In 1913, Robert Frost declared his aim to “be a poet for all sorts and kinds.” By and large, Frost remains one of the beloved American poets, who many of us encounter in K-12 education and in anthologies around the world. Indeed, Frost’s ur-mission statement has driven my own efforts to develop an open-access public platform for his 21st-century audiences through critical collaboration with Frost scholars, special collections librarians, Frost family members and friends, as well as the poet’s literary estate.
A closer look at reception histories of the sound of Frost’s poetry, however, sheds light on the exploit around the notion of Frost’s perceived accessibility. Early in his career, Frost envisioned of becoming a popular poet—rather than elitist—by writing in vernacular language and focusing on what he believed was universal: emotional truths reflected in the tone of speech. Frost’s effort to communicate the eloquence of the vernacular, however, was not immediately successful because of existing biases against the setting of his poetry: rural New England. His contemporary literary critics characterized Frost’s diction in pathologized terms and credited him—as far as critics’ understanding went—for rightly capturing the village-speak, a testimony to a backward and unsophisticated region. Paradoxically enough, later in his career, the same sound of poetry lent itself to a xenophobic, remedial speech science as elocutionists upheld it as the ideal standard American English that Chinese immigrant students should study. While Frost had initially been comfortable with, lenient enough with, or even benefitted from his critics and those teachers who taught his work projecting what they wished his works to sound like, such misapprehensions were consequential to groups of people who were historically on the receiving end of prejudices against their accents, regional dialects, and the tone of voice critics and teachers loved to hate.
“The Sound of Public Humanities and its Oscillatory Accessibility” details my editorial efforts to historicize our listening practices and to mitigate reproduction of such historical biases against class, race, abilities, and national origin seen in Frost’s reception histories. Additionally, and in anticipation of digitally enabled sound analyses the online audio edition of Frost’s public performances may spur, I will share my precautions and curatorial resistance against the inherently reductive computational text analysis procedures. I ask to what end a certain level of abstraction—another mode of exploit enabled by technical accessibility—might be warranted in exchange for larger statistical insights, especially when the socio-historical contexts of Frost’s sound of poetry speak volumes about the kinds of violence limiting interpretations can enact.
Setsuko Yokoyama is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Maryland. Her dissertation “Digital Frost: Accessibility and Public Humanities” offers constructive critiques on the access advocacy discourse by examining the socio-historical implications of accessibility from archival, literary, disability, and digital studies perspectives. Prior to the doctoral study, she held Fulbright scholarship to complete a master’s program at the University of Michigan School of Information where she co-established a campus-wide research group Digital Humanities Collective. She currently works as a head project manager of Dickinson Electronic Archives and a project coordinator of the Digital Frost Project. She can be reached at email@example.com and @setsukoyokoyama.