Poetic justice: Robert Frost and roads of right and wrong
By Jay Parini
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 $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.
An unusual sentence... With 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 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. 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." 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." 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.
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.
Choosing a road... 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. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.