Throughout the history of Western Civilization governments have devised all manner of diabolical ways to punish malefactors and scofflaws. Until the 20th century those found guilty of serious crimes at the Old Bailey were subject to any number of gruesome punishments, including drawing and quartering and burning at the stake, or they might be broken on the wheel, or simply hanged and dissected. But this time Vermont officials have really gone too far.
The story begins last December when some 50 Vermont teens decided to throw a kegger at the one-time farmhouse of the late poet Robert Frost. One is tempted to give the teens the benefit of the doubt, to presume that they were just a group of neo-Beatniks, wine-drinking devotees of verse, and that they had broken into the farmhouse to celebrate the great bard’s iconic verse when, tragically, an impromptu poetry slam got out of hand. But the fact of the matter is the perpetrators were just a bunch of stoners looking for a deserted building to trash.
By the time the last partier passed out, the farm was a shambles. Damaged was estimated at more than $10,000. Some 50 delinquents were rounded up by the local gendarmes and turned over to Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn. I am not sure if the prosecutor is a Robert Frost fanatic or what exactly drove him to exact such cruel revenge, but whatever the reason, the young vandals received a punishment that would have made Torquemada proud. They were sentenced to attend two sessions of poetry study.
IN AN INTERVIEW with the Boston Globe, State’s Attorney Quinn explained his unorthodox, if not downright bizarre, decision. “I guess I was thinking that if these teens had a better understanding of who Robert Frost was, and his contribution to our society, that they would be more respectful of other people’s property in the future and would also learn something from the experience.”
Sadly Quinn did not elaborate on how sitting through two sessions of poetry study instills in delinquents a respect for other’s private property, especially if that private property is essential for a night of righteous babes, booze and weed.
Of course if you really wanted to punish delinquent teens the author to read is not Frost, but that other great inaugural poet, Maya Angelou. Or just about any contemporary poet, for that matter. Such a penalty would go a long way toward setting wayward feet back on the straight and narrow and making sure they stay there. Permanently.
PERHAPS SUCH CREATIVE alternative sentencing will set a precedent. What’s more, the sentencing possibilities are endless, and, I confess, rather entertaining to think about. Convicted murders could be sentenced to a summer term in the true crime section of their local library. On the “required” reading list: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which the wretches hang, and Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, in which the killer is put up against the wall and shot. Convicted arsonists will have to read Russell Edson’s “Fire Is Not a Nice Guest.” Motorists who are pulled over and don’t have proof of insurance will be forced to stand on the side of the road and read poet John Ashbery’s “The Wrong Kind of Insurance,” while hopping around on one foot (purely for the police officer’s enjoyment). Teens caught drinking and driving will have to sit through a class in Japanese Death poems.
The death poems are actually interesting reading and would probably get the attention of teens — at least the angst-ridden, goth ones. Best of all, they are short. And whereas Westerners are prone to write ghastly suicide notes, the Japanese compose brief poems like this one written by a guy named Shoro back in 1894:
Pampas grass, now dry,
once bent this way
Or this one by Kozan Ichikyo from 1360:
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
Frost biographer Jay Parini, who volunteered to teach the alternative sentencing classes, and whose Frost courses at Middlebury College reportedly cost students “a hefty sum,” likewise believes in “the redemptive power of poetry.” Such talk is fine in an English term paper, even a master’s thesis defending the redemptive power of poetry, but isn’t it a bit out of place in the legal system? I’ve yet to see any evidence of poetry’s magic power to change delinquent behavior. Besides, that’s not why we read, or should read, poetry. Poetry is, in Ezra Pound’s words, an art “originally intended to make glad the heart of man.” True, not all of it succeeds at this. In fact reading some contemporary verse can seem like cruel and inhuman punishment. Even some Frost.
Robert Frost was a bit of an ornery old cuss. He believed fences made good neighbors, and as for poetry, it was “a way of taking life by the throat.” I suspect the one-time swinger of birches, were he alive, would have taken those teens out behind the woodshed and applied a birch switch to their behinds. It’s a good thing he isn’t.