Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Robert Frost, famous for such poems as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Road Not Taken." Fans of Frost's works have another reason to pay special attention to his legacy this week: Jonathan Reichert, professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has just donated a rare collection of Frost materials to the university.
Frost was a family friend of the Reicherts, and though Jonathan Reichert was nearly 60 years younger than the iconic poet, he nevertheless had a meaningful friendship with him. "I wasn't afraid to talk to him, and he, I think, was very willing to engage with me," Reichert says. "I was very lucky in that way."
"He was always wrestling with big ideas ... and what was interesting is later on you discovered that that talk appeared in poems," Reichert remembers. "Conversations in our schoolhouse in Vermont, long evenings of conversation ... and then later, a new poem would be published, and there would be lines you'd swear you'd heard before."
One of the "big ideas" that preoccupied Frost was religion, and many Frost scholars have puzzled over the poet's religious views. Reichert says Frost summarized his faith by calling himself an "Old Testament Christian."
"He saw that the laws that Judaism had built up really were not the essence, and that Jesus was a great prophet, rather than seeing Jesus as the son of God, or the savior," Reichert said. "That's how I interpret what he meant when he said, 'I'm an Old Testament Christian.'"
Frost's personal religious views remain mysterious to this day, but according to Reichert, that's the way the poet would have wanted it: "Frost liked to play with you. He liked to leave mysteries. He did not like to spell — I mean, that's what a poet is — a poet doesn't lay out ... a poet gives you a metaphor and lets you wrestle with it."
An exhibit featuring letters, photographs, recordings and other materials from the collection will be open to the public at the State University of New York at Buffalo for two months, beginning Jan. 31.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Next, we'll recall a poet of the modern era who didn't seem modern at all.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Even when he was writing in the first half of the 20th century, the poetry of Robert Frost seemed a little old-fashioned. He rhymed in an age of free verse.
MONTAGNE: And in a time of mass urbanization and spreading technology, he set his poems in the New England countryside. Yet long after his death, which came 50 years ago today, the words of Robert Frost still resonate.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
ROBERT FROST: (Reading) Whose woods these are, I think I know. His house is in the village, though.
MONTAGNE: We're listening to the Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
FROST: (Reading) You will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near between the woods and frozen lake, the darkest evening of the year.
INSKEEP: The poem goes on: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.
MONTAGNE: Robert Frost was 88 when he passed away in Boston in 1963, after a lifetime of writing that earned him four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. This week, a collection of his letters, photos and recordings is being made public for the first time. They're at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
INSKEEP: This collection comes from Jonathan Reichert, a retired professor who, as a young man, met Robert Frost.
JONATHAN REICHERT: I wasn't afraid to talk to him. And he, I think, was very willing to engage with me, and I was very lucky in that way.
MONTAGNE: Robert Frost was a friend of the Reichert family, and sometimes shared his thoughts with the much-younger man.
REICHERT: He was always wrestling with big ideas. And what was interesting is, later on, you discovered that that talk appeared in poems. Conversations in our schoolhouse in Vermont, long evenings of conversation, and then later a new poem would be published, and there would be lines you'd swear you'd heard before.
INSKEEP: One of the big ideas that preoccupied Frost was religion, but scholars have puzzled for decades over Robert Frost's own religious beliefs. Jonathan Reichert's father was a rabbi, and among the documents in Reichert's collection is a sermon that Frost delivered at a synagogue.
MONTAGNE: We asked Reichert to read a short passage from that sermon.
REICHERT: (Reading) Now, religion always seems to me to come around to something beyond wisdom. It is the straining of the spirit forward to a wisdom beyond wisdom.
MONTAGNE: Those are Frost's words, though ultimately, this sermon says little about the poet's own faith. But Reichert says that's the way Frost would have wanted it.
REICHERT: Frost liked to play with you. He liked to leave mysteries. He did not like to spell - I mean, that's what a poet is. A poet doesn't lay out. A poet gives you a metaphor and lets you wrestle with it.
INSKEEP: Miles to go before I sleep. Jonathan Reichert on his friendship with the poet Robert Frost, who died 50 years ago today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.