Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Reclaiming Poetry

Aug 11, 2016

I walk into a local library branch to pick up a book I had ordered.  After I tell the young librarian the name of my book that is on hold, she turns away from me, towards the bookshelf.  She pirouettes towards me, my book in her hands, when I suddenly notice the most interesting tattoo on her shoulder, the words, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  I am not a big tattoo fan, but this one’s poignant irony makes me smile.  “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” is the title and last line of one of my favorite poems by the great American poet, Robert Frost:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

With his trademark deceptive simplicity, Frost adopts a very clipped, abbreviated rhythm and rhyme scheme to convey the powerful, somber truth that all of life and its pleasures are transient and that the permanence of life is an illusion.  To make this point, he focuses our attention upon those first rich shades of green that color the new leaves of Spring as they bud, then burst forth, with new life.  This “first green” is nature’s version of gold, the color and precious metal that in symbol and substance are the very essence of wealth and permanence.  Frost reminds us that this golden bursting forth of life passes away as quickly as it came.  Then, he surprises us with an even more evocative image of this somber truth:  this state of transience and fading beauty is not our fate alone.  It has been with us since that moment at the beginning of mythic time in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and the primordial, ideal age of human innocence and natural perfection “sank to grief” as life was transformed into the painful, mortal reality that we experience every day.  Just as dawn goes down to day, nothing lasts forever: nothing gold can stay.

I remark to the young woman, “What an interesting way to immortalize that Frost poem.”  Thank you,” she says, “Many people who didn’t know what it referred to have been asking me about it.”  I tell her, “I think Frost would have been bewildered by his words finding their way onto a tattoo, but I suspect he would have felt honored as well.”  Alas, like gold, no conversation can stay.  The young librarian smiles in that wan, politely dismissive manner that young people smile when they want to tell older people, “Uh, OK, this is awkward. I’ve got to get back to work now.”  I let her get back to work, but the image of Frost’s words about mortality etched on her shoulder has stayed with me.  What a consciously ironic way of literally embodying the poem’s message about how all of life is impermanent:  on the one hand, nothing gold can stay, but a tattoo is essentially permanent on your body, unless you undergo a very painful procedure to have it erased.  On the other hand, that young woman’s body, like all of our bodies, will eventually die.  Frost’s reminder of our mortality will ultimately be buried with her.

But will it?  Frost died in 1963 and some of us are still reading, quoting, studying, even tattooing his poems. The sad paradox of poetry in America is that it touches immortality so deeply through words, yet so many people are terrified to touch even its surface because they have been convinced that it is too hard to understand. The poet, Billy Collins once wrote that for every non-reader of poetry there is a poem waiting to reconnect them to poetry. Through that reconnection, I believe, we can be touched by the staying power of the best of the human spirit.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.

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