Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Cohort of New England Poets: Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin, at the Frost Place

In and around the barn where Robert Frost once stood, on his small homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire, some two hundred people gathered on August 1 for a remarkable conjunction of poets, as Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, and Maxine Kumin read from their work -- a gift from these three noted New England poets to the poetry center on the forested mountain.

The threesome had more than location in common: Kumin and Hall have served New Hampshire as Poets Laureate, and Hall is nearing the end of his two-year labor of love as U.S. Poet Laureate; Kinnell has held Vermont's equivalent position, Vermont State Poet. All have garnered significant awards for their collections. All are firmly grounded in a narrative of place, as well as the lyric sense of wonder that New England can evoke in its lovers.

Curiously, Hall's habit of sharing his poems-in-process with other poets -- either by good old "snail mail" or, for the most part, via fax -- created yet another link. As he rambled through the farms and mountains of his poems (opening with "The Maples," then "Mt. Kearsarge," with reference to his grandmother braiding her hair on the porch of the home where he now lives, then his noted "Ox-Cart Man" and "Old Roses), he also reflected on the changes he'd made from suggestions "Max" and Galway had offered. "Max and Galway have helped me a lot," he confessed. For instance, he spoke of shaping the poem "Weeds and Peonies," the first that he started to write after the much-grieved death of his wife Jane Kenyon, also a poet. He envisioned her walking with their dog Gus, "his great tail wagging" -- and when Galway read a draft, he neatly inked out "wagging" and inserted "swinging." Hall concluded with a smile, "And he was right!"

Hall noted other influences too, such as Thomas Hardy -- whose work shaped Hall's period of working in closely rhymed stanzas. But he demonstrated that the inner delight of the way the poem sounds and turns and speaks can demand an independence of its own. For "Old Roses," he confessed to poetic license: "Really the roses are by the road, they're not by the barn door, but I had to say: 'flarre of thorrns by the barrn doorr," he growled.

Kumin read second, and called herself "the sandwich between the two men," chuckling. She also noted that Hall and Kinnell each have in their new collections a CD of their own voices reading the poems -- Kumin said "I'm the only one whose book does not have a CD attached -- it's kind of a disappointment, but Norton doesn't do that -- yet!" After an homage to Frost by reading his "Fire and Ice," she read two older poems ("Looking for Luck in Bangkok" and "Praise Be"), then poems from her two most recent collections: JACK and STILL TO MOW. Her sharp humor turned a serious blade on wars and government and especially the conduct of the Bush Administration's war in Iraq, boldly slashed out in ironic lines and even some "strong language," was in her "Please Pay Attention as the Ethics Have Changed," which ends with "f*** the Geneva Convention." She included a villanelle, "The Domestic Arrangement" (drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth's journals), and a pantoum, "What You Do." The collection also includes narrative reflections on her youth and her view from age 81, as well as farm and animal delights. In the words of Frost Place director Jim Schley, "The small and the large, the daily chores and the daily news, are always entwined in her poems."

Galway Kinnell responded to a quick question from the audience by saying that his earlies attraction toward poetry came from reading the poems of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. He gave a tender reading of Grace Paley's poem "Here," in acknowledgment of the current Vermont State Poet, who couldn't attend the event -- then launched into his own poem about Robert Frost, from which he read two sections that refer to a visit he made to the grand old man in about 1960. Then, after a vivid diversion into two poems about sows, Kinnell plunged into the complex glory of his "The Fundamental Project of Technology." After this serious wrestling, he led the audience to chuckle along with him in enjoyment of his narrative poem about his son Fergus's fourth birthday party ("It All Comes Back") and concluded with the loving and especially place-based narrative of both Fergus and his sister Maude in "Everyone Was In Love," to wild applause.

As the centerpiece of the week-long Festival and Conference of Poetry, the event called out the spirits of New England past, present, and even future -- and perhaps most strikingly, celebrated the friendships among these three committed poets.

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