People & Places

Vermont poet Leland Kinsey dies at age 66

Leland Kinsey
Leland Kinsey reads from his latest Green Writers Press collection, “Galvanized,” in Rutland in April. Provided photo
You may have heard the work of Leland Kinsey — long deemed the “unofficial poet laureate of the Northeast Kingdom” — broadcast on public radio’s “The Writer’s Almanac.” But the words of the seventh-generation Vermonter born and raised in a farmhouse without upstairs electricity speak of places unplugged.

“Horseshoeing” isn’t about a leisure sport but instead the labor of molding and nailing metal onto a hoof. “Pointing the Chimney,” “Felling the Elm” and “Picking Stone” are just as literal — yet say so much more.

“I don’t think you have to have done these things to understand them,” Kinsey said upon publication of his 2014 Green Writers Press collection “Winter Ready.” “I’m writing about the work of preparing for winter, but that can take on wider, deeper connotations. I would hope people would see that these things still exist in this state and recognize this is of the place in which they live.”

And that’s what Kinsey continued to convey — even as he endured a stem cell transplant over the last year to fight lymphoma — right up to his death Wednesday night at age 66.

“Lee always worked outside the academic circle of poets, never taught or ran a Master of Fine Arts program and didn’t have contacts with the reviews and quarterlies,” fellow writer Howard Frank Mosher said of his friend. “He had very little interest in conventional success. Instead, he stayed close to his material.”

Leland Kinsey
Leland Kinsey, deemed the “unofficial poet laureate of the Northeast Kingdom,” in a publicity photo for his 2014 Green Writers Press collection “Winter Ready.” Provided photo

Kinsey was “a private person,” neighbors say, who grew up on the southern Orleans County farmland his Scottish ancestors helped settle in the early 1800s. By age 10, he was running a chain saw, tractor and truck when not reading library books he carted home in a cardboard box. Writing came with the help of Mosher, who was Kinsey’s teacher at both Lake Region Union High School in Barton and the University of Vermont.

“He wasn’t interested in pyrotechnic effects — his poetry was rough and ready,” Mosher said. “It was his subject matter that propelled him to write, and he was interested in telling the truth.”

After earning a master’s degree at New York’s Syracuse University, Kinsey returned home in 1976 to work as a farmer, carpenter, logger, sugarmaker, Morgan horse trainer, printer, and teacher of birding, canoeing and astronomy, all while producing eight collections of poetry.

“I don’t consider all this unusual,” Kinsey once said matter-of-factly in an interview. “If you live up here, a number of people have a number of different jobs to support themselves. And I think any writer would recommend young ones get life experience. I’ve certainly had that.”

In “Corn Cutting,” the poet swings a sickle as he recalls yesterday: “Between our place/when I was young/and my grandfather’s, ten farms/once ran, poor to prosperous./One remains.”

And ruminates on today: “Hired men used to be/unsettled locals; itinerants;/wiry drunks, who slept in back chambers/ill-heated ells;/mostly they’re Mexicans now/trying to live quietly/in a very cold climate,/their living quarter trailers/snow-banked and rusting.”

In “The Turkey Butcher,” he remembers how, as a boy, he learned to pith and pluck a bird.

“Nowadays a man traipses/his all-in-one butchering shop/from localvore meat farmer/to localvore meat farmer.”

As a poet, Kinsey worked and played with time. Take the title poem of “Winter Ready,” which he released two years ago on the first day of spring. It begins in a peat bog in fall, then rewinds to the song of wood frogs and sight of tree sparrows in April, then back to “the glacial plowing of this whole part of the world,” then ahead to a less-distant past of loggers funneling wood downstream and, finally, a present of a lone bull moose feeding, its rack strung with water lily and spatterdock stems.

“I noted the occasional leatherwood/shrub in case I need to peel one/in my winter treks, to use the impossibly/resilient bark as repairing thong/for snowshoe or toboggan lash./I’ve had to work my way alone before/and still decline to be at the end/of any electronic leash, though/signals here would be distant and poor.”

Leland Kinsey
Leland Kinsey’s most recent poetry collection, the 2016 Green Writers Press title “Galvanized.” Provided photo

Each subsequent poem is equally multipurposed. “Double Digging the Garden” speaks of topsoil that’s soft for a shovel and a lower layer of harder, heavier subterranean sediment that, unearthed, can sprout life.

“French white radishes like baseballs;/enough cucumbers for four kinds of pickles.”

It speaks of surplus produce with three children grown and gone, of canning and freezing and sharing with family, neighbors and food banks.

“I could join the farmer’s market/but don’t like meeting new people./My legacy may consist of refuse.”

And it speaks of toil that breaks the soil and the spine.

“Each summer I bring friends out/to note and share the display and produce./Here is life’s habit on grand exhibit/and the hard work hidden.”

Life may evolve, but Kinsey never organized any of his published collections with the help of a computer’s cut-and-paste functions.

“I physically lay the poems out on the floor,” he said.

Diagnosed with lymphoma last year, Kinsey kept writing even when a stem cell transplant confined him to a hospital bed. By spring, he was touring the state with his latest collection, the 2016 Green Writers Press title “Galvanized,” when not fishing with Mosher.

“Everyone felt the treatment had been successful,” his teacher and friend said, “and he was looking at a few more good years.”

But after traveling abroad this summer to visit his daughter in the Peace Corps, Kinsey returned home and experienced a relapse.

He is survived by the wife he knew for a half-century, Lesley, their four children and three grandchildren, and his mother, sister and two brothers. Among the colleagues he leaves behind is fellow scribe and sugarmaker Brett Ann Stanciu, who called him “premier among Vermont writers, exquisitely gifted, a man who wrote of the myriad ways the earth giveth — and the earth taketh.”

Kinsey noted such transitions at the end of “Winter Ready,” which concludes with the poet looking and listening for night owls: “Everything that does not migrate/has fattened up, bedded down,/cocooned up, seeded itself./Life’s two principles–/reproduce; survive to reproduce again./By this process the world is brought/back to us as we know at winter’s end./And by this process, even beyond/the evident hand of man, the world/slowly changes utterly.”

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Kevin O'Connor

Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Vermont poet Leland Kinsey dies at age 66"
  • Ann Seibert

    Kevin ~ Thank you for this A Plus write-up for an excellent poet and a wonderful Vermonter.

  • Veer Frost

    Beautiful column, leaving the reader grateful for LK’s poems and life. Thank you.

  • Rita Pitkin

    An elegant man doing extraordinary work. We will miss him.

  • Eileen Boland

    Thank you, Mr. O’Connor for this excellent tribute. It was an opportunity missed that Vermont never made the “unofficial poet laureate of the Northeast Kingdom” the official poet laureate of all of Vermont.

  • Thank you Kevin, for this eloquent and insightful tribute to Leland Kinsey. His like will not be seen again, in VT or far beyond.