The Power of Ritual

About 40 years ago I was playing a lot of chess. I was nothing special, but I could beat just about anyone who didn’t play in tournaments. Bobby Fischer had just become World Champion, and chess was booming in the United States. The Bay Area was a thriving greenhouse of chess talent, perhaps second only to New York City, because of its proximity to the University of California in Berkeley, and Cal’s arch-nemesis, Stanford, on the other side of the Bay.

One Spring I went to a master chess tournament in a bar on College Avenue called “The Loft.” I recognized a few familiar faces, but no one I had met. I watched a few games. To someone who has never played tournament chess before, watching a chess game must seem duller than watching Jello coagulate, but to someone who plays, it's a mind-boggling torrent of combat.

Gary Snyder and Dennis Fritzinger
I don’t remember exactly how I introduced myself to Dennis Fritzinger, but I do remember that afternoon, I got him to sign a tournament book of games, a tournament in which he had scored respectably. Dennis was the first chess master I’d met who was more than polite to me. He answered my questions about his game that day, and when I saw him at another tournament, he remembered me, and said hello first.

At the time, I didn’t know he was a poet. Dennis was one of the Top 50 players in the country, a strong master, with a rating around 2400. That put him somewhere in the top 500 in the world, which was quite good.

Over the next few months we saw each other frequently. He was more than patient with me. When I asked him questions about his games, he answered them and never once made me feel foolish because I had not seen deeply enough into the position to know why it made no sense to play my suggested move. On the few occasions we played, he sandbagged just enough to keep me in the game, but he still won. We began to talk on the phone about chess and poetry. He taught me that haikus were more than just seventeen syllables arranged five-seven-five.

He had traveled the same road, seen the same woods and the same frozen lake that Frost had seen on ‘the darkest evening of the year!’

[He will not toot his own horn, so I will do it for him. Dennis is quite a renowned poet. Many people call themselves poets because they know how to string together some syllables and random thoughts in a pleasing fashion, but Dennis is the real thing.]

Somewhere in that first year or two, we found out we both loved Robert Frost. He told me one year he had been hitch-hiking on a dark Winter evening. He came down a country road, through the woods, and found the small cabin where Frost went to write near his farm in Derry, New Hampshire, which was immortalized in some of his best-loved poems, including our mutual favorite, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He had traveled the same road, seen the same woods and the same frozen lake that Frost had seen on ‘the darkest evening of the year!’

We recited and discussed the poem over and over again, line by line, beat by beat, nuance by nuance. In those pre-Internet days, I did a lot of research in libraries and the bookstores where I worked, and found out his editor, Edward Connery Latham, had inserted a serial comma into the first line of the final stanza:

        The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

The comma trivializes the emotions Frost felt when he was describing it. I was overjoyed to bring this fact to Dennis, as we’d talked about it before, and Dennis thought the comma didn't belong. He was correct! Although Dennis never made me feel inferior, I had little to offer to most conversations except my unschooled enthusiasm. Finally I could add something to the discussion.

One great poet meets another
Over the years we gave each other copies of Frost collections and biographies. Dennis went to a signing and gave me Robert Frost: A Life by Jay Parini. I got each of us a copy of the Library of America Frost collection. Once I surprised him by taking him to the cable car turnaround at Drumm, California, and Market in San Francisco, to see the monument erected by the California Friends of Robert Frost. (Frost was born in San Francisco.) Since then, whenever we go to San Francisco, we say “I’ll meet you at Robert.”

In the course of our research, I read in a biography a quotation from Frost's daughter, Carol, that the poem was based on an actual event. Frost was a hopeless though hardworking farmer. One Winter evening he set off for town with a load of eggs, hoping to trade them for some gingham material for his wife, a doll for his daughter, a baseball for his son, and some hard candy and oranges for their Christmas stockings. Alas he was unsuccessful, and had to return empty-handed. The poem is laden with depression and disappointment, but at the end reminds us all that we must persist — if not for ourselves — for those we love.

We talked again and again about this masterpiece (and other Frost poems), and our meticulous examination only deepened our love for the poem and our respect for each other. One line caught our fancy:

        The darkest evening of the year.

When we discovered it referred to the Winter Solstice, Dennis was struck by an inspiration. The following cold December Solstice evening, he called me and recited it for me. From then on through the next thirty or so years, we have not missed one. In the past we alternated from year to year, but now we recite it together, trading stanzas, but reciting the final one together.

I’m not religious, but I understand the power of ritual, the remembrances we share between friends and family. Each year as our circle grows smaller, the ritual grows in its importance. We don’t discuss Frost very much any more, except on the Winter Solstice. This year (2010) when we renew our ritual, we’ll be treated to an even darker evening, as there’ll be a total Lunar Eclipse. I hope you'll join us by reciting it with one of your favorite people.

        Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

        Whose woods these are I think I know.
        His house is in the village though;
        He 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.

        He gives his harness bells a shake
        To ask if there is some mistake.
        The only other sound’s the sweep
        Of easy wind and downy flake.

        The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
        But I have promises to keep,
        And miles to go before I sleep,
        And miles to go before I sleep.

             -Robert Frost (1874-1963)


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