In This State: A library tour for Vermont’s poet laureate

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea: “So much poetry written since (Robert) Frost is unnecessarily complicated.” Photo by Tom Slayton

Sydney Lea, Vermont’s current poet laureate, wants to use that honorary position to clear away some of the fog that he believes surrounds poetry these days.

“I would like to de-mystify poetry,” he says. “Poetry is really just another way of looking at the world.”

And so, Lea is focusing his four-year term as poet laureate on appearances around the state where he is sure of finding ordinary Vermonters who might be willing to give poetry another try: community libraries.

By the end of this year, he will have read his poems and had discussions at 50 libraries scattered the length and breadth of Vermont. There are some 300 community libraries here, an extraordinarily large number for so small a state, and Lea hopes to read in all of them. He will have three more years as poet laureate of Vermont to do so.

“I’ll visit every one that will have me,” he says. “I wanted to go to some place where people were literate, but not necessarily literary.”

That distinction is an important one for Lea. Although he has taught widely in prestigious colleges, he decided early in life that he didn’t want to be a scholar, and he chose poetry instead because, for him, it offered a way of saying complex things in a direct and accessible way. That, in fact, is different from much scholarly poetry published today, which can be obscure and hard to understand. But Lea doesn’t think much of that sort of poetry.

“So much poetry written since (Robert) Frost is unnecessarily complicated,” he says. “It’s basically ungenerous.”

Admittedly, Lea’s direct way of saying things can sometimes seem simpler than it actually is. His poetry is almost conversational in tone and very accessible; you don’t have to struggle or ponder to get the meaning of his words. But that directness can be misleading, because his poems are also very subtle, often slyly humorous, and sometimes surprising. They work on more than just their explicit, surface level of meaning.

Like any good Vermonter, Lea is adept at saying things without saying them, so his poems and images resonate in your mind long after you’ve read them.

In the poem, “Yellow House,” for example, Lea recalls an old, under-insulated farmhouse that each winter let in “biting boreal gales through every socket and nailhole.”

“You had to know the combination.
That’s how you put it: how to tweak
air volume controls on the antique pump,
and from which roof valley you needed to chop
the ice dams first, and how to get a stone-dead boiler to kick in again…”

The Jericho Library. Sydney Lea hopes to visit all of Vermont’s 300-plus libraries during his time as the state’s poet laureate. Photo by Jessamyn West via flickr

From that rugged beginning, the speaker in the poem goes on to detail his worry about the woodstove that glowed red-hot, the ineffective corncob and paper insulation in the walls, and the pipe under the kitchen sink “that froze to death whenever it was twenty below …” He notes that he survived, although his first marriage did not, adds that he married again, and closes with a description of a winter walk in “the deep-blue glory of February” many years later, when winters are easier to get through and his children are grown up and moved away.

It’s a lovely poem that layers winters present and winters past, with the many emotions that color both the hardship of the cold months and their enduring beauty. In short, it chronicles a classic Vermont experience – deep winter – and combines it with the way the human mind works through such experiences over the years.

“Yellow House” does its complex work in language that is unobstrusive and deceptively simple – a characteristic that links it with Vermont’s best poetry, which is usually clear, crisp and as invigorating as an autumn morning. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes plain and understated, that direct voice bridges many individual styles, but can be heard in Vermont poets as different as Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Ellen Bryant Voigt and David Budbill. And of course, Sydney Lea.

Another Vermont trait that infuses Lea’s poems is his obvious interest in real physical work. The title of his book, “To the Bone,” refers to the time Lea gashed his leg deeply with a chainsaw. Trucks loaded with wood or livestock regularly turn up in his poetry, along with frozen pipes that need to be thawed, John Deere tractors, cow manure, and other vivid reminders of the actual life lived here.

Lea modestly points out that he doesn’t make his living from physical labor. But he clearly respects those who do. His forthcoming book of prose, “A North Country Life,” includes the stories of several New England old-timers Lea has come to know. “I love the quasi-elegaic quality to their stories,” he says. “I wanted to get their voices onto the page.”

Lea has published in several genres: poetry, criticism, essays and fiction, and has been honored with several important fellowships and literary awards – among them fellowships from the Guggenheim, Fulbright and Rockefeller foundations. In 1996, he was awarded The Poets Prize, for “To the Bone,” and in 2000, his ninth collection of poems, “Pursuit of A Wound,” was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. He has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury colleges as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest.

While he is not fond of poetry that is so enigmatic that it is hard to understand, Lea admits that there is an element of the mysterious in most modern poetry, his own included.

“There’s always an element of the cryptic in composition, for me,” he notes. “I often think, ‘Where did THAT come from?’ But there’s a difference between that and crypticism willfully put in (a poem).”

A strength of poetry, he says, is its ability to transcend the everyday dualistic way of “either/or” thinking. He notes that the poetry of Robert Frost, while being very accessible on a surface level, almost always has deeper meanings that may run counter to or be at odds with the surface meaning of his poems. The same is true for Sydney Lea.

“The act of composition is an act of discovering what’s on my mind,” he says. “I never know exactly where the hell a poem is going to go.”

Tom Slayton, a Montpelier freelance writer, is editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine.

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