Vermont in Verse: A small state with rich poetry – and many verses to consider


Every April I plan to read poetry in celebration of National Poetry Month. Since poems are often short and could easily fit into a busy schedule, this should not be difficult. However, perhaps because of literature classes during which poems were examined under the proverbial microscope for symbolism and assonance and deep meaning, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that poetry is hard to read. Determined this year to follow through on my intention, I asked my Rutland Free Library co-workers about Vermont poets. One colleague, Caroline, who is well-versed in Vermont literature, offered several great suggestions, some of whom were new to me. One caveat: what I write about these books cannot do them justice. Poetry cannot be easily summarized; just read it.

0417_RHV_Wild IrisThe Wild Iris by Louise Glück

This book won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize. Glück was the Vermont State Poet 1994-1998 and U.S. Poet Laureate 2003-2004. Each word seems meticulously chosen so that images and emotions emanate from each poem, encouraging second and third readings to savor every detail. In “The Wild Iris” she creates a vivid picture: “Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting. / Then nothing. The weak sun / flickered over the dry surface.” In “Lamium” there are layers of images: “This is how you live when you have a cold heart. / As I do: in shadows, trailing over cool rock, / under the great maple trees.” (Ecco Press, $14.99)

In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone

Stone has a string of awards, including the National Book Award. As the first person to carry the title of Vermont’s Poet Laureate, rather than State Poet, she served from 2007- 2011. Most of her poems are under a page in length; in an economical yet descriptive way she captures a moment in time or evokes an emotion. In “Three AM” she does both: “Each rhythm of breath the listing of words, at the same time / the catacomb of windows across the way, / mysterious and utterly ordinary squares of light, / the drawn blinds; the surface of indifference.” (Copper Canyon Press, $15.00)

0417_RHV_Judevine#2Judevine (revised edition) by David Budbill

Budbill won the Walter Cerf Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts from the Vermont Arts Council. With prose-like poems Budbill tells the tale of an imaginary Vermont town called Judevine. His characters are ordinary people like Antoine, who appears first in the poem “Antoine” and tells the poet, “naow I be like you book writers, I got my head / in da cloud, no more on da graoun’ dan da moon.” In “After Twenty Years,” the narrator reflects on the townspeople then observes, “Nostalgia is the greatest enemy of truth, / and change our only constancy.” (Chelsea Green Publishing, $25.00)

0417_RHV_Kyrie#2Kyrie by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Voigt was the Vermont State Poet 1999-2002. This slim volume was a poetry finalist for the 1995 National Book Critics Circle award. It contains dark untitled verses about the 1918 flu epidemic. Several poems that begin “Dear Mattie” are letters from a soldier: “and the old lives didn’t fit as they had before, /and where there’d been the dream, a stranger’s face, /and where there’d been the war, an empty sleeve.” (W. W. Norton & Company, $15.95)



0417_RHV_GalwayA New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell

Kinnell was the Vermont State Poet 1989-1993. His volume Selected Poems won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. Kinnell selected and sometimes revised the poems in A New Selected Poems, originally published in eight collections 1960-1994. The advantage to a collection like this is seeing the breadth of a poet’s work over time. His poems vary in format, length, and subject. In “The Cellist” he captures the essence of a performer: “Her face shines with the unselfconsciousness of a cat / screaming at night and the teary radiance of one / who gives everything no matter what has been given.” (Mariner Books, $14.95)

0417_RHV_Paley#2Begin Again: Collected Poems by Grace Paley

Paley was the Vermont State Poet 2003-2007. This book is a combination of two earlier collections and some previously unpublished work. She uses little punctuation, instead using spaces like a music composer uses rests. Some poems are fun, like “The Word Thrum,” which begins “is a wonderful word / I’ve tried but haven’t been able to use it.” Some, like “Quarrel,” portray human nature: “convinced / the other one / the life companion / wasn’t listening.” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14.00)

0417_RHV_FrostFamily Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost Edited by Arnold Grade

Robert Frost was the Vermont State Poet 1961-1963. Robert Frost has always been one of my favorite poets but this volume of letters written by him and his wife, Elinor, reveal a Frost not seen in his poems. Many of the letters are written to daughter Lesley. While she is at college Frost offers advice to her that he also gives his own students at Amherst College. When he addresses an essay assignment he muses, “Of course this letter is essay. It is material that has come to the surface of my mind in reading just as frost brings stones to the surface of the ground.” (State University of New York Press, out of print) After reading these books of poetry I am determined not to wait until next April but will continue throughout the seasons to enjoy the magic of poems. Who is your favorite Vermont poet? Happy reading!