Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Evening Not Rued

Remember a time when everyone had a favorite poem?

Yea, neither do I.

My Monday night began at Rowland where, when I pulled up, I saw Chef Virginia picking herbs from her many herb beds outside the restaurant. Does a person good to see a chef picking fresh sage and rosemary. She followed me inside with her handful of herbs, asking what I'd like to drink, even suggesting something organic.

I'm as groovy as the next person, so I said yes to the Musaragno organic Pinot Grigio, a lovely crisp yet rich white, ideal for this beach-like weather day.

To go with it, I ordered lamb meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce over cous cous, one of the happy hour specials where you get way more flavor than you should for the price. I had to scarf them down in order to go pick up one of my favorite literati for the James River Film Festival.

We took seats behind a row of what looked like students, a surprise since I expected to find the audience full of poetry lovers of (ahem) a certain age. And there were some of those, too, for  "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World," an Academy Award-winning documentary from 1963.

The title comes from what he wanted written on his tombstone, "I had a lover's quarrel with the world." Now that's seriously poetic.

The beautiful black and white film showed Frost on his Vermont farm during the year before he died, along with several clips of readings and events he attended. First of all, my mental image of Frost was that of the man who Kennedy had asked to read at his inauguration (something no president had ever done).

In other words, old.

So I was completely unprepared to see pictures of him as a young, handsome man. I mean seriously handsome. My girlfriend and I were both shocked to learn that he'd been born in 1874, since we'd both thought of him as a twentieth-century man.

There were many scenes of a reading Frost was doing at Sarah Lawrence College, with him surrounded by scads of young female college students, none of whom wore a lick of makeup. As the camera panned the girls watching and reacting to Frost, it was obvious how engaged they were in every word the man uttered.

Their eyes never left his face, they laughed at every witticism he uttered and not a one seemed the least bit bored. I couldn't help but wonder if it'd be the same if a poet read at a college today. In another scene, people were asked their favorite poem and many of them cited Frost's "Birches."

Again, I posit that if you stopped 100 people on the street and asked them their favorite poem, most would be unable to name one. And, yet, in 1963, poetry still mattered enough that random people could name their favorite.

There were several shots with JKF, not surprising since Frost was an early advocate of the candidate.
"I was born and raised and stayed a Democrat, but, oh my, I've been worried since 1896," he said.

Watching him putter around his rustic house and surrounding farmland at 88-years old was impressive for how self-sufficient he was, but also fascinating because of his solitude at a ripe old age. But it was clear how much he enjoyed the talks he gave ("Hell is a half-filled auditorium") and how sharp he still was when students questioned him or challenged him.

One poem, "Dust of Snow" he not only read but then recited, the better to make his point that sometimes a poem is just a poem.

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of the day I rued

Forget black birds and hemlock, it's just a poem about the beauty of the random.

By the end of the documentary, I was totally charmed by the man, as no doubt people had been for years before me. "You work on your poetry and your life," he says. "And love for a season."

Sigh, the man couldn't open his mouth without sounding poetic. No wonder those girls were enthralled. I'm with them.

Meanwhile, of the three students sitting in front of us, one was sleeping, one was texting the entire film and the third looked bored out of his mind as he kept twisting in his seat.

Try asking them what their favorite poem is.

My only hope is that eventually they'll rue the day they had a chance to see a giant of a poet filmed while he was still alive in a beautifully-shot film. I know it gave my heart a change of mood - an appreciation for a time when poetry still mattered.

Or as Frost said, "A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom." My evening began in delight and moved right through to wisdom.

I'm just working on my life.