(HOST) Current events and the public debate about the death penalty and the right to die have caused commentator Peter Gilbert to think about Emily Dickinson and Gary Gilmore, and to reflect on the under-appreciated power of poetry.
(GILBERT) First it was Terry Schiavo and the so-called right to die. Then the papers were full of stories about proposed “death with dignity” legislation. Proponents said the law would provide term- inally ill sufferers with end-of-life choices, including “a controlled, prescribed, legal means to obtain their final freedom.”
Executions are in the news, too. Connecticut had its first exe- cution in over 40 years. And Vermont, which doesn’t have capital punishment, has its first capital case in 50 years because the accused is charged with a federal crime for which he can be put to death.
All this talk of executions and the right to die took me back to a high school English class I taught more than 25 years ago. It was my first year of teaching, and that week we were studying the poetry of Emily Dickinson, whose life spanned the middle of the 19th century. For days, the national news had been full of coverage of the impending execution in Utah of murderer Gary Gilmore, who had refused all efforts to stop his execution: he preferred execution to life in prison. Multiple, frantic efforts were made to save his life. Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song tells Gilmore’s story.
On the morning of January 17th, 1977, Gilmore was strapped to a chair in front of a firing squad of five volunteers. Four of the rifles had bullets; the fifth rifle fired a blank – so that each man might hold out the thought that he did not help kill another human being. Asked if he had any last words, Gilmore replied simply, “Let’s do it.” And they did.
When I walked into class that morning, I asked the students to turn their poetry books to page 312, and without any reference to the morning’s events, we read a seven-line poem.
The right to perish might be thought
An undisputed right,
Attempt it, and the Universe upon the opposite
Will concentrate its officers –
You cannot even die,
But Nature and Mankind must pause
To pay you scrutiny.
The students were stunned. In part, it was the obvious connection between the poem and Gilmore’s death. But it was also the reali- zation that a poem could pack such a whollop – especially a poem by such a fragile, reclusive 19th century woman who, to their minds, was so removed and protected from the rough and tough real world. Some of them had a sense that poetry had little or nothing to say to them and, certainly, no ability to move them.
It’s too bad that so many Americans, particularly men, think that poetry is hard to understand and irrelevant to their lives. There are other poems by Dickinson that pack a similar punch, and lots by other poets, too.
This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.