Judging Poetry in a Case of Life or Death


Recently, John Thanos was sentenced to die for the second time. But a person can only die once. Not very long ago I had to make a decision that might have affected that first death sentence. I've been thinking about it ever since.

Because I am outspoken opponent of the death penalty and have logged decades of work with incarcerated writers, I was asked by public defenders to read John Thanos's poems, written from prison, and decide whether or not they had "literary merit."

I decided that they did not.

I didn't make my decision alone. Unused to being required to rule in capital cases -- usually my critical judgment counts for little to nothing -- I sought opinions from a host of colleagues. Almost in chorus, a chorus I carefully obtained in writing, they responded "Childish. Egocentric. Self-seeking. Unregenerate. Made me feel violated. Gave me the creeps." And also "Dull, except for the few that are obscene."

What I wrote when I returned the manuscript to the public defender's office was essentially this: On the strength of the poems, I would not hesitate to admit the author to my lower-division poetry class, since he clearly wanted to write poetry and needed to learn from scratch how to do it. He would have to learn (among other things) that poems are not synonymous with lists of demands, verbal threats or sheer brag, even if these things are expressed in obsessively tidy rhymed couplets.

Of course, childishness, braggadocio, self-inflation and verbal assault -- even, sometimes, in obsessive rhyme -- are not alien to the Pantheon of contemporary poetry. The so-called Confessional Poets -- John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and so on -- got away with poetic murder, so to speak. Over and over, like John Thanos, they said, in effect, "I confess -- he did it." Or "She did it." Made me a love slave. Made me think unthinkables. Made me lust in my heart. Made my heart a murder weapon.

But one big difference between John Thanos and the Confessionals is that the Confessionals killed only themselves, if you don't count the wake of shattered lives their suicides and/or self-destructive actions left behind. John Thanos shot strangers.

The other big difference is that those tormented souls, Berryman, Sexton, Plath and Lowell, managed sometimes and somehow to write the torment that eventually killed them into poems whose imagination, insights and stylistic felicity breathed life into other people. Sexton's and Plath's suicidal poems rose above themselves to rescue many a young fan from her own suicidal thoughts, if only with the sense of "This has been done, and done perfectly; better I should live than be a pale imitation." ,, John Thanos' poems say, "Anybody can do this."

I wasn't asked if John Thanos should live or die. If I had been, I would have instantly said LIVE. Sure, I would have hated to see John Thanos living in the midst of the gentle-seeming convicted felons I enjoy working with in area prisons. But I would still maintain my belief that "where there's life, there's hope." I would maintain it even though I suspect that Thanos' life in prison would be a continued threat to the life and hopes of other prisoners, not to mention his own. (In my experience, prisoners tend to come down hard on criminals who insist loudly that they can hardly wait to commit more crimes and wish the already-commited ones had been even more heinous.)

The life-without-possibility-of-parole sentence that I would have

considered the viable alternative to Thanos' death would not have been a very livable life. He'd probably have had to be put where the old one-liner suggests, "Under the jail." The thing is, I really hate death. Anybody's. Institutionalized, it makes me sick.

But I was only asked if the poems of John Thanos had "literary merit." And they didn't. Judging from my colleagues' and graduate students' responses, the content of the poems would have done the defendant more harm than good.

The bottom line was that they weren't much good as poems. There was nothing in them to give a reader fresh insight, inspiration, stylistic or craft lessons, a jump shot to the imagination, even a sense of YES! I FEEL THIS WAY TOO!, all of which are what any writing with "literary merit" does. That's all I was asked to judge, and I did it the best I could.

It makes me sick. And troubled. And relieved.

That's how it is with telling the truth as you see it. That's probably how it was for the Confessional poets. Maybe that's even how it is with John Thanos, whose surname, with poetic justice, means Death.

Clarinda Raymond teaches writing at Towson State University.

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