Poetic justice proves to be effective in Vermont

June 27, 2008 

WEYBRIDGE, Vt. — 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.

Then I turned to “The Road Not Taken.” I did so gingerly, fully aware that the poem is complicated, shrewd beyond measure. In a poem of four stanzas, Frost tells the reader over and over that the two roads going into the woods are “really about the same.” Indeed, “Both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” Nevertheless, the speaker understands that at the end of his life, he will decide to tell those who care to listen that he took “the road less traveled by.” That ending has provided me (and countless other teachers) with endless productive hours of classroom discussion.

But in this case — in a stifling public building in Addison County, surrounded by anxious kids trying to wipe their records clean as they pored over my Xeroxed copies of the poetry — I felt that I had to work more simply, with the symbol itself: two roads, choices.

“Life is about choices,” said one of the teens. Indeed, I said. I pointed out that the speaker in the poem was deep in the woods and that it was always difficult to figure out the right road when confronted with a forking path. They acknowledged having had many such experiences, quite literally, in the Vermont woods.

“You are now in deep woods,” I told them. They seemed confused. “If this isn’t a deep wood, I don’t know what is,” I added. Many of them lit up. There were smiles around the room. In their short lives, this was among their darkest moments. They could choose one way out of this class or another.

I told them that it is hard to predict consequences with any certainty but that Frost is calling our attention to the basic fact of our lives: that we must suffer a thousand choices, that we must make so many little and large decisions, and that much depends on them.

A very shy and frightened-looking boy in a baseball cap said, “I took the wrong road.”

“You did,” I said. “But there are other roads. Lots of them.”

I can’t say what most of these students got out of this program, but I know I got something. I found the teaching situation itself pressurized in a unique way. I found their gazes fierce and defensive and proud and, ultimately, yielding.

My guess is that they know a lot more about Frost as a presiding spirit in American poetry now than they did before the break-in. More importantly, they know that poetry matters (at least to some people) and that it can help us live our lives more attentively — if only they will give themselves up to the language as it moves through time and space, over and again.

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. He wrote this essay for The Washington Post.

“Out, Out —” — By Robert Frost

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it. And from there those that lifted eyes could count Five mountain ranges one behind the other Under the sunset far into Vermont. And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled, As it ran light, or had to bear a load. And nothing happened: day was all but done. Call it a day, I wish they might have said To please the boy by giving him the half hour That a boy counts so much when saved from work. His sister stood beside him in her apron To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw, As if it meant to prove saws know what supper meant, Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap — He must have given the hand. However it was, Neither refused the meeting. But the hand! The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh, As he swung toward them holding up the hand Half in appeal, but half as if to keep The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all — Since he was old enough to know, big boy Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart — He saw all was spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off — The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!” So. But the hand was gone already. The doctor put him in the dark of ether. He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath. And then — the watcher at his pulse took a fright. No one believed. They listened to his heart. Little — less — nothing! — and that ended it. No more to build on there. And they, since they Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Centre Daily Times is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service