When I lived in Cambridge in the first years of the 1960s, it was not unusual to encounter, on a warm winter afternoon, the poet Robert Frost walking slowly along Massachusetts Avenue. I'd watch him as he strolled over to Plympton Street and to the Grolier -- which was, then as now I imagine, the only all-poetry bookstore in America. One day I crept behind him to the shop and sat in a secluded corner, studying him as he browsed the shelf of new arrivals. With his leathery old skin and unruly iridescent white hair, he was an iconic figure -- famous not only among friends of poetry but among readers of Life and Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. When he "said" his poems at Sanders Theater (in late 1961 or 1962), he filled every seat and every standpoint of a large auditorium. He was an honest-to-goodness celebrity, a presence, a man who had created a body of work and had earned a reputation that no poet or cultural figure today can rival.
At JFK's inauguration in January of 1961, Frost commanded a national television audience. He started to read the poem he had composed for the occasion, but his 87-year-old eyes were blinded by the bright sunlight and he couldn't continue. There was a moment of embarrassment, and I remember cringing in sympathy with his struggle. But then he gathered himself and recited from memory, in a rejuvenated voice, "The Gift Outright." "She was our land more than a hundred years/ Before we were her people." It's an almost mystical but grandly patriotic poem about rude, unlettered colonials transforming themselves into a Nation. "Such as we were we gave ourselves outright.../ To the land vaguely realizing westward,/ But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, / Such as she was, such as she would become."
Frost died in January of 1963, just ten months before our young president was shot. It's almost impossible now to reconstruct the effervescence of the Kennedy years -- a brief exciting moment between the lukewarm bland Eisenhower administration and the interminable nightmare of Vietnam. Frost's "Dedication," the poem that he couldn't read at the inaugural, is not his best work, but its last lines catch the spirit of the time. The poet took his inspiration from the Rome of Augustus and of Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. "It is no miracle the mood is high," he wrote. "It makes the prophet in us all presage/ The glory of the next Augustan age/ Of a power leading from its strength and pride,/ Of young ambition eager to be tried,/ Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,/ In any game the nations want to play./ A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday's the beginning hour." Frost proved to be a better poet than a prophet. Instead of a golden age of poetry and power, we've had, after the three horrible murders, a parade of fools: first the crook, then the senile puppet, then the congressional fellatio hunters, and now the smirking, dangerous dunce.
Like the nation, I too am in steep decline. It used to be that I could memorize short poems with ease. Nowadays, it's a titanic effort of will. To forestall hardening of the mind, and in a desperate effort to keep my brain supple, I decided to memorize Frost's "Birches." It's when you learn a poem by heart that you truly appreciate it, and so I can now say with absolute confidence and authority that "Birches" is a poem not just for the age, but for all time. In point of fact, I've been bothering myself about how Frost will fare in civilizations as far into the future as Virgil and Horace are behind us. Will students of poetry be able to grasp the subtlety of "Birches?" The story, the plot itself, will pose no problem. Frost knows that birches are bent to the ground by ice-storms, but he would fancifully "prefer to have some boy bend them/ As he went out and in to fetch the cows." For the "boy," tree-climbing is a high art: "He always kept his poise/ To the top branches, climbing carefully/ With the same pains you use to fill a cup/ Up to the brim, and even above the brim." Frost then shifts perspective, and the fantasy that birches are bent not by ice-storms but by athletic youngsters transforms into a memory, a truth: "So was I once myself a swinger of birches;/ And so I dream of going back to be." He closes the poem with a vision in which he leaves the real world and starts life anew: "I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,/ And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk/ Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,/ But dipped its top and set me down again." Even though our descendants will read the poem in an extinct language and in an edition encrusted with explanatory footnotes, I'm sure that they'll understand its outline. (I imagine too that some future scholar will make his career by explicating the line "A boy too far from town to learn baseball.") But will anyone in 4006 A.D. be sufficiently conversant with everyday twentieth-century American English to recognize the skill with which Frost masks his deep insights into the relationship between the material and the eternal with art-that-hides-art colloquialisms? Or appreciate to the full the sly understatement of "one could do worse than be a swinger of birches?" The beauty and the profundity of "Birches" tease us who share Frost's language. What a challenge the poem will be eighty generations down the road! Moreover, Is there even the remotest possibility that our successors will be equipped to grasp how much of Roman poetry (Ovid especially) Frost distills into "I'd like to get away from earth awhile/ And then come back to it and begin over./ May no fate willfully misunderstand me/ And half grant what I wish and snatch me away/ Not to return." Frost possessed the genius to keep us in touch with our past and to connect us to our future.
I wish that I had talked to Robert Frost that winter day when he was trudging on. "How are you, Mr. Frost," I might have asked. Perhaps he would have smiled or said "Nice day."
That would have been a good thing to recall.