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Robert Frost, in His Own Words

Editorial Institute grad transcribes poet’s archived lecture

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When James Sitar was a sophomore at Dartmouth in the late 1990s, his poetry seminar on Robert Frost (Hon.’61) required the class to listen to a scratchy recording of a lecture the poet had given decades earlier. Despite the poor sound quality, Sitar recalls, Frost’s words captivated him.

“He was an amazing extemporaneous speaker,” says Sitar (GRS’05), who earned a doctorate through the Editorial Institute at Boston University and is now the archive editor at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. “As he spoke, he would find things he wanted to say.”

Thanks to Sitar, many of the things that Frost found to say are now available to those who cannot travel to Dartmouth to listen to the archived tapes. A text version of “Sometimes It Seems As If,” a talk Frost gave in October 1947, has been published in the current issue of Literary Imagination: the Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. The lecture is one of dozens that Frost delivered on a range of topics between 1947 and his death in 1963 and one of 20 Sitar has transcribed. Many of Frost’s lectures were part of Dartmouth’s Great Issues series; others were informal talks. Sitar’s work, which began with a single transcription for a required college paper, evolved into a seven-year project that became his BU doctoral dissertation.

“We now have, for the first time, an accurate written record of these Frost lectures,” says Editorial Institute codirector Archie Burnett, a College of Arts and Sciences English professor, who supervised the dissertation. “Jim admirably overcame several difficulties in translating an audible source into a written one. When someone speaks to an audience, for example, there are many interruptions, laughter, pauses, and lexical fillers. Frost was particularly fond of ‘you see.’ Jim found ways to use punctuation to indicate all sorts of things. He has defined a middle course between written text and a literal translation of spoken words.”

Christopher Ricks, BU’s William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities, codirector of the institute, and a professor at Oxford as well as BU, says Sitar’s work is important less for its revelations than for its confirmation of what other scholars had suspected about the origins and meanings of Frost’s work. “One of the things that happens in study of the arts,” says Ricks, “is that only ‘changes’ are thought of as valuable. But if you confirm what people have thought, that is a wonderfully valuable thing. There are also lots of delicious jokes, bantering, and artful comments.”

For Sitar, the most rewarding part of the exercise was tracking down the people involved in controversies that Frost would mention in passing. “In most of the talks, he wouldn’t name names,” recalls Sitar. “He would say things like, ‘There is a writer who has disparaged our country, and he’s won the Nobel Prize for having done so.’ For me it was like a treasure hunt.”

The most challenging part, he says, was maintaining a sense of Frost’s many verbal inflections. “When we speak, there is so much that is conveyed in tone and pauses,” he says, “and unfortunately, much of that cannot be translated into words.”

Sitar is grateful for the opportunity to help others read the thoughts of a great poet, and grateful to the Editorial Institute for giving him “the tools and process” to do the job properly. In addition to Literary Imagination’s publication of “Sometimes It Seems As If,” the annual international literary journal Fulcrum will publish three of the Frost lectures Sitar has transcribed. And Sitar hopes there will be more to come.

“I’m also shopping a book,” he says. “We’ll see how that goes.”

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

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