El tema central de este Blog es LA FILOSOFÍA DE LA CABAÑA y/o EL REGRESO A LA NATURALEZA o sobre la construcción de un "paradiso perduto" y encontrar un lugar en él. La experiencia de la quietud silenciosa en la contemplación y la conexión entre el corazón y la tierra. La cabaña como objeto y método de pensamiento. Una cabaña para aprender a vivir de nuevo, y como ejemplo de que otras maneras de vivir son posibles sobre la tierra.

domingo, 11 de marzo de 2012

La cabaña de Robert Francis o la vida en prosa

Robert Francis

Robert Francis 1901-1987 
American poet, essayist, and novelist.

Francis may be thought of as a poet's poet: he has been much celebrated by fellow poets, but little acknowledged by literary critics and the reading public. His poetry is frequently compared to that of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and his lifestyle and sensibilities to those of Henry David Thoreau. Francis's work is characterized by short poems, simple and elegant in form, written in plain, colloquial speech, and filled with concise, vivid descriptions of concrete objects from nature. 

Biographical Information 
Robert Churchhill Francis was born on August 12, 1901, in Upland, Pennsylvania to Ebenezer and Ida May Allen Francis. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in 1923 and a master's degree in education in 1926. Shortly thereafter he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he taught high school for a year before devoting himself full-time to writing poetry. Throughout most of his adult life Francis lived very simply on the meager income from his poetry, in a home he built himself and named Fort Juniper, in the woods on the outskirts of Amherst. Francis's self-imposed isolation and simplicity has often been compared to that of Thoreau, who wrote Walden based on his experiences living in a small cabin in the wilderness of Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. As a young poet Francis met Frost, who became his mentor and a major influence on his writing. In addition to writing poetry, Francis occasionally taught at summer writers' workshops and conferences, and lectured at various universities around the country, including Harvard and Tufts, as well as the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. From 1957 to 1958 Francis lived in Rome, on the Prix de Rome fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1974 the University of Massachusetts Press established the Juniper Prize in his honor, and he received a fellowship award from the Academy of American Poets in 1984. Francis died on July 13, 1987, in Northampton, Massachusetts. 

Major Works 
Francis's first volume of poetry, Stand With Me Here (1936), was well received as a promising work of lyrical beauty. Valhalla and Other Poems (1938) features “Valhalla,” a long narrative poem about a family who moves to Vermont, seeking a better life through proximity to nature. The Sound I Listened For (1944) speaks of the New England countryside. The Face against the Glass (1950), The Orb Weaver (1960),Come Out into the Sun (1965), and Like Ghosts of Eagles (1974), continue Francis's concern with the simple beauty of nature, as captured through concise, concrete description, and the musical qualities of plain, everyday language. In addition to volumes of poetry, Francis wrote a novel, We Fly Away (1948), a collection of essays, The Satirical Rogue on Poetry (1968), and an autobiography, The Trouble with Francis (1971). 

Critical Reception 
Francis was much admired by his peers. Robert Frost considered him America's “best neglected poet,” and Donald Hall called him “a modern American classic.” Such supporters have often lamented that Francis has not received greater attention from critics, and that his poems are often excluded from major anthologies of American poetry. Those who have reviewed his work, however, have been almost uniformly enthusiastic about it. As a New England nature poet, Francis has often been compared to Frost, Dickinson, and Thoreau. Like Frost, Jack Lindeman has observed, Francis “is a type of bucolic philosopher … who translates the wisdom of nature into a means for achieving human contentment.” His poems have been admired for their use of colloquial language and concrete images which display an apparent simplicity that, upon closer examination, reveal a hidden depth and profundity. Critics have frequently praised Francis's craftsmanship, pointing to the formal elegance of his poetry; they add, however, that his finest pieces transcend mere craft, and possess a magical quality not explicable through formal analyses. As David Young has observed, “When one has pointed out the technical mastery of a Francis poem, one has only partly accounted for its effectiveness. There's a mysterious something beyond technique in his best poems.” Source: Poetry Criticism, ©2002 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved. Full copyright.

New England Mind
by Robert Francis

My mind matches this understated land.
Outdoors the pencilled tree, the wind-carved drift,
Indoors the constant fire, the careful thrift
Are facts that I accept and understand.

I have brought in red berries and green boughs-
Berries of black alder, boughs of pine.
They and the sunlight on them, both are mine.
I need no florist flowers in my house.

Having lived here the years that are my best,
I call it home. I am content to stay.
I have no bird's desire to fly away.
I envy neither north, east, south, nor west.

My outer world and inner make a pair.
But would the two be always of a kind?
Another latitude, another mind?
Or would I be New England anywhere?

Fort Juniper by Bruce Myren
"Home is this little house in which I live, and much beyond it." - Robert Francis, 1986
Fort Juniper is the name of a small one-person house in the woods of Amherst, Massachusetts. It was built by the poet Robert Francis (1901-87) in 1940 and served as his home until his death. Presently, it is used to host poets-in-residence through the Robert Francis Trust. While wandering in the woods as a teenager, I often encountered an older man in a cap, someone I assumed to be a poet but never spoke to; many years later, I learned that the man who tipped his hat to me was Francis. It was in this area of Amherst where I first forged my sense of intimacy with the land and it was these same environs that Francis would walk for inspiration. Via Francis’s poems and prose, I am seeing my former hometown with new eyes and capturing the intersection of his understanding of this place with my own experience.
Many people know of the other two great poets from Amherst, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, and an additional aim of this project is to bring more attention to Francis and his work. For Francis, Fort Juniper was more than just an abode in which to reside, it was a fort to shelter him, a lens through which he viewed the world, and a mirror with which to observe his inner states. In researching Francis, I have read his autobiography, poems, and many of his newspaper columns. Tales of walks and neighbors, trees and chickens, these are the observations made with the eyes of a poet. It is from Francis’s reflections and poetry that I occasionally cull titles and inspiration for my images.
The area being photographed is growing naturally to include parts of the river that flow away from Fort Juniper towards my childhood home and other locations related to Francis. In essence, this project allows me entrance into a world I had left many years ago and the opportunity to explore how and where our lives interweave through time.  
Selections from this series will be shown in a solo show at Gallery Kayafas in Boston in Fall 2012.
Bruce Myren is a Cambridge, Massachusetts based photographer. 
To view more of Bruce’s work, please visit his website.

Amherst's Fort Juniper
A poet's retreat

Francis' simple cottage was built almost entirely of "hurricane pine" – pine trees knocked down in the Hurricane of 1938. At left above is Fort Juniper's modest bedroom, and at right the tiny kitchen area. A few of the furnishings, like the stove, have been modernized over the years, but the house is largely unchanged from Francis' days.
He called it Fort Juniper, though it never had any military purpose.

But in the two-room house he built for himself in North Amherst almost 70 years ago, Robert Francis made an epic stand over the years -- for the importance of poetry, for simplicity, the beauty of nature, and for a life dedicated to doing what he loved, regardless of what he was paid for it.

The longtime Amherst writer, whom Robert Frost once called the nation's "best neglected poet," died in 1987. But his legacy lives on not only in his collected works -- and the high critical regard for that work -- but in the 20-by-22 foot house in which he conceived and wrote so many of his poems.

The wooden cottage, constructed largely of "hurricane pine" -- pine trees that had been felled by New England's famous Hurricane of 1938 -- still serves as a way station for visiting poets and other artists looking for an inexpensive place to live and a quiet place to tap their creativity.

"The people who have been most comfortable there are used to the simple life, who are comfortable in the natural world, and who can get by on very little, much as Robert did," says Henry Lyman of Northampton, who helps administer Francis' modest estate. "It was just right for him, and I think it's been just right for the people who have lived and worked there since, for the same reasons -- it doesn't become crowded with objects. You can devote all your mind, energy and spirit to your writing or whatever other work you're doing."

It was Francis' wish that the house and the approximately half-acre of woods surrounding it be made available to other artists, Lyman says. Though most of the people who have stayed there over the years have been poets, there have also been a few painters, some prose writers, and a composer, he notes.

Lyman, 66, a writer and retired teacher who became friends with Francis during the poet's later years, is part of a three-member board that considers applications from artists wishing to live at the house, though he stresses that the procedure is far from formal.

"It's basically a word-of-mouth process," he says. "We hear of someone who needs a place, or we might be approached by someone. We'll meet with them, we'll ask to see some of their work. If they seem right for the house, and the house seems right for them -- if it's a good marriage, so to speak -- we'll invite them to live there for a year or so."

As for who is a good fit, one thing is clear: That person must have a serious artistic commitment, the kind that Francis made to his poetry. His writing -- and the creation of an environment in which to do it -- was the most important thing in his life, says Lyman, far more important than any of the creature comforts or possessions with which success is often measured.

"For many years, Robert made very little from his writing," says Lyman, who interviewed Francis several times for a program on poetry he once hosted on National Public Radio through WFCR-FM in Amherst. "His books did sell, but there were many years where he scarcely made enough money to pay taxes on his property and buy food. But he never stopped writing ... in the latter part of his career, he began to get greater recognition, and things became a bit easier for him."

That kind of grittiness impresses Donald Brees, a poet originally from California who's currently living in the house. Brees, who's 66, has spent a good chunk of his adult life living part of the year in Greece while wintering in New York City, but in the last four years he's come to stay at the house three times -- and seeing the snowy woods outside the windows and "experiencing the quiet," as he puts it, has given him a special appreciation for Francis' work.

"There's something about staying here that really gets to you," says Brees. "Robert Francis took this place and changed it into living prose ... I'd appreciated his poetry before, but now I feel like I understand him better. The more I know him, the more I love him."

Lyman agrees that something of Francis' spirit -- his happiness with a simple life, made up both of solitude and friendship -- is embodied in Fort Juniper. "The house has a friendly ghost, Robert Francis, who assists people with their writing," he says with a smile. "If you're sitting there writing a poem, you might hear a little voice behind you say, 'No, why don't you try a different word?' "

Though born in Pennsylvania, in 1901, Francis spent part of his boyhood in the Boston area, where his father, Ebenezer Francis, was a congregational minister. After graduating from Harvard in 1923, he spent a few years teaching high school, including a stint at Amherst High School; he had followed his family to South Amherst, where his father had become minister of the South Congregational Church.

But Lyman says his friend's heart wasn't in teaching. Instead, he contrived ways to live simply and cheaply, without a conventional salaried job, to devote his time and energy to writing. For several years he rented rooms with elderly women in town, doing a variety of chores in their homes to pay his way. He also gave violin lessons to local children and taught poetry at occasional workshops and seminars. Mostly, though, he got by on a tiny income from his published work, which included essays for magazines. The first of his 10 volumes of poetry, "Stand with Me Here," was published in 1936.

For three years, he rented an old house in North Amherst that had no electricity or running water; he got the latter from a nearby brook. To minimize his need for money, he grew some of his own food and ate small, vegetarian meals, and he often did without a car. He never married. "My specialty," he once wrote, "has been not to earn much but to spend little."

In 1940, his mother received a $1,000 insurance check following his father's death and insisted he take the money. With that he was able to buy a small parcel from a North Amherst farmer for $75. Enlisting a local carpenter and architect, he had his small house built there for a grand total of $1,346.88.

Donald Brees, who learned of the house from a friend, Northampton poet Jack Gilbert, says the simplicity of Fort Juniper is actually deceptive, in a fashion. "Compared to some of the places I've lived, this is luxurious," he says with a laugh. "It has everything I need."

The house has an L-shaped living area where there is a piano, a writing table and desk, a round dining table and a kitchenette with a stove, sink and small refrigerator. Then there's a bedroom and a small bathroom with a shower. That's it. There is no TV, DVD player, air conditioning or other modern trappings, although artists will occasionally bring a radio or portable CD player. There's no prohibition against having such items, but there's also little space for elaborate set-ups.

Visiting artists are responsible for the utility bills, and they're also asked to help out with property taxes. Lyman says total monthly expenses come to roughly $200 per person.

Francis came to name his abode Fort Juniper in the dark days of World War II, after the Japanese captured Singapore from the British in February 1942. As he wrote in his 1971 autobiography, "The Trouble with Francis," hearing Winston Churchill announce the city's surrender in his sonorous voice prompted him to think of something near his own home that could serve as a symbol of durability. He decided on the lowly juniper bush: "How could it fall when it was already close to the ground?"

The house, and the choice of simple living it symbolized, figures in a number of Francis' poems, perhaps most notably in "New England Mind," in which he wrote:

"My mind matches this understated land./Outdoors the pencilled tree, the wind-carved drift,/Indoors the constant fire, the careful thrift/Are facts I accept and understand ... Having lived here the years that are my best,/I call it home. I am content to stay/I have no bird's desire to fly away./I envy neither north, south, east nor west."

"For me, his voice is in touch with New England more than that of any other poet I know," says Lyman. "He really gets the texture of the New England landscape beautifully." Lyman also extols the focus and variety of Francis' writing: "The sound varies tremendously from one poem to the next, and it's always attuned to its subject. He used to tell me that he liked poems that would do what they say, and in his poems, you have the sense that the words are becoming what they describe."

Another admirer was Robert Frost, who taught English at Amherst College and met Francis through mutual friends; he used to visit him at Fort Juniper to talk about poetry. Frost publicly supported Francis' work and in 1938 wrote him a letter after reviewing some of his poems, saying, "I am swept off my feet by the goodness of your poems this time. Ten or a dozen of them are my idea of perfection ... I can refrain from strong praise no longer."

Though an enduring image of Francis may be that of the solitary writer living a monkish existence, Lyman says his late friend loved company. "He didn't consider himself lonely ... his door was always open for friends to come by, he liked giving readings, and he could tell wonderful stories." Francis also traveled a bit as he got older, spending a year in Italy at one point on a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

"He was content with the life he'd made," says Lyman.

Donald Brees, who became interested in poetry in his 30s after studying anthropology and entomology in college, likes to think he's picked up some of Francis' resilience and perseverance by staying in the poet's home. "I haven't always been as disciplined as he was, as focused on my writing," he says. He's worked many different jobs over the years and gone through periods where he hasn't written much. But his work has been published in a number of anthologies in recent years, and he's been writing consistently at Fort Juniper.

Brees notes that other poets he admires -- Jack Gilbert, Doug Anderson, Linda Gregg -- have stayed at Fort Juniper. "There really is a history of talented people staying here," he says. The quiet, he says, has also intensified his reading experiences; he feels he's plumbing new depths of understanding as he re-examines the work of some of his favorite poets and other writers.

"I savor my time here," he says. "I guess it's the legacy of Robert Francis. He's the real thing ... he's the poet of the place."

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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