A Case of Poetic Justice. Literally.

By Jay Parini
Sunday, June 22, 2008


Last winter, which in Vermont is serious business, a gang of local teens -- and a few people a little older -- got a bright idea. The Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, famous as the summer home of Robert Frost between 1938 and 1963, stood empty. It struck them as just the place for a party. Armed with lots of beer, the group made its way up the long, snow-packed road to the farmhouse and broke in. Over the course of a rowdy evening, they managed to inflict some $10,000 worth of damage. But it wasn't until a hiker discovered the aftermath of the party that the law caught up with the revelers. All 28 were charged with trespassing.

I was horrified to hear about the break-in but relieved to learn that the place -- where I had stayed off and on over many years, especially while writing my biography of Frost -- was not damaged beyond repair. As it happened, I had just finished a book called " Why Poetry Matters," a study on the role poetry can play in our daily lives that deals extensively with Frost's ideas about the use of metaphor.

"Unless you are at home in the metaphor," Frost once wrote, "you are not safe anywhere." These are lines I've said over and over in my head a thousand times -- as a poet, as a teacher of poetry. Suddenly, Frost's ruined house seemed to have become a kind of metaphor itself -- a symbol for his poems, which had somehow been violated, broken into.

With these thoughts of Frost floating in my head, I got a call from the prosecutor in the case. His idea, which the judge embraced, was that part of the young invaders' community service would involve discussing Frost's poetry with me. If they studied with me for a period of time (to be determined by the judge and me), their criminal records in this case would be erased.

Would I, the court wondered, agree to such a thing?

The prosecutor's message was left on my answering machine, and I replayed it several times in disbelief. I went off to play basketball and mentioned the notion to my friends -- the guys I've played ball with three times a week for 25 years. Naturally, there was some derision.

The implications of this project for the justice system seemed difficult to comprehend. Was this just punishment? Was poetry ever punishment? Would I be wasting my time and the time of these young people?

Trusting a gut feeling, I agreed to teach some classes on Frost, with mandatory attendance by those who wished to wipe their records clean. My hunch was that Frost himself would certainly have endorsed the plan, having been a man who approved of what he often called "wildness."

I settled on two main poems, " Out, Out --" and " The Road Not Taken." Other poems would have done as well or better, but these came immediately to mind, and I went with them. I've been teaching in colleges for 33 years, and I've never missed with "Out, Out -- ," a poem about a boy who loses his hand while cutting wood on a Vermont farm. The result is almost immediate death. Those who watch him die simply go back to work, as they must. The poem is set in the years of subsistence farming in Vermont, and a family could not lose a moment laying in the wood for winter.

Frost begins with an astonishing vision of Vermont: "Five mountain ranges one behind the other/Under the sunset far into Vermont." I've often stood at the Frost house and looked out at the mountains, and I understood those lines in context. I repeated them with emphasis. Each of these kids had at some point stood still, looked out over the Green Mountains and experienced the glory of that view. This is life itself, which Frost puts at stake in his poem. The students were unprepared for the sudden death of the boy, the shocking finality of it, and the fact that those who were not the "one dead" turned immediately back to work. They registered their shock, and I could see from their rapt attention that Frost had once again worked his uncanny magic. He had unlocked some hearts.

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