"This study examines 1,987 deceased writers from four different cultures: American, Chinese, Turkish, and Eastern European. Both male and female poets had the shortest life spans of all four types of writers (fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and non-fiction writers), and poets had the shortest life spans in three of the four cultures. . . . [T]his study may reinforce the idea of poets being surrounded by an aura of doom."

-- "The Cost of the Muse: Poets Die Young," by James C. Kaufman (from the journal Death Studies)

Mr. Robert Frost

South Shaftsbury, Vermont

June 6, 1925

Dear Mr. Frost:

We regret to inform you that Vermont Quality Fidelity is hereby terminating your life insurance policy.

You may be certain that we would never take such a radical step without the greatest possible deliberation. But after due consideration of actuarial tables and the available literature on literary longevity, we have reached the conclusion that you are uninsurable until such time as you take up a less hazardous profession.

In reviewing the body (no offense!) of your work, we have noted an unfortunate and life-abbreviating tendency to dwell on morbid topics. E. g., "the road not taken." Why concern yourself with that, Mr. Frost? For every window that closes, another opens. And this, Mr. Frost: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." At Vermont Quality Fidelity, we prefer to consider only the most endearing aspects of walls -- and indeed all masonry surfaces -- on the well-documented premise that a single negative thought subtracts precisely 8.31 seconds from a person's life span.

We were also alarmed, Mr. Frost, by the phrase "miles to go before I sleep." May we suggest that you get a good night's rest and finish the trip in the morning? No sense running yourself ragged in a subfreezing climate. And if you ask us, there's nothing like a little siesta to leave a fellow raring for a hike. (Your little horse will thank you!) We will not linger on "The Death of the Hired Man" except to say that his life was surely just as interesting and would have made for an even longer poem.

The untimely termination of your policy might still be avoided, Mr. Frost, should you see fit to channel your energies into a safer profession. At the age of 51, you are in the very prime of life, and it is not too late to consider the world of opportunities that still stretches before you! Have you, by way of example, considered coal mining? Regular hours, and it's our understanding that one gets to sing quite a bit. Singing and poetry are closely related forms, as you must know, and in some quarters are considered nearly indistinguishable. We have heard that Homer sang the entire Iliad and the more exciting bits of the Odyssey. Think what he might have done with a canary to accompany him.

Or might we suggest, given your affinity for the taut poetic line, that you consider taking up the high wire? It is entirely possible that extreme altitude may afford the very sense of omniscience for which artists like yourself so exhaustingly strive. The Great Wallendas have enjoyed great good health in this field, and we are informed that nets are in common use in most of the finer circuses. Should the nets fail, we understand that many high-wire artists have gone on to productive second careers as sideshow attractions. ("What to make of a diminished thing," indeed!)

Other professions you might wish to consider: ordnance inspection, uranium enrichment, food-tasting, running with the bulls.

Failing an immediate change of vocation, Mr. Frost, we fear our decision to terminate your policy must stand. We hope you will in no way impute our action to latent strains of philistinism. As your colleague, Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald, will attest, we are more than happy to indemnify writers who pursue a safer line of work. Moreover, the employees of Vermont Quality Fidelity are feeling and caring people who are very far from despising the way of the muse. You have quaffed from a godly cup, Mr. Frost. You have wrestled the angel of language to a draw. You have pushed back the boundaries of the unthinkable and illuminated our benighted human condition in a way that redefines what it means to be sentient. However, Vermont Quality Fidelity can no longer ask its policyholders to shoulder the expense of your ill-fated decision.

In short, Mr. Frost: Actions have consequences. Strophes kill. Versify at your own risk.

Mournfully yours,

Mortimer Grimsley, President

Vermont Quality Fidelity

P.S. A word to the wise, Mr. Frost. No more swinging from birches.

Louis Bayard is a Washington writer and author of the novel "Mr. Timothy" (HarperCollins). He wrote his last poem in the sixth grade.