This post comprises, by my computation, my third to last monthly column in statewide papers as Vermont Poet Laureate. As before, I will be taking the summer off from such columns, and my successor will be named in November, this four-year tenure seeming to have gone by, like most things at my age, in a matter of days.
On the 28th of May, I visited the Vermont Arts Council headquarters, where, with a group of peers, the process of choosing the next state poet began. I cannot, of course, comment on the proceedings, but I can indulge in some generalities, all of them connected to my somewhat melancholy recognition that this intriguing ride will soon be over for me.
Let me first applaud the intelligence, dedication, and good humor of the Arts Council staff, from director Alex Aldrich and program director Michele Bailey to everyone with whom I have dealt in that organization. Their very presence makes me proud to be a Vermonter, to live in a state where the arts play such a vital role not only in our economy but also in our daily lives. The Council’s initiative and responsiveness have more to do with all that than many may realize.
The same can emphatically be said of my fellows on the committee, each so obviously committed to getting this thing right, and taking the time necessary to achieve that end.
And yet, to speak again as a Vermont chauvinist, there surely will be no indisputably right choice. As I looked over the list of nominees, most of whom I know at least slightly, I was thrilled that our tiny state is home to so many gifted artists– and dismayed that we’ll be able to choose only one.
Virtually all of these authors were around at the time of my own appointment, which makes me surprised all over again that I should have been chosen in 2011– and humbled to know that I could scarcely have argued with any number of other selections. I will participate in the final vote with a mixture of satisfaction and frustration. With no false modesty, I can say that every nominee is him- or herself a Poet Laureate in some measure, for it is our collective effort to say things that are hard to say: it is that effort that keeps this cherished art alive here and elsewhere. After my time as state poet, I will never view a poem of my own as other than collaborative.
Speaking of collaboration, I’d never have dreamed that I would write text for the state’s first Cartoonist Laureate, the brilliant and gifted James Kochalka. We have just completed our third project. The Vermont Contemporary Music ensemble, having asked five of the state’s composers to write pieces in response to work of mine, performed two luminous concerts as a result. The fabulous young Philadelphia composer Joseph Hallman set my “Suite in Mudtime” to music performed by soprano and string quartet (in this case Vermont’s own 802 Quartet) at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
And of course, still speaking of collaboration, whatever my contribution to poetry’s health in Vermont may have been, it was merely an adjunct to the contributions not only of the great Mr. Frost but also of the poets appointed after the position was reinstated by Governor Kunin in 1988: Louise Gluck, Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Ruth Stone. That I should be part of that lineage frankly astounds me.
Yes, I feel lucky. And even more, I feel blessed. If I was surprised by the appointment, after these four years, I am scarcely surprised by how much I regret its ending. So I have been in retrospective mode for a spell now, thinking about all the other benefits –and I simply can’t name each one– that I have experienced in this handful of years.
One is the wit I have enjoyed. The first instance, in fact, transpired while I was still on the phone with Alex Aldrich, who had called with the news. I put the telephone to my chest and whispered “I’m the Poet Laureate!” My youngest daughter, still living at home in 2011, corrected me: “It’s pronounced low-rate.” But I have savored the funny remarks I have encountered at the community libraries, 115 at this writing, where I have given presentations on poetry. The proceedings at the three Montpelier spelling bees at which I have been the pronouncer and emcee have at times been downright hilarious. I could go on.
There is likewise the cordiality I have experienced at virtually every stop. (The one and only exception was an unhappy and unpleasant woman in the west of the state who actually interrupted my reading of a poem by standing up and averring, “That’s not poetry!” Her fellows, however, quickly shushed her.)
Librarians are heroes of mine anyhow, from excellent state librarian Martha Reid to all the librarians, in places tiny and grand and in between, in Vermont: to see the care each took with making these events successful enhanced my feelings in this regard, as did the welcome library patrons inevitably extended.
I was regaled with all manner of thank you gifts, from home-baked pies to chocolates to countless mugs (which for the most part I traitorously transported to our Maine cabin in the woods) to precious books to –perhaps my favorite—a salt dish carved from invasive buckthorn by one of the artisans at Bob and Becca Cummings’s wonderful Center for the Expressive Arts in Montgomery.
There were several instances of pathos as well, chief of which was a woman’s giving me a memorial card to her son, dead far too young, with an excerpt of my writing as its inscription. I trust she understood my tears.
But as I suspected would be the case when I decided on community libraries as my venues of choice, I was most taken by the intelligence of so-called “average” men and women in the crowds. I’m an Ivy League brat, but I learned well before I got to college that that league had no corner on brains and/or creativity. There’s a lot of smart people out there, whatever the nature of their formal education.
I met an inexcusably young man in Randolph who read my poems more penetratingly than I could ever do myself. I came upon a dairy farmer way up on the Quebec border who could recite –I quizzed him pretty thoroughly– every single poem in Robert Frost’s “Mountain Interval.”
Again, I could extend my catalog until I ran out of space. Suffice it to say that what I valued most was how these non-specialists instinctively knew what the important questions were, and how they asked them not, as is too often the case in academic contexts, just to show how much they already knew themselves but in fact to elicit such information as I had means to offer.
And the important questions were and are often the most basic: who’s talking? to whom” where are we? why choose form X rather than form Y? If my poems couldn’t answer those questions, I suspected they needed further work (which quite a number of them got).
As I went on in my tenure, I came to leave more and more time for the Q & A portion, because I was most interested in and most instructed by that portion. To all of you who so brightly participated, my profoundest thanks.
Finally, I am grateful to the editors of the newspapers in which these columns have been published for four years now. They tolerated my opinions, and in many cases helped me to make them clearer. And to those who have contacted me, either in letters to the editor (again, one exception, but why dwell on that?) or personally, my thanks too. You have both encouraged me and kept me as honest as I know how to be.
May you all have wonderful summers.