What is the impact Robert Frost has made on society?

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Frost is probably the only twentieth-century poet whose work has actually entered the collective American consciousness. This can be seen in the fact that even people who are not English majors or literary specialists can often quote his work extemporaneously—or are at least very familiar with it.

It's partly the arresting nature of his wording, as in lines like "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" and "Warren? she questioned / Dead, was all he answered," that accounts for this. Additionally, the fact that his verse grows out of ordinary situations but has universal meaning is what makes it understandable and relevant. The best example is probably "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Two anecdotal facts are also worth mentioning.

First, though I was very young at the time, one of my earliest memories is of Frost reading his poetry at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in January, 1961. In the freezing cold of that day, Frost presented a heroic image, in spite of (or perhaps, conversely, because of) the difficulty he had reading his own words, after which he recited from memory.

Second, the use, in a television commercial about cancer treatment, of a few of his most famous lines—

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep

—is incredibly moving and poignant. There are few poets from any time—apart from the very greatest like Shakespeare, Shelley, and Tennyson, for instance—whose work, when quoted, has a similar power.

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Perhaps the best way to assess the impact of Robert Frost is to look at his reception – in other words, the ways in which his poetry has circulated and the types of audience it has attained. Roland Barthes famously said “literature is what gets taught”, meaning that the literary canon and the works that most influence the culture of a given society are those taught in schools. By that measure, Frost’s poetry has a significant impact on North American society, as his works are standard in secondary and tertiary curricula, and on standardized exams (AP literature, GRE literature).

A few other indications of his broad influence are that his four Pulitzer prizes are the largest number awarded to any individual poet in the history of the prize. He also wrote a poem for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, which he performed from memory after stumbling and dropping his copy.

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