Friday, January 25, 2013

The Original and Only

Robert Frost (1874–1963)
From Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays

Hen and Chicks [date unknown], oil on panel by American painter William Baptiste Baird (1846–1899?). Courtesy of the The Athenaeum.
Last summer Story of the Week presented “A Question of a Feather,” a little-known comic tale written by Robert Frost when he was a poultry farmer—more than a decade before he published his first book of poetry. We were pleasantly surprised when the story became one of our most widely read and distributed selections of the year. The appeal of its accessible, folksy humor confirms the remark by literary scholar Mark Richardson that Frost’s stories “are certainly the best poultry-stories written by a modern American poet. They are in fact quite good.”

The four-time Pulitzer Prize–winning poet (who died in Boston fifty years ago this week, on January 29) published a total of ten short stories in poultry newspapers between 1903 and 1905. One of them, “The Original and Only,” describes the owner of a hen that lays many more eggs than does your average bird. (“I paid twelve good dollars for that hen. It was a genuine plunge for a conservative farmer.”) Writing about the story, Richardson observes: “Frost works in the monologue form that he would realize fully in North of Boston (1914), his second book of poetry.” The following excerpt, for example, is from “The Housekeeper,” based on the life of John Hall, Frost’s neighbor who raised hens for the pleasure rather than as a living. When the poet visits his friend’s home, the mother of the “housekeeper” (actually, Hall’s common-law wife) describes the farmer in a manner that strongly echoes his poultry-stories:
“He manages to keep the upper hand
On his own farm. He’s boss. But as to hens:
We fence our flowers in and the hens range.
Nothing's too good for them. We say it pays.
John likes to tell the offers he has had,
Twenty for this cock, twenty-five for that.
He never takes the money. If they’re worth
That much to sell, they’re worth as much to keep.”
Hall passed away in 1906, less than a decade before his domestic arrangements entered the all-too-public domain of Frost’s poetry; he was locally famous for his collection of prize-winning fancy breeds and for his assortment of fowl (geese and ducks as well as hens). According to biographer Jay Parini, Hall’s “speech cadences and casual, country wit fascinated Frost,” who portrayed his neighbor, either by name or thinly disguised, in several of the poultry-stories and in a number of his poems. Hall’s conversational “style became a bedrock of [Frost’s] own original poetics.”

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“You want to hear about our hen,” said the practical poultryman, “the original and only—the hen that diverted us from the fancy, and laid the foundation for our present profitable egg business.” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.