Eyeing the Bond Between Two Poets, a Novelist, and Painters

Recognizing the birthdays of Robert Frost, Frank O'Hara, and Mario Vargas Llosa

Writers and painters have for generations benefitted from each other’s work. Anne Sexton wrote her poem, “The Starry Night,” based on Van Gogh’s painting of the same name. William Carlos Williams’s poem, “The Great Figure,” inspired Charles Demuth to create the abstract portrait, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.”

The subjects of this issue of Bidwell Hollow are no different. Two befriended painters. One may have wanted to be a painter. And another wrote a novel based on a painter.

I made today’s Bidwell Hollow open to all subscribers. Many of us could use a relaxing distraction. If you’re a paid Bidwell Hollow subscriber, though, there’s something special for you. Enjoy the stories below, then visit this page for poems from Robert Frost, Christina Rossetti, and Frank O’Hara.

If you’re not a paid subscriber, you can be for $5/month or $50/year. Subscribing gives you twice-weekly access to articles like these and occasional special stuff like this.

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When a New England Poet Befriended a New England Painter

Artist Robert Strong Woodward arrived in Amherst, Mass., around noon on Feb. 28, 1932. He headed to a gallery at Amherst College’s Jones Library, which was hosting an exhibit of his paintings. 

Woodward lived in Buckland, Mass., about 30 miles from Amherst. He’d been there since 1910, determined to earn a living as an artist. Most in 1932 knew Woodward as a landscape painter. He created oil color landscape paintings of scenes from across New England.

Before landscape painting, though, Woodward made illuminations for poems. One such creation was for the first four lines of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “A Birthday.” Woodward drew the words in calligraphy set against a backdrop of intertwined vines and fruit.

Woodward’s appreciation of poetry may have served him well that 1932 day in Amherst. While Woodward was in the gallery with his art, the Jones Library’s director, Charles Green, entered with a visitor—Robert Frost. “Absolutely delightful visit,” Woodward wrote in his diary. “Feel as if old friends. He wants to buy a painting—admiring my work intensely.”

Frost was a professor at Amherst, and he was one of America’s most famous poets. He’d won two Pulitzer Prizes by 1932, for his collections New Hampshire and A Further Range. Much of Frost’s poems reflected New England scenes. It was an approach like the landscapes Woodward painted.

After their first meeting, Woodward left two of his paintings for Frost to look over. On April 2, 1932, the painter returned to Amherst to see Frost. The poet wasn’t home, but Woodward left two more pieces for Frost to consider. 

Brian Miller, who runs a website dedicated to Woodward, said the artist’s service to Frost was unusual. “I only have a handful of examples where Woodward himself went to such trouble,” Miller said. “He usually delegated this task to people working for him. So he is showing Frost deference.”

That deference paid off. Frost bought Woodward’s painting, “Winter Dignity.” The artwork shows the view from Woodward’s studio of a snow-covered field with trees and hills beyond. 

Frost’s wife, Elinor, loved the painting. But the piece also recalls Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:”

Whose woods these are I think I know. 
His house is in the village though; 
He will not see me stopping here 
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

A local reporter wrote about the Frosts’ purchase of “Winter Dignity.” But the journalist misnamed the piece. They wrote, “Those who know his work and who read Robert Frost declare that the combination of the New England poet and the New England painter could hardly have been more felicitously displayed than in the poet’s purchase of the magnificent study, Dignity of Winter, and find that the artist in color has more than a superficial kinship with the artist in words, in the sensitive insight and understanding of our region which they both depict.” 

The Frosts hung “Winter Dignity” above the fireplace in their Amherst home. But the poet’s friendship with Woodward didn’t end there. 

Each year at Christmas, Robert Frost sent his friends a small booklet in which he wrote an original poem. And, after their meeting in 1932, Frost added Woodward to his mailing list. One Christmas booklet that Woodward received had an inscription, written by Frost. It read, “To Robert Strong Woodward in the maintenance of friendship with Robert Frost.”

But Frost’s and Woodward’s relationship did go through a rough patch. Elinor, Robert’s wife, died in 1938. Two years later, Frost asked Woodward if he could swap “Winter Dignity” for another painting. “Winter Dignity” reminded Frost of his wife too much. 

Woodward agreed, though against his inclination. “He being Robert Frost I couldn’t possibly say no, though I didn’t approve of the transaction wholeheartedly,” Woodward wrote in his diary. Frost selected Woodward’s painting of a clapboard house titled, “Passing New England.”

Frost’s exchange of the paintings may have frustrated Woodward. But the poet and artist remained, if not friends, at least on friendly terms the rest of Woodward’s life. He died of stomach cancer in 1957.

By then, Frost was a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner. In 1958, he served a year as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—today’s U.S. Poet Laureate. And in 1961, Frost recited a poem at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

In 1958, a reporter asked Frost if his beloved New England was decaying. Frost replied, “The next president of the United States will be from Boston. Does that sound as if New England is decaying?”

Notes: Special thanks to Brian Miller of RobertStrongWoodward.com for answering my questions and providing more info about Robert Frost’s friendship with Robert Strong Woodward. And this piece wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of Dr. Mark “Doc” Purinton. Purinton started the website dedicated to Woodward. Celebrities who collected Woodward’s work include Jack Benny, George Burns, and Frost. Doc worked for Woodward when he was a teenager. He sometimes accompanied the artist on visits with Frost. Doc passed away on March 4. 

After Frost returned “Winter Dignity,” Woodward donated the painting. He gave it to a school in Charlemont, Mass. I reached out to the staff at The Academy at Charlemont, and they still have the painting. The artwork’s currently hanging in the school’s library. You can see “Winter Dignity” here.

Premium subscribers content: Visit this page to read Robert Frost’s “Stopping by a Wood on a Snowy Evening” and Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday.”

Robert Frost

  • Born on March 26, 1874, in San Francisco, Calif.

  • Died on Jan. 29, 1963, in Boston, Mass.

Writing Poetry While Curating An Art Movement

Frank O’Hara wrote a ton of poems, 90 to be exact, while earning his Master of Arts at the University of Michigan. He also composed two plays. O’Hara pulled those plays and some of his poems into a manuscript. It won the school’s 1951 Hopwood Award in Creative Writing.

That same year, O’Hara came to New York. He got a cashier job at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), a perfect place for the poet. O’Hara moved the visual arts. He even wrote a poem lamenting that he wasn’t a painter, titled, “Why I Am Not a Painter.” It begins:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.

And O’Hara befriended many painters, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Grace Hartigan. He and another artist, Larry Rivers, were lovers for a time. Rivers provided drawings for O’Hara’s first poetry collection, A City Winter and Other Poems. The book’s a small pamphlet that came out in 1952, published by a New York art gallery owner named John Bernard Myers.

By 1955, O’Hara was an assistant curator at MoMA. This position gave him greater influence. The mid-1950s was a time when the art world resisted the abstract expressionism movement practiced by many of O’Hara’s friends. These artworks often appear as erratic, hurried brushstrokes across a canvas.

O’Hara put together a 1958 exhibit of 17 abstract expressionist artists. Titled, “The New American Painting,” it showcased painters such as Pollock, de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. “The New American Painting” toured western Europe for a year, culminating with a show in London. 

The exhibit brought abstract art to the world stage. But it’s worth noting a couple of things about “The New American Painting.” The U.S. government paid for the show’s European tour, seeing it as anti-Soviet propaganda. And O’Hara wasn’t inclusive in his artistic choices. All but one of the painters he selected were white men. 

O’Hara’s vision also didn’t extend to the pop art movement that started taking hold by 1960. The poet spurned pop artists, including the best-known among them, Andy Warhol. O’Hara declined to sit for a portrait by Warhol. “But you pose for Larry Rivers,” Warhol said. “You’re not Larry Rivers,” O’Hara replied.

Amid his art activity, O’Hara wrote poetry. He often did so while on a lunch break from MoMA. During these times, O’Hara sat in Times Square, observing others and composing lines. He published these poems in the 1964 collection, Lunch Poems.

And painters weren’t O’Hara’s only friends. Many poets were, too, including John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. These writers, painters, and other New York City artists formed what’s called the New York School. The informal collective started in the late 1940s. It influenced New York’s art scene into the 1980s.

O’Hara, though, was gone by then. He died in a sand buggy accident on Fire Island, N.Y., in 1966.

Premium subscribers content: Visit this page to watch O’Hara read his poem, “Having a Coke With You.”

Frank O’Hara

  • Born on June 27, 1926, in Baltimore, Md.

  • Died on July 25, 1966, in Fire Island, N.Y.

The Nobel Prize Winner Who Wrote A Novel About Gauguin

It might seem odd for Mario Vargas Llosa to write a novel about French painter Paul Gauguin. Vargas Llosa built his reputation writing stories about his native Peru. So, Gauguin appears at first glance as an outlier in Vargas Llosa’s body of work.

But then you learn that Gauguin’s grandmother was French-Peruvian. You discover that Gauguin spent part of his youth in Lima, Peru. And then you start to understand Vargas Llosa’s writing of his 2003 book, This Way to Paradise.

The novel’s a fictionalized account of two stories. One story follows Gauguin’s grandmother, Flora Tristán, in France. And in the other we Gauguin in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. 

Much of Vargas Llosa’s work uses historical fiction to make political and social points. This Way to Paradise is no exception. Tristán was a social reformer who lobbied in France for workers’ and women’s’ rights. In This Way to Paradise, Trisán returns to Peru. There she confronts a feudal civilization unwilling to change. And her uncle, though he loves her, refuses her an inheritance because she’s a woman.

The other storyline, in the South Pacific, has Gauguin seeking paradise. He finds disillusionment and death instead. But the painter also produces masterpieces. In This Way to Paradise, Vargas Llosa places readers at the moment of creation for some of this artwork.

Most consider This Way to Paradise one of Vargas Llosa’s minor works. His better-known novels include The Time of the Hero and The War of the End of the World

Many compare Vargas Llosa to Gabriel García Márquez. Both are from South America, and both won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Vargas Llosa received the award in 2010. He was the first South American-born writer to do so since García Márquez won in 1982. 

Winning the Nobel caught Vargas Llosa off-guard. The writer thought his politics would keep him from receiving the award. Vargas Llosa’s never shied away from voicing his left-leaning opinions. 

But, it turns out, Vargas Llosa’s politics weren’t a problem for the Nobel Committee. After receiving word he won the Nobel Prize, Vargas said, “For years I haven’t thought about the Nobel prize at all. They didn’t mention me in recent years, so I didn’t expect it. It’s been a surprise, very nice, but a surprise.”

Mario Vargas Llosa

  • Born on March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru

Sources

Significant effort goes into ensuring the information shared in Bidwell Hollow’s Literary Stories is factual and accurate. However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know by emailing nick@bidwellhollow.com. I'll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you.

Robert Frost

Frank O’Hara

Mario Vargas Llosa