Robert Frost's reputation has suffered the extremes of temperament and fashion. He was America's most revered and most publicly recognized poet of the last century. As a pop icon, he posed as the avuncular Yankee, dispensing a common man's wisdom and good humor, dismissing academic claims that he was more than that. This pose was misleading, a false image that Frost most heartily reinforced, playing the public and those in power all he could for his own need to assert literary rank and privilege. Like most artists -- although few will admit it -- he wanted more than anything else to be No. 1 and was suspicious, wary, even malicious to those who would challenge him. After his death in 1963 at the age of 88, the competitive, vain and cruel Frost became known. The revelations of what a bad man Frost was had the impact -- at least in literary circles -- of learning that a favorite uncle was a pederast. When icons are pulled down, the result is hysteria.
In recent years, as Frost's public persona has receded, the poet and the poems are being reclaimed by a generation removed from his life, with the perspective of detachment that time grants. Actually, one of Frost's contemporaries, the critic Lionel Trilling, led the way toward seeing through the sentimental guise, proclaiming Frost "a terrifying poet." He is that. His best works, before he slipped into the costume of virtuous publican, are disquieting encounters with darkness, with death, with grief, with unreason. If Frost is a nature poet, he is one who sees nature as a terrible force, one that frail humans have little more than rhyme and rhythm to contain. Nobel laureate Derek Walcott does not go too far out of bounds by suggesting that "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," one of the few poems people still memorize, "darkens with terror in every homily."
So be forewarned before attending the Robert Frost Birthday Reading at Dressel's Pub Above at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, with Richard Newman, Richard Burgin, Donald Finkel, Ann Haubrich, Peter Leach and others participating. "A light he was to no one but himself."