Story by Chard deNiord, Poet Laureate of Vermont ( 2015-2019)
Illustrations by Leonard Kenyon
He knew a path that wanted walking;
He knew a spring that wanted drinking;
A thought that wanted further thinking;
A love that wanted re-renewing.
Nor was this just a way of talking
To save him the expense of doing.
From “A Lone Striker” by Robert Frost
What makes Vermont such an appealing state to writers? According to Timothy Consedine, the regional economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ New England Information Office, a disproportionate number of writers and authors live in Vermont relative to other states in the country, ranking it within “the top five states in terms of concentration of jobs within this category.” Poets tend to hide in the open in Vermont without much worry of being recognized or harassed, which makes most of them feel right at home. In 2010, when I interviewed Galway Kinnell, I asked him why he had moved to Sheffield, Vermont from New York in 1962; he responded, “the silence.”
A list of eminent Vermont poets betrays Vermont’s embarrassment of literary treasures, both past and present: Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, Galway Kinnell, Rudyard Kipling, Grace Paley, Wyn Cooper, Martha Zweig, Louise Gluck, Ruth Stone, Mary Ruefle, Hayden Carruth, David Budbill, Ron Padgett, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Major Jackson, Dennis Nurkse, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Leland Kinsey, Jay Wright, Ben Bellitt, Karin Gottshall, Verandah Porche, Jean Connor, Walter Hard, Geof Hewitt, Genna Rose Nethercott, FD Reeve, Jim Schley, Jane Shore, Dan Chiasson, Cleopatra Matthis, Reuben Jackson, Cynthia Huntington, Jay Parini, Rosanna Warren, Baron Wormser, Diana Whitney, Peter Richards, Stephen Cramer, Julia Randall. Vijay Seshadri, Sydney Lea, David Hinton, Daisy Turner, Lucy Terry Prince, Stephen Sandy, Bill Corbet, James Schuyler, David Huddle, Greg Delanty, Julia Alvarez, Bianca Stone, Jody Gladding, Tim Mayo, Ben Pease, Kerrin McCadden, Elizabeth Powell, Julia Shipley, Neil Shephard, John Ashbery, Tim Mayo, Alison Prine, Castle Freeman, Partridge Boswell, Mary Jane Higginson, and Norman Dubie, along with many others.
When my predecessor as poet laureate, Sydney Lea, and I ventured to edit an anthology of contemporary Vermont poets in 2015 titled Roads Taken: Contemporary Vermont Poetry, we discovered more than 90 poets who had lived in Vermont for at least five years and published one or more books of poetry with a non-vanity press. But then we discovered 12 more poets who met our criteria a year later, prompting us to put out a second edition. I’m sure, if our publisher, Green Writers Press, is willing, we will need to update with a third edition in the not-too-distant future.
It’s impossible to appreciate Vermont’s poetry without first appreciating the most salient features of Vermont’s historical character, namely, its denizens’ self-reliance, their perseverance, their mental toughness, their ingenuity, their creativity, their courage, and perhaps most famously, their contrariness. Although Vermont has existed as a state since 1791, it wasn’t until 1928 that President Calvin Coolidge coined the phrase “brave little state” as a moniker for lauding Vermont’s intrepid heritage, particularly the Green Mountain Boys’ surprising victories over the British and Hessians during the Revolutionary War, the early settlers’ godlike clearing of old-growth forests (more than 80 percent of the state’s woodlands) for grazing and farming, the prodigious construction of myriad stone walls, and the state’s first legislators’ attempt under the leadership of President Chittenden to declare Vermont a sovereign republic rather than join the union as the 14th state. So, it is no surprise that several of Vermont’s poets would rise to the occasion of capturing the dramas of their fellow Vermonters’ fiercely independent, larger-than-life enterprises, as well as the empyreal beauty of Vermont’s landscape. But this would take a while, a century, in fact, before a truly great poet would emerge with the gift to memorialize Vermont’s “bravery” in poems destined to outlast their own epoch.
This poet was, of course, Robert Frost, who divined the reality of Vermont’s hardships, ecstasies, griefs, loves, and terrain in poems that have become ingrained in New Englanders’ psyche, as well as readers of poetry around the world. Vermont claimed Frost as its first poet laureate in 1961, despite the fact that he had also lived much of his life in New Hampshire and titled his 1923 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, New Hampshire. In his long title poem for this book, Frost concluded with these characteristically ironic lines that appear to betray his preference for Vermont over New Hampshire as the state of his choice for “living”:
It is restful to arrive at a decision
And restful just to think about
At present I am living in Vermont.
In his introduction to Roads Taken: Contemporary Vermont Poetry, Dan Chiasson, an accomplished Vermont poet himself and the poetry critic for The New Yorker, wrote this trenchant observation about Frost as the instructional seer of the Green Mountain State: “Frost’s poems are the great rural instructional manual for our neck of the woods. His influence is everywhere…which so often take ‘nature’ not as an idyllic refuge, but a site of careful, strenuous, and repeated steps of action.”
Chiasson then goes on to make a brilliant insight about Frost’s profound grasp of the ineffable that lies between the lines of strong poetry: “Vermont tempts poets to epiphany; then by staying silent, or cold, or flinty, it ironizes their praise.”
One of the great ironies of Frost’s career was the fact that he was misinterpreted as more of a genial folk poet than a stunning witness of the sublime. He made an indelible first impression with accessible pastoral subject matter and hypnotic verbal music, “farms and forms” as the critic Christopher Benfey has referred to his topics and style. Unlike his modernist peers—T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Hart Crane—he avoided urban settings, exotic subject matter, and free verse in favor of local landscapes, rural narratives, and traditional forms. In short, he wasn’t a modernist team player, discovering his “wasteland” in his own “desert places” at least a decade before his ex-patriot colleagues became the rage in the early 1920s. Although he won four Pulitzer Prizes, his readers failed to appreciate the sublime nature of his obsessions, or what he liked to call his “ulterior meanings.”
In 1958, at Frost’s 85th birthday party at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, Lionel Trilling finally set the record straight about the true nature of Frost’s poetry, declaring in a speech the poet/ critic Randall Jarrell called a “cultural moment”: So radical a work, I need scarcely say, is not carried out by reassurance, nor by the affirmation of old virtues and pieties. It is carried out by the representation of the terrible actualities of life in a new way. I think of Robert Frost as a terrifying poet. Call him, if it makes things any easier, a tragic poet, but it might be useful every now and then to come out from under the shelter of that literary word. The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe. Frost’s unprecedented initial popularity existed in direct proportion to his readers’ flight from his sublime genius.
Americans loved him in the way children love Mother Goose, falling under the hypnotic spell of such lullabies as “London Bridge,” “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” and “Jack and Jill” without realizing they’re listening to one catastrophe after another.
Frost loved Mother Goose also and acknowledged its influence on him, which one can clearly hear in the one poem out of all his work he felt approached perfection, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which, indeed, is no less than a haunting adult nursery rhyme in 16 unfaltering iambic tetrameter lines. “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat,” Frost said, and so he does with his tight musical poems that grasp his reader as well by the throat and hold on, even in
their unresolved conclusions.
Frost also said, “In three words I can summarize everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” The “promises” Frost’s speaker keeps in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” betray Frost’s commitment to living over dying, especially following his near suicidal venture in the Great Dismal Swamp as a young man following his fiancée Elinor’s initial rejection of his proposal.
Acts of gazing out from above and swinging from side to side, both physically and cognitively, recur often in his most sublime poems where he suspends his speakers at the top of trees and staircases. His poems “Birches,” “Wild Grapes,” “After Apple Picking,” “To Earthward,” “Mowing,” “Home Burial,” and “The Witch of Coos” come immediately to mind as examples of the suspense he found in suspension.
In-betweenness was his figurative study where he either hung or stood in voluntary discomfort as he contemplated his place and condition on Earth. In this sense, he was an utterly earthly poet who was inclined to crucify his speakers on found “crosses” where they suffer a pain that transports them to some higher awareness about grief, longing, or simply their innate complexity as human beings.
It is in Frost’s suspenseful extended metaphors like the ones mentioned above where he encounters not only joy, but terror as well, which is the risk his “lone strikers” encounter in their respective positions of both physical and metaphysical suspension. An extended look at Frost’s early poem “Mowing,” a Petrarchan sonnet from the poet’s first book in 1913 titled A Boy’s Will, serves as a primer for Frost’s later longer poems in blank verse that combine country narrative with sage commentary.
A brief analysis of this poem provides a window into Frost’s genius for combining pastoral subject matter with human truth.
There was never a sound beside
the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe
whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered?
I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the
heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about
the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered
and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift
of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand
of fay or elf.
Anything more than the truth would
have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid
the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed
spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a
bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream
that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and
left the hay to make.
Frost praises the unique sound his scythe makes in the field beside the woods as his first order of business in “Mowing.” This sound is organic and mysterious—a whisper rather than just steel on grass. The scythe speaks to the farmer in the breathy voice one uses to tell secrets. Frost, the farmer, wonders just what runic sense his scythe imparts to “the ground.” He confesses that he himself is ignorant of this secret, proceeding with speculation: “Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun / Something perhaps about the lack of sound /And that was why it
whispered and did not speak.”
In his listening to the scythe’s whisper “to the ground,” Frost observes that the scythe’s voice is as full of silence as it is with sound, which is why it whispers.
Frost builds personal suspense as he continues to think about this sound as the source of a pastoral secret that only the receptive “farmer” is privileged to hear and understand. Turning next to ruling out possibilities for the scythe’s sound, Frost eliminates a few facile options for the whisper: It is neither “the dream of the gift of idle hours,” as any farmer might tell the city dweller, nor “anything more than the truth” since that would seem “too weak to the earnest love” of the laborer in the field. How fascinating that Frost writes “anything more” instead of “anything less” here, as if to say that embellishing the truth, especially with regard to labor, degrades the truth more than it enhances it.
Within the intense space of 14 lines, Frost arrives at the answer to the mystery of the scythe’s whisper in the poem’s penultimate line. By combining two opposites, dream and fact, just as he had earlier with sound and silence, Frost delivers the earthly news: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” While contradictory on the surface, this line captures the ecstatic yet empirical nature of work, exemplifying what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the test of a first-rate intelligence … the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to
“Fact is dream to the laborer in the uncut field,” the scythe whispers as the farmer swings it, just as Frost “swings” his lines so memorably on the page— his “ground”—back and forth between literal and figurative sense in a kind of cognitive suspension where he’s thinking and working at the same time above the grass, lifting himself into revelation. His embrace of realism at the end of this poem betrays the hard truth he would follow the rest of his life, namely, the pursuit of his own poetic harvest through his hard labor as a poet—the pastoral facts he would transform into truths with his pen.
Despite several waves of the new that have transpired since Frost’s death in 1963 from postmodernism to post postmodernism and the recent welcome explosion of multicultural voices, readers continue “to hang” with Frost in his native trees, woods, and roads, where they still feel utterly haunted by his narratives, monologues, and dramas.
Frost harrows his readers beyond horror with terrors that compel even non-readers of poetry to return to again and again for more than just the mere, odd pleasure of being frightened, but to discover vicariously that our lives are extraordinary, fragile, difficult, painful, bittersweet, contradictory, ecstatic, and grievous. Not that we didn’t know these things already, but not in the terrifying, suspenseful way that Frost conveys in his best poems. By conveying the felt presence of human experience in physical interactions with the world, Frost divines passages to his readers’ psyches through their bodies first and then their minds and hearts.
We feel the abstractions he quarrels with in our bones, whether it’s the factual dream of labor or the limits of human consciousness or the affirmation of earth as “the right place for love” or the inconsolable reality of grief. Frost’s language finds us, enchants us, suspends us, and then leaves us
captured in our own willful restraints.
How fortunate indeed for Vermont that Frost chose to live in the Green Mountain State rather than the Granite State, making his home in Shaftsbury and Ripton, although several generations of poets throughout northern New England have stood on his shoulders to gaze anew at the landscape he immortalized. But like Frost, poets who call Vermont their home, such as those listed above, have struck out on their own and “made new” in brave, big ways that belie the size of their state.
Sections of this essay were first published in Vermont Poets and Their Craft (Sundog Poetry/Green Writers Press, 2019)