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Poetry for the people

01/16/03 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton reminds us that poetry has popular roots.

(Slayton) One of the sad and interesting facts of contemporary life is that most people think of poetry as something for college students, intellectuals with a capital "I," and self-absorbed artistic types. But 100 or so years ago, poetry wasn't seen that way at all. It was read and written by almost everybody.

In her youth, a gang of my grandmother's friends on a picnic outing each wrote a short verse on a leaf of birch bark, which they then bound together as a little book to commemorate the occasion. It may have been hard on the birch tree, but compared to some contemporary amusements it seems a harmless enough endeavor. And it says something about how universally accepted the poetic impulse was assumed to be.

In our current more cynical age, all that has changed. Poetry is too often thought of as the work of highly educated literary specialists, academics, or people perhaps a little soft in the head. Maybe it's Lord Byron we have to blame for this. It was he who started the Romantic idea of the poet as someone with an airy stare and a higher brand of consciousness. For Shakespeare and Chaucer, even Pope and Dryden, poetry was witty and learned, but rough-and-tumble humor was also involved - just as it is in life itself. "Coarse jocosity catches the crowd," as Don Marquis once wrote, "Shakespeare and I are often low-browed."

However, somehow in the last 50 years, poetry got the reputation of belonging to the cultured elite, and in the process we all lost something. There is evidence that this sad state of affairs is changing, that poetry is finding its way back into the lives and hearts of everyday people. Garrison Keillor's morning poetry readings on "A Writers' Almanac" clearly aim at presenting poetry that is both accessible and profound, and are one attempt to rescue poetry from the clutches of the academy and return it to the rest of us.

In fact, there's a lot of poetry being written that is not abstruse or esoteric, and some of the best of it is being written right here in Vermont. The huge turnout across the state last fall for the series of readings of Hayden Carruth's poetry was evidence that when vigorous, vital, direct poems are read, there's a large audience eager to hear them.

Robert Frost wrote poetry about Vermont that was strong, complex, and yet completely accessible. Poetry by David Budbill, Galway Kinnell, and the current Vermont State Poet Ellen Bryant Voigt, Hayden Carruth and others has continued that tradition of using the language of everyday speech and hewing close to the familiar truths of work, love, nature, sex, violence, humor and tragedy that we all recognize as real human experience. Who knows? Vermont may be helping to revive an older, healthier literary tradition - poetry founded on real life, the kind of life that makes being alive in these Green Mountains so much fun!

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.
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