a writer—the kind who, for better or for worse, was going to be seduced by what Wordsworth called the “grand elementary principle of pleasure … a pure organic pleasure in the lines.”

It’s one thing for a college to use a world-famous writer who once taught there as a kind of brand. But in Frost’s case it’s fair to say that his particular view of literature and art shaped Amherst English for many, many decades. In his pithy 1939 essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost wryly noted how “scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ” in their approach to poetry. How, he asks, can a poem “have wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled”? He answers by asserting that “it should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can.”

That seemingly innocent observation has big consequences; it insists that any act of literary art “must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.” To drive home what he meant by this, Frost reached into his magic bag of figurative tricks and pulled out a tantalizing metaphor. “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting,” he wrote. “It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.”

Freshness, free play, wildness, surprise. This is what writers live for, what they aim at every time they sit down to work. How lucky we were to learn that at Amherst.

About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper ’80 is the author of The Last to Go and Big As Life. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, The Atlantic and many other magazines, and he has been Visiting Writer at Amherst and Emerson colleges. A longtime reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, he is currently contributing editor at Commonweal Magazine, where he writes a twice-weekly online column.