Vandals Forced to Study Poetry of Frost

In December, more than two dozen teenagers were arrested for breaking into and vandalizing the one-time summer residence of Robert Frost. Their punishment? Attend a class about the American poet. Novelist and Middlebury College professor Jay Parini, who taught the class, talks with Robert Siegel.

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N: A Life." And Jay Parini joins us now from Middlebury, Vermont. Welcome.

You actually divided the group who've opted for this sentence into, I gather, two different classes that you've taught separately.

P: That's right. We have two small groups. I thought that it was important for them to have a very intimate experience of poetry here. And this whole class is a way of giving these kids - and they are kids, really - the experience of poetry in a very deep and emotional way, and have them connect to Frost, to the Frost Place. And I think it will make them reflect on the crime they committed in a very interesting, intimate and possibly, you know, life-saving way, if that's not too extreme a way to put it.

: Now, by now I'm sure everyone listening is wondering which appropriate Robert Frost poem would be used for the class. You picked - one poem you picked was "Out, Out." Why don't you tell us about the poem?

P: Well, I was thinking you've got a bunch of kids from a farm county in Vermont, and I wanted to make poetry vivid to them. And I thought of this amazing poem, "Out, Out." It begins, the poem begins, 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.

Well, those kids have all sawed an awful lot of wood. They've all stood at the Frost Place. You know, they can appreciate - that's an experience they've all had.

: This poem is not a rural idyll. A hand is sawed off and blood is shed. It's a...

P: Well, you know, the students think they're in for a nice, sweet roses are red, violets are blue kind of poem, and then the kid gets his hand cut off with his saw, and pretty soon he's dead. And then it ends. You know, those who were not the one dead turned to their affairs. Well, the kids weren't prepared for that death, and they were just utterly - I could see it on their faces. They were stunned. It was like death was in the room. And I felt at that moment that a real connection had been made between poem, language and listener. And I wanted them to understand why poetry matters and how it works.

: And you hope that your students will remember this poetry. They'll certainly remember who Robert Frost was. No doubt about that.

P: They'll never forget who Robert Frost is. And my only hope here - again, I can't give any kind of cheap psychologizing here or educational theorizing. I have no idea whether doing this with these particular kids was a good idea or a bad idea, it's going to change their lives, whether this was the right group to be talking to about this. I was asked to do it, and it seemed to me instinctively like the right thing to do. And I found myself engaging with these kids in a way that changed me. I went away stunned by the power of poetry to change lives and to make people think about their world in fresh ways.

: Jay Parini, poet and professor at Middlebury College, talking about Robert Frost. He is teaching a couple of dozen Vermont youngsters about Robert Frost. It's the sentence they have to serve after trespassing and vandalizing a farmhouse that used to be Frost's summer home. Jay Parini, thanks a lot for talking with us.

P: Well, thanks a lot, Robert.

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