THE RABBI AND THE POET Andrew R. Marks; Andover Green Book Publishers 64 pp., $13.50
Robert Frost is early taught as the essential American poet. Half of us memorized the silky and magical tones of ``Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.''
No poet is better known; his verse echoes in our speech. We know Frost's road not taken, the good fences that make good neighbors, home as the place where they have to take you in, and those woods -
so lovely, dark, and deep.
We can picture Frost's iconographic thatch of white hair and grainy face framed by a gray-black New England barn. No poet since Walt Whitman has been so public. In 1943, 50,000 copies of Frost's verse were mailed to soldiers overseas. The peak was President Kennedy's inaugural on national TV: Frost at age 89 read ``The Gift Outright'' on the Capitol steps, lost his way in the bright sun, and recited the poem from memory.
Still, Frost's place in American art is not yet set in stone. Joseph Brodsky, for one, writes in last month's New Yorker that he can't get Frost off his mind and feels the poet deserves a deeper look. Clearly, Frost is more than a folksy speaker of country things - a saint with an apple bucket in his hands. Nor - even though he had an awareness of pain and grief, of promises not kept, of creation seemingly at endless odds with itself - was Frost a secret bitter chronicler of the dark side, as some say.
Actually, I've found a persistent undercurrent of spiritual questioning in Frost - something rarely noted. The poems, in a gentle way, are about the most serious issues of life and death; the poet has an interest in things divine. He is too much a New Englander, a Yankee, and a human to announce this flatly. Not announcing it, in fact, is where his art lies.
How well a pre-Vietnam era poet can fare in a postmodern age is a question. But at a time when people are hungering for authenticity and light, partly because these seem increasingly unavailable, Frost has much to give. For example, I found in ``West Running Brook,'' a poem about trusting oneself to ``go by contraries,'' this little gem: ``It is this backward motion toward the source,/ Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,/ The tribute of the current to the source.''
I confide that much of my renewed appreciation of Frost is due to a remarkable little book, ``The Rabbi and the Poet,'' released this month. Written by Andrew Marks, ``The Rabbi and the Poet'' is a cluster of simple but vital exchanges between Frost and a little-known rabbi from Cincinnati, Victor Reichert, who was close to Frost for 20 years and summered near him in Vermont. The book even contains a heretofore unpublished sermon Frost gave at the rabbi's synagogue in 1946.
The two men exchanged something rare, and Rabbi Reichert's special view of Frost gives the book its character. This friendship is the kind people truly have, but which a high-powered biographer traveling along the main avenues of a life might miss the importance of. Reichert thinks Frost is ``the most religious man I ever knew''; the book is a kind of prayer about matters of the spirit and about sharing unseen evidence of the divine.
In his own sermon on Frost as an ``Old Testament Christian,'' the rabbi notes that the poet yearns for heaven but wants life acted out concretely on this planet. He refers to lines from ``Birches,'' a poem used in countless Sunday sermons:
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
But, the poet continues,
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
The rabbi and the poet ask each other basic questions that go past ethnic or religious boundaries to something universal. Those imagining Frost to be a cranky atheist might think again. At the beginning of ``The Rabbi and the Poet,'' Reichert recounts an exchange prior to the poet's passing in 1963 about the possibility of life after death. Frost comments: ``With so many ladders going up everywhere there must be something for them to lean against.''
Reichert is a sounding board for Frost's ``A Masque of Reason,'' a dialogue between Job and God. (Frost even uses Reichert's suggested line to close with, ``Here endeth Chapter 43 of Job.'')
When Mr. Marks found him some years ago, the rabbi was still living on a Vermont hillside. Over brook trout and poetry, Reichert talked about Frost. The rabbi, who loved the poet without it being hero worship, asked: ``What could be more opposite than Robert Frost, with several hundred years of America on his side, and myself - first generation American with several generations of tailors, horse thieves, ex-convicts, and rabbis from Poland and Germany?''
Yet as it happened, the rabbi's own faith and Jewish tradition, itself no stranger to suffering, helped him appreciate Frost. The poet did have a dark side. He faced personal tragedy. His father died early; his sister became insane; his son committed suicide, and two other children died young. The rabbi says Frost wept about this in his presence.
Sadly, Lawrence Thompson's 1966 biography paints a ``monster'' image of Frost, Reichert says. Robert Lowell called it ``poisonous.'' Poet Peter Davison remembers Frost's graciousness in the 1950s in Cambridge; his house was always open to known and unknown literati, and he walked and talked till all hours. But so influential was the biography that Frost ``became difficult to think of as he was,'' Davison says.
The rabbi isn't fazed. He understands there is a profound falseness to the idea that something can't be spiritual if it involves struggle or darkness. Frost was a ``Jobian man with Jobian experiences,'' Reichert says. Yet Frost did not whine - he sought to transform his hardship into art of beauty and depth.
Frost's sermon may be the highlight of ``The Rabbi and the Poet.'' He wrote it, fortified with two raw eggs, the evening before its delivery. He describes the religious life as: ``A straining of the spirit forward to a wisdom beyond wisdom.'' This man who made a virtue of unstinting Job-like questioning also accepts in some fashion the notion of God's sovereignty. What is important is not what I think or you think - but what God thinks, he says, quoting the Scriptures: ``And none can say, unto Thee, `What doest Thou?' ''
Typical is this excerpt: ``I heard a man talking about being on the side of the angels. He knew he was on their side, and you could tell he knew it. I said to him afterwards: `It seems to me it might be for God to say whether you are on His side or not.' That's what we mean by humility and modesty.
``We don't quite know! We do the best we can with what we know, and then there is something we come to church about, something we pray about. Prayer is all about that.''
Frost opened up many roads still not well traveled. ``The Rabbi and the Poet'' shows the power of ``little books'' to shed new light along those roads. In this case, a rabbi gives us a different poet.
* Andover Green Book Publishers is located in Gilman's Corner, Alton, NH 03809.