Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, VERMONT, by HAYDEN CARRUTH



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VERMONT, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: It's french, of course - our name. And I must think
Subject(s): Frost, Robert (1874-1963); Poetry & Poets; Vermont; Warren, Josiah (1798-1874)


It's French, of course -- our name. And I must think
(since nobody knows) the first to have uttered it
was Samuel de Champlain, an utter Frenchman;
the first as well to have seen our great green mountain;
or rather, first of the pallidly pigmented.
Yet truth to tell, not many of any color
were here before him. Meager is the word
for our prehistory; we are not rich
in relics, nor in much else, and that's a fact,
which may be why the divers kinds of diggers
prefer New Mexico and Arizona.
Well, the Algonquins lay to westward, Mic-macs
and their kin eastward, what else could Vermont,
hemmed in between two such antagonists,
ever expect to be but no man's land?
Or at best a land of passage. Warriors came,
hunters came (two who are one in nature),
came to make war and hunt and then go home,
those that survived. They didn't stay. They knew
our ponds and rivers, mountains and notches, knew
all our sublimities, yet somehow left
only their campfires smoldering into carbon
and a few skeletons moldering into garbage
for our three professional and thirteen amateur
archaeologists to ponder. But who'd ask more,
of either archaeologists or relics?
Not I. Vermont shares this much with my other
favorite country, Iceland, Viz. that neither
required a dispossession for their conquest.
Iceland was there, pristine and uninhabited,
there for the taking; Vermont almost the same.
That's saying nothing, granted, for the auks,
those copperplate amiabilities who would have claimed
Iceland if they'd been asked, and nothing either
for the panthers, otters, moose, and wolverines,
and the pine trees of Vermont. What was it like,
this land of passage? Green. Remarkably green,
and not in summer only but all year round.
White pine was what the plant biologists call
our climax -- nature's multimillennial orgasm --
especially on the mountains: trees as tall
as western pines, and brilliantly, brightly green.
No wonder Champlain, looking up at Mansfield
from his longboat over the windblown lake,
murmured "ver' mont" and wrote it on his map.
The best were blazed with the king's purple, to be
cut down, dragged by oxen to Otter Creek
or the Onion River or the Lamoille, and floated
into the lake and north to the St. Lawrence,
thence by ship to the royal navy yards.
Vermont white pine made the best mast in the world.
(India, Arnhem Land, have you seen our pines?)
The rest were burnt for potash. Now you'll hike
from Big Jay down to Pisgah and not see
a pine tree more than twelve rod tall. The valleys,
it's said, had plane trees (where they grow no more),
the foothills beech, then maple and butternut
on higher ground, birch by the ponds and brooks.
Et cetera. Speaking of water, maybe
the Yorkers have us beat, some say they do,
with Saranac's wild splendor. And yet, imagine
Willoughby back before the people came,
including Frost's Hill Wife (I wish I'd known her):
how the sun shone on that blue surface set
in its fringe of birch and fir, or how the mists
in early morning swirled between the cliffs
on either shore, with Wheeler Mountain dome
over beyond. I wish I'd seen it. I wish
I'd seen Vermont, the whole Vermont, just once
in that great classical time before the trees
departed, once so that I could see now
more clearly what it might have been. I know
what it is, a land of passage. Oh, there's some
who would deny it, seekers for what they call
their "roots." But when our people began to come
they never stopped, and most were passing on.
The Allens and their breed, rough frontiersmen,
rum-drinkers and free-thinkers, you can't help
liking them, and yet you can't admire them,
speculators that they were, manipulators
of timber, potash, land. When Ethan stormed
Ticonderoga was he the patriot? Or
was he merely defending the several thousands
of square miles belonging to the Onion River
Land Company, which he and his brothers
had founded? Later, when it seemed he might
secure their holdings through a separate peace,
it's true, negotiations were begun,
secret negotiations, obscure meetings
with Britishers in Canada, and that's how
Vermont got started, this peculiar mixture --
heroism, hardship, greed. It never stopped.
The farmers came -- that's what they called themselves --
who settled the Allens' speculative miles
and plowed the hillsides up and down for corn
until the hills wore out, and then brought sheep
to graze the weeds. And when the sheep wore out,
the farmers, worn out too, their women worn out,
died or contracted a religious contagion
or moved to Nevada and started over. Others
came too, the Irish, French-Canadians, those
who thought they were in luck to work a starved
and stony land, and maybe they were. The idle,
the rich, the developers, the ski-bums, the gamblers,
they all came, seasonal migrants. They blotted out
what was left of the green mountain to make
their ski-tows, hostels, and chalets. And now
they're set to build a dog track, so I'm told,
over in Georgia Plain -- a dog track! That's
whippets and hounds chasing a tin rabbit. Maybe
Vermonters need that image of themselves.
For me, I swear I'd rather have cock-fighting
than dog-racing any time. At least the chickens
do what they do without a mechanical motive.

West Bolton is due north of Bolton, East
Burke is due south of Burke, and, yes, South Reading
is three-and-one-half miles northwest of Reading.
You might say Vermonters don't know where they're at.
"What's the difference, it's all Vermont." Granted.
And so wherever we are we claim our right
to name it: Calais rhymes with palace (only
there is no Calais, just East Calais and
West Calais, the center having vanished). Charlotte
is pronounced shallot; Berlin rhymes with Merlin;
Ely rhymes with Swahili. I admire
our independence, so do we all, seeing
there's not much else in this world to admire.
Vermont is what you might call a Society
for Independent Mutual Self-Admiration.
We've had two presidents. Chester A. Arthur
was born in Fairfield (some say Waterville,
but Fairfield's where they've built the "replica"
of the Arthur homestead, dreamed out of thin air,
the original having burnt up or sunk down
a good while before anyone noticed, so
Fairfield is where it is), and then passed on
to York state at an early age and never
set foot in Vermont again; Vermont's loss is
the nation's gain. Then there was Calvin Coolidge,
born in Plymouth and passed on there as well,
a remarkable steadfastness. Cal at heart
was a poet, perhaps our greatest native-born poet;
it's hard to tell though, Vermont not being
notably friendly to the arts. Her sons
are channeled into other callings. Cal
went into politics and took his poetry with him.
Who else has put the whole of modern history
into one line of suitable pentameter?
"The business of America is business."
Ethan would have approved that. As for me,
I wish I'd written it, though in my spirit.
I've mentioned Robert Frost already. He
was a California. Everyone knows he made
a good thing out of Vermont, and Vermont
is making a good thing out of him. His place
at Ripton is a tourist attraction only
somewhat less popular than skiing and well
ahead of the Joseph Smith Monument at
Royalton. Well, perhaps I wish I'd written
"The Hill Wife" too, though mainly I'm content
to read it once a year, and then a dozen
or fifteen other poems with it. No,
I'd not be Frost. The truth is, first, that finding
an honest-to-God Yankee son-of-a-bitch
is not easy, but when you've found one, look out! --
you've found a humdinger, maybe a Robert Frost;
second, that Frost has been a frightful burden
to all younger Vermont poets, who have spent years
fighting him off, until now at last we dare
approach nearer, a little, without the fear
of losing our own identities (poetry
is poetry, after all, and Vermont's Vermont);
and third, that recently the state's become
far more hospitable to poets -- oh,
mind you, not native-born (Paul Blackburn from
St. Albans had to take his splendid talent
to New York City before he found a home),
yet many of us are here. Why, in this one district,
northwestern Vermont, there's Hewitt of New Jersey,
Broughton of Pennsylvania, Bass of Texas,
Edwards of Georgia, Engels of Michigan,
Budbill of Ohio, and Huddle of Virginia --
yes, and Kinnell of Rhode Island too, I'll stick
him in, ours by right though living a trifle
eastward, Sheffield way on the height-of-land --
and all twanging away in one or another fashion
of Yankee song, and all of us passing on.
Have I been too hard on Frost? Let's say I have.
Let's say he made, out of his own bad temper
and this forsaken and forsaking land,
a large part of our context. Not the whole,
not that by any means, but nevertheless
a large part. We must come to terms with him,
or find ourselves cut off completely. Frost,
whatever else you say, possessed a saving
curiosity. That's it, he got around,
he knew this people, he explored this land;
he saw, he apprehended, he perceived,
at least at his best he did, and by God that's
seven-eighths of the battle and five-eighths further
than most of us ever get. Once Ezra Pound
told me in a letter, or hollered rather,
"Curiosity, gorbloastit, kuryositty --
thass wot I'm tawkin abaout!" So bravo.
Bravissimo. These two old enemies
had more between them, I expect, than either
would have been willing to allow. A hundred
years from now they'll almost look like friends.

I'm from Connecticut. But please, not Stamford,
not New Canaan. I'm a Litchfield man --
Litchfield County, that is -- like Ethan Allen.
A speculator too? Some say I've farmed
this poetry hill for what it's worth. I could
offer extenuating circumstances,
my life has had them (and maybe not much more),
but truly now, what else could I have done,
being, or trying to be, a poet? That means a person
in the fullest sense. And does that mean in turn
something of a son-of-a-bitch? I think
Vermonters know, better than anything else,
just what a plus-and-minus tangle man is.
There was a man of Stowe who wondered which
mountain was higher, Mansfield or Camel's Hump,
until, maybe to win a bet, he climbed the peak
of Mansfield, loaded a ball without the wadding,
lay down and steadied his flintlock on a stone
and aimed at the ne plus ultra of Camel's Hump.
Sure enough, slowly the ball rolled forward
and dropped from the muzzle, a gratifying plop,
as I imagine, onto the alpine moss.
Mansfield was higher, and is, if by no more
than twenty rods. On the way down he killed
one bobcat for sport and two snowshoe hares
for the family pot. The only way I know
to do a thing is the directest way,
in art as elsewhere. (Though that's not to say
the imagination in a particular work
may not choose indirection.) Vermonters take
the directest way in everything but speech.
I knew a woman once in Beebe Plain
that had an idiot girl she kept at home
and dressed and fed and babied till the girl
was thirty-five in years and nigh in heft
to two sacks of hog ration. Bess, what for,
they asked her more than once, how come you don't
put her out with the state or in a home?
Bess'd look straight and answer, "Hell, I know
her feed's worth more than she is, which is nothing,
and that don't take in the labor -- mine, that is.
I guess I'm used to her, is all. Besides,
if she wan't here who would there be to show me
how smart I am?" That's how she spoke her feelings.
It's something like our feelings for Vermont.

Those Indians who came and didn't stay,
no doubt they had their business, yet they were
in one sense tourists. Did they lay a curse
on our green mountain (like many a tourist since
who's et our beans)? Nobody would blame them,
and something must account for our obsession
with snatching dollars out of strangers' pockets.
Down in Montpelier the state development
commission spends a hundred grand a year --
which is not hay, by God -- in advertising
our sleepy farmlands and our quaint red barns,
but not one cent to keep our farmers eating
or those barns standing. How can New England farms
compete with those monster western corporations?
We need a new crop, something that will grow
on hillsides, and on granite hillsides at that.
There was a fellow over in Underhill
who ranched musk oxen and proved it could be done,
but do you think the state would lend a hand?
My own idea that I've been working on
is a neat machine that will exactly crack
butternuts so the meat will come out whole.
Oh, there's a market for them. Rose Marie
knows eighteen recipes. But cracking them --
the butternuts, that is, though Rose Marie's
handwriting can be pretty near as hard --
takes hammer and anvil, and generally it means
bloody fingers and nutshells in your cookies
and a visit to the dentist. Who needs that?
Well, all I need is half a hundred grand.
That's all; no more. Think what the state would save.
And I'd have just enough to get me started
and work out a few bugs in my neat machine.
Then what? Easy. I'd make all Butternut Mountain
one huge farm and then hire half the town
at harvest time, which would just nicely fill
that slack, fidgety season after the cider
has been put down to work and everyone
is sitting around uptight, waiting to test it.

Republicans? We've got a few. In fact
that's damned near all we had for a hundred years.
Then in '64 we went for the Democrats,
the first time, went for the lesser evil
(that's what we thought) and gave our vote to Johnson
against Goldwater, and you can bet we won't
make that mistake again. Right now we have
a Democrat for governor, which isn't
a mistake exactly, it's an aberration.
I don't know if it's true, but I've been told
the poor guy suffers so much from loneliness
down there in Montpelier he has to call
a press conference just so he can find
someone to talk to. Mind, I don't say it's true.
Vermonters are Republican because
Bostonians are Democrats, that's all.
That's enough. Still there are Republicans
and Republicans. Take New Hampshire,
for instance; over there if you object
to the divine right of state senators
you're a Communist. Why hell, I knew a man
living in Coos Junction who wouldn't take
a twenty dollar bill; he couldn't stand
to carry Andrew Jackson in his pocket.
"Gimme two tens," he said. "Ain't it just like
them fathead red-tape artists? They design
the twenty for a red, then put a great man
like Hamilton on the tens." As far as I know
there's only one hereditary senator
in Vermont, and that's Fred Westphal from over
Elmore Mountain way. I don't know for sure
how Fred feels about Andy Jackson, but
he's carrying Elmore in his pocket and the rest
of his district too. Fred told a friend of mine
he'd never kissed a baby's face or a voter's
ass. I expect that's right. Of course it's not
exactly saying what he has done either
to keep himself down there in the legislature
since God knows when. "He's drawed his pay and 'tother
perquisites" -- that's what my neighbor says.
My neighbor's an anarchist. That is to say,
a Vermonter, and that's to say, a Republican.
But just because he goes by the same label
as Nelson Rockefeller doesn't mean the two
have anything in common. They're worlds apart --
worlds. Ask my neighbor how he feels about
the government -- the State with a capital S --
and what comes back is pure Bakuninism,
only of course with due allowances for different
times, places, idioms, and temperaments.
"Sons-of-bitches, every one of them" -- that's
his feeling, and he means Rockefeller too,
or maybe especially. Why, I suspect
even Fred Westphal might be an anarchist,
though he'd turn the color of Ed Wipprecht's
best red cabbage if you accused him of it.
For my part, what's the use of stalling? I'm
an anarchist, have been for forty years,
only more a Warrenite than Bakuninite,
which is to say, nonviolent and independent,
or in other words American, which is what
lets me remain a patriot and a son
of the Founding Fathers, like my friend Paul Goodman --
Paul, the city Jew-boy who worked and fought
in New York all his life, fighting for virtue
or even for reason in an evil, crazy city,
and lost, and was always losing, which was why
he liked the country maybe and called his poems
hawkweeds and died three summers past -- no, four --
over in Stratford underneath Percy Mountain.
The point is, there's a losing kind of man
who still will save this world if anybody
can save it, who believes . . . oh, many things,
that horses, say, are fundamentally preferable
to tractors, that small is more likable than big,
and that human beings work better and last longer
when they're free. Call him an anarchist,
call him what you will, a humanist,
an existentialist, hell, a Republican -- names
are slippery, unreliable things. And yet
call him a Vermonter. That's what he is.

I don't say you can't find him in New Hampshire,
or even Maine -- or Australia, for all I know --
the loser, the forlorn believer, the passer on.
But old Vermont is where I've found him mainly,
on the green mountain -- on the western slope of it
if you want to be particular -- where we talk
with that strange dialect which isn't exactly
Yankee, nor exactly anything else either.
"Calful" we say (as in calf), not "cahful,"
certainly not "careful," and what we make
our livings on, milking them morning and night,
are "kyeous." O.K. The further point is this:
we are still here, although we're passing on.
You won't hear much about us, but we're here.
I think we are the last true regionalists,
or maybe -- who knows? -- the first of a new breed.
Not local colorists, at any rate, not keepers
of quaintness for quaintness's sake. We're realists.
And realism means place, and place means
where we are. We name it, with all its garbage
and slaughter, and its comeliness too, and then
it is our center -- where we are. We try,
in our own unobtrusive way, to make it
a center of everywhere, a center for
everywhere (and thanks to Ted Enslin of Maine
for saying that). I think and I do believe
we know the way to glory, or to what can be
glory for this worn-down bedraggled race --
peace, freedom, losing, and passing on. And place.
We know it if anyone would listen. Most likely
anyone won't. Anyone never has.

Well, I've said that Robert Frost had curiosity
and took the trouble to go and satisfy it,
on foot or driving that bay mare of his;
he saw the state, he met the people. Yet
my guess is that he traveled by himself.
Your typical Vermonter is a man
of, say, sufficient winters, or a woman
for that matter, walking the back roads,
the pastures, woodlots, hills, and brooks, alone
or with a dog, mostly looking down.
Curiosity? Yes, but it bears inward
as much as outward, maybe more. My dog
is Locky, a mixed-breed bitch, though shepherd
predominates, and in her eleven years
Locky and I have walked these thousand acres
ten thousand times, I reckon. Do you think
we go on sniffing the same old rabbit trail,
examining the same old yellow birch
forever? We grow stiff. We plod now, I
with my stick, Locky with her lame forepaw,
and mostly we look down. And so did Frost.
Which brings me to the "all-important question."
What is the difference, now at last, between
the contemporary and the archaic? I
say "drawed" for "drew" and "deef" for "deaf" and still
use "shall" and "shan't" in ordinary conversation
like any good Vermonter, and sometimes too
I write "thou" for "you." So am I therefore
dead? That will come soon enough. Meanwhile
my language is mine, I insist on it,
a living language as long as it is spoken
by living men and women naturally,
as long as it is used. And so with manners,
styles, attitudes, the whole spectrum of appearance.
As for the unappearing, the soul, what further
need or can be said? It is my own.
No, I believe this difference was concocted
in New York City, that necropolis,
city of critics and city of fashion, which is
saying the same thing. It is a place to stay.
But genuine regionalism is not fixation,
not in either sense; it is awareness
of passing on. I don't speak paradox,
I speak for once directly. Place is the now
which is eternal. And we are passing on.
The name of our green mountain is from French,
but sometimes, ungallicly, we twist it, saying
Vermont with the stress up front. We intend
no harm and only characteristic disrespect.
Once when I heard it I was struck by how
the name might be divided differently,
Vermont, the Worm of Being. We are torn
here in this place that is our now between
its beauty and its depravity. The beauty
is mostly old, our mountains and our farms,
and the depravity is mostly new.
We don't hate it exactly, being not
the hate-conceiving kind, but we despair.
God, we despair! -- Vermont's protracted gloom,
our end-of-the-winter desolation, April
in our cold hearts. From this we make ourselves,
remake ourselves each moment, stronger, harder,
with our own beauty. Yes, our great green mountain
is the worm of being, long and irregular,
twined lengthwise through our state, our place, our now.
Meanwhile we dream of other sunnier places.
Myself, I'm going down next month to look
at a house I know of in New Mexico.


Used with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P.O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA
98368-0271, www.cc.press.org




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