Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chosen by Robert Frost: Poet James Hayford

When James Hayford left Montpelier, Vermont, to begin attending Amherst College, his future looked like either a composer/musician's life, or the ministry. But that was before he met Robert Frost.

The occasion came in his sophomore year at Amherst. Delighted with Shakespeare, he was also writing poems. When he showed one to his professor, the honest and kind gentleman said he was "no judge of poetry" -- but would Jim like to meet Frost and show him the poem?

Unacquainted with Frost's poetry then, the student lucked out when his parents sent him a volume of the Collected Poems as a 19th birthday gift.

I started reading and couldn't stop. I cut classes. I barely ate and slept for three or four days. Here was a man talking about the very people and country that I knew, precisely and faithfully. Lovingly. making real literature of it! I was absolutely spellbound.

Hayford's visit with Frost, poem in hand, turned into a long exhilarating talk from Frost on all sorts of subjects -- but not about the proffered poem, until the end of the visit, when the great man said: "I say to you the opposite of what I say to most college poets. To most of 'em I say, 'You don't have much to say, but you say it pretty well.' To you I say, 'You have something to say, but you don't say it very well.' You'll learn."

When Hayford arrived at graduation (his tale is well worth reading, in the posthumously published RECOLLECTING WHO I WAS: MY LIFE AND WORK), he was amazed to receive a newly formed award: a fellowship in honor of Robert Frost, of $1,000! After commencement, when he tried to thank Frost, the grand poet warned him there were fierce conditions on the award: Hayford was to stay away from
1. Colleges and universities
2. Big cities
3. Art colonies
4. Europe.

Frost's intent in imposing the conditions was to ensure that the young man would continue to write poetry, rather than write "about" literature instead.

It's surely a quirk of the poetry press world that Hayford's volumes, often self-published, locally printed, or in small editions, are so little known today. Maybe there's also a reflection of an urge for verbal fireworks that Hayford's poems rarely pack. But he mastered an art of condensing image and meaning, honing each piece to its most intense. Here's an example, picked for the time of year, from the collection UPHILL HOME:

March Morning

I shoveled my last shovelful of deep snow
For this year when I broke up the remains
This morning of a solid seven-foot pile
At the conjunction of porch eaves and drive,
And threw it out to splotch the lifeless grass
For a few hours until the sun could work,
Stowing meanwhile the shovel in the loft
And finding the gathering pail to start the first
Round of my seven-maple sugar bush.


And I'll add another, from 1983:

To Earth

Earth, you still lack perfection:
Your quakes and hurricanes
And other growing pains
Await correction:

You puzzle our best brains
While keeping our affection.

Yes, there are longer Hayford poems, with more reflection of the rural narrative that Frost captured so well.

But those will wait for another Vermont afternoon.


Nan said...

I love March Morning. Our not quite seven foot high pile awaits us. I've just happened onto your blog after doing a search for Thomas Lux. Great place to visit. And I'm not so far away from the store either. :<)

BForbes said...

I knew James Hayford in his latter years. I was his pastor and ended up being his friend, in Orleans, Vermont. Right before he passed James was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Vermont. On the day of his funeral the NYT said great things about him - little did they know how ironic their timing would be.
James also wrote organ music. I have no idea whether it was good or bad.

Beth Kanell said...

I always enjoyed finding James and his poems at the Burke arts festival; once I talked with him in a diner while he was still working on a poem, and he wrote down the in-progress version on a diner "slip" and gave it to me. It's one of my treasures. It's good to have poets among us ...