Gov. Madeleine Kunin created the position of Vermont poet laureate by executive order in 1988, resurrecting a post that had first been occupied by Robert Frost from 1961 to 1963 but had been unoccupied for 25 years. The wisdom of that act has been evident over the years but never more so than with the publication of "Roads Taken: Contemporary Vermont Poetry" (Green Writers Press, 2017) edited by current Vermont Poet Laureate Chard DeNiord and his predecessor, Sydney Lea.
Given its small size and population, why is Vermont such fertile ground for poetry, what Coleridge described as "the best words in the best order?" The eight Vermont poet laureates whose work is represented in this volume are not just Vermont presences, but are national treasures. Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Louise Gluck, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Grace Paley, Ruth Stone, Lea and DeNiord have been honored with seven Pulitzer Prizes, three National Book Awards, a Congressional Gold Medal, a National Humanities Medal, and a MacArthur "genius" award. Gluck served as poet laureate of the U.S.
Could it be Vermont's natural beauty — the mountains that define our horizons, the streams that tumble over rocks in deep, densely wooded ravines, or the beauty of the ever-changing four seasons? Or could it be its people over the centuries, independent and self-reliant — those who founded the Vermont Republic before it joined the new nation in 1789, or the "hippies" who flocked here in the 1970s, or today's hillside farmers who have reversed the loss of farmland in recent years, or the high tech, telecommuters living in Burlington and its environs? It's likely the combination of those and other factors that have led to poems that "resonate with unique wit and `memorable speech' that betray not so much a particular brand of Vermont poetry, but just strong poetry that was inspired in Vermont," in the words of DeNiord in a recent email.
The book comprises more than 200 poems by nearly 100 poets. The eight poets who have served as state poet laureates are represented by four poems each, while the remaining poets, who qualified by publishing at least one book by a non-vanity press and having lived in Vermont for at least five years, each have two poems. The table of contents list the poets in alphabetical order, and there is a useful set of brief bios at the end in "Contributor's Notes."
The book was published by Green Writers Press, a Brattleboro institution that should be more widely known and appreciated. Their website describes a mission "to spread a message of environmental activism through the words and images we publish .We publish books that speak to our quality of life and the beauty of nature."
"Roads Taken" certainly meets those criteria. Its more than 300 pages brim with beauty, wit, melancholy, joy and life. I've always found long books of poetry such as anthologies and "collected works" to be somewhat challenging. Does one start on page one and read straight through to the end, or is it better to randomly wander through the pages reading a poem or two at a time? In the case of "Roads Taken," I'd suggest the latter. There's delight to be found in the surprising discovery of a new poet's work as well as in the meeting of an "old friend." I came across Louise Gluck's "Burning Leaves," a poem which I had recently read in her 2009 book "In the Village."
Try alternating between reading those poets with whom you are familiar and opening the book at random to discover someone new. There is beauty and insight, sadness and grief, description and emotion that will bring you up short and make you read and re-read a sentence, a stanza, an entire poem.
Dan Chiasson, the poetry editor of The New Yorker and himself a Vermont resident, writes in the introduction that "Vermont will always require the imagination of its citizens to exist," an idea that is "not always easy to keep in mind, so powerfully do the daily necessities of living there, of surviving there, assert themselves." He concludes that "Vermont tempts poets to epiphany; then, by staying silent, or cold, or flinty, or dark, it ironizes their praise." And perhaps, irony is the over-riding theme that flows through these 200-plus poems, the irony of the cellar holes in the midst of dense woods, the irony of the new immigrant's adaptation, the irony of the new juxtaposed with the old.
This book has provided me with hours of pleasure over recent months. If you already read poetry, you'll immediately know what I mean. If you've always found poetry to be daunting, confusing, or just plain boring, give it another try. You'll find, in Frost's words, that "Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words." You can't do better than to start with our own "Roads Taken."
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Brownsville. He can be contacted at www.EpsteinReads.com where you will find more than 1,000 suggestions about what to read next.