Thursday, February 5, 2009

In Defense of Poetry

Here's my idea of gun control: No one should be allowed to own a firearm if they're younger than I am and scored lower on the SAT. This would go for cops as well as criminals.

A little while ago, I saw four or five young khaki-clad sheriff's deputies waiting for a train in a Metro station downtown, each holding his hands on his thick leather belt in a way that called attention to his pistol. They were clean-cut, with close-cropped hair, their faces as untainted by wisdom as a cabbage.

They reminded me a lot of the police recruits I spent a few months following through their academy classes, years ago when I was a police reporter in Dayton, Ohio. The first few times I asked why they wanted to be cops, they said what they'd probably been told to: They wanted to help people. They wanted to protect the weak. They wanted to arrest bad guys.

After a while, once they'd gotten used to my being there, most admitted they thought it would be a kick to carry a gun and drive really fast without getting a ticket.

So, watching the deputies in the Metro station, I was tempted to go up and ask what books they'd read lately.

I chickened out.

Instead, walking away with my son in tow, I thought, "You know, I'd trust you guys with the power to deprive people of their liberty--and sometimes their lives--if I knew that just once you'd struggled for an hour or two with a couple of really difficult poems, say something by Pound or Eliot or Melvin Tolson."

Robert Frost must have felt the same way (though probably about all of us, not just cops). A while later, I came across this quote from his "Education by Poetry" in the New York Times: "Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world."

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