In Westminster West, How Poetry Carries the News

Published: 8/4/2016 1:41:54 PM
Modified: 1/29/2016 12:00:00 AM
I’m deeply honored by the Vermont Council of the Arts decision to appoint me as the new Vermont poet laureate, especially since Vermont is full of strong poets who are also deserving of this position.

I hope to work with my fellow poets in making poetry even more accessible than it is already to students and the general population. I view this position in an ambassadorial way, as Syd Lea, my tireless and brilliant predecessor also did by reading at 114 libraries, writing a monthly newspaper column, maintaining an engaging blog and championing unsung poets around the state.

Simply put, my mission is to serve poetry, not the prestige of the position, but the vital sources of poetry in Vermont, from students at all levels to those who write quietly behind closed doors to organizations and book stores that support poetry.

Poets hide in the open, partly because they’re often shy, but also because poetry and poets have been marginalized in this country to the point of invisibility and irrelevance. According to the latest NEA study, only 6 percent of the American public reads literary fiction and poetry. But these statistics fail to consider the hidden readers and writers of poetry — those who don’t show up on surveys. I’m always surprised by the healthy numbers of poetry enthusiasts who show up at readings, especially at venues around Vermont.

The great modernist poet William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult/ to get the news from poems,/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack of what is found there.” So how to spread the news of poetry in a way that isn’t off-putting or intimidating, that delivers “the news” as clearly and succinctly as these lines by the late Philip Levine?

Some things

you know all your life. They are so simple and true

they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,

they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,

the glass of water, the absence of light gathering

in the shadows of picture frames, they must be

naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

(From The Simple Truth, Knopf, 1995)



I invite ideas and suggestions from poets and readers of poetry throughout the state on how I might spread the “news that stays news.”

Vermont is a huge little state. It’s genius lies in its people’s ingenuity, imagination, toughness and vision. The same qualities that constitute strong poetry. Few other states can match Vermont’s extraordinary poetic legacy. In 1961, when Robert Frost was poet laureate of Vermont, he wrote an enduring parable called Directive. The poem focuses on a wanderer whose guide has only “his getting lost at heart.” It’s exactly at points like this in poems where readers often stop reading. But if a reader goes beyond this seemingly hostile point in the poem, she discovers that the guide’s unconventional purpose is to lead the wanderer — the reader — to a discovery of something she would have no way of understanding without being lost first — something she didn’t know she knew, even if that something remains mysterious. Frost depicts this wanderer’s discovery at the end of the poem as a goblet that’s been stolen from “the children’s playhouse,” the psychic gazebo of her child-like imagination. “Here are your waters,” Frost proclaims at the end of the poem, “and your watering place.”

I look forward to maintaining my strategy of getting lost in my own writing for the next four years and beyond, but also to assume the ironic role of the guide in Frost’s poem of leading my fellow poets and readers of poetry into unknown narrative and lyric territory that becomes suddenly familiar as emotional and intellectual landscapes, or as Frost describes such discoveries figuratively: the way to the “children’s playhouse” where a goblet awaits the wanderer as a sacred vessel for dipping into the waters of music, meaning and mystery, then drinking with the consequence of becoming “whole again beyond confusion.” For starters, here’s a short poem about winter in Vermont and the miracle of survival.

December 10th

I saw the first cardinal this morning in the snow

outside my window at the feeder and was tempted

to call him my heart for his color, shape

and hunger, but no, not yet; rather, little red bandit

at home in the north where the sky conspires

with the cold to form a blue so deep you can see

straight through, where somehow the voles dig deep

enough to survive the frost and the fox grows thin

but lives on bones till March, where the deer eat cones

and bears digest themselves in the dark, where all

things live, in fact, with the fear that they might die

tonight from the terrible cold and lack, although

they have no word for it, only the songs they sing

we call the music of life. I watched the cardinal

devour seeds by the dozens and then fly off, no less

diminished, to grow hungry again in a matter of minutes.

To remain on the feeder for a couple of seconds

as a ghost of the bird that shames the winter.

(From Night Mowing, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005)

Chard deNiord was named Vermont poet laureate in November. He lives in Westminster West.




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