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Slayton: Sydney Lea's Poetry

04/12/12 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea is now touring Vermont, giving readings at local libraries throughout the state. Commentator Tom Slayton - long time journalist and observer of all things Vermont - attended a recent reading by the poet at the Vermont State House in Montpelier.

(Slayton) The best Vermont poetry speaks with a characteristic voice that is clear, crisp, and as invigorating as a sunny April morning. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes plain, it bridges many individual styles, but can be heard in poets as different as Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone and David Budbill.

Most recently, that open, direct voice can be heard in the work of the current Vermont Poet Laureate, Sydney Lea of Newbury, who gave a reading at the State House earlier this month, to open Montpelier's celebration of National Poetry Month.

Lea's poetry is almost conversational in tone, and very accessible: you don't have to struggle or ponder to get the meaning of his words. But that directness can be misleading, because his poems are also very subtle, often slyly humorous, and, sometimes surprising. They work on more than just their explicit, surface level of meaning. Like any good Vermonter, Lea is adept at saying things without saying them, so his poems resonate in your mind long after you've heard them or read them.

In his poem, "To A Young Father," for example, Sydney Lea urges a younger man to take the time to absorb the beauty of a nearby river in fall by crossing a one-lane iron bridge and taking in the reflection, of "the back of the furniture mill/ in upside down detail on the river...":

Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea
But then the poet admits that he's never taken his own advice. He begins to run through the details of a life as busy as anyone's - children to raise, a lawn to tend, bills and the other day-to-day concerns that assail us all. His thoughts of the river's beauty, glimpsed in brief moments through his busy years, recur to him, interspersed with memories of his children's lives, and his own. And he finally says, with a backward glance, that even in those brief glimpses, the river "must have been lovely, all these years."

At his State House reading, Lea held his audience of about 100 quietly spellbound as each poem, a slice of a deeply felt inner life, plainly stated in all its beautiful complexity, unfolded.

The final poem was entitled, "I was Thinking of Beauty," which is, of course, a major part of every poet's job. It somehow managed to combine Lea's own affection for the music of Charles Mingus, with a long-smoldering mental argument that the poet had with an overbearing, doctrine-bound professor, along with a neighbor's precise description of cedar waxwings, John Keats' famous one-liner: "beauty is Truth; truth Beauty," Maori tattoos, Jamaican steel-drum band music, and more - all of which led Sydney Lea to his wonderful conclusion: that beauty eludes all our definitions and simply exists, eternally: :I was thinking,: he says, " that it never had gone."

And so, without stating it directly, the poet makes us think about beauty: as an idea, as a memory, and, in this case, as a lovely poem by the poet himself: Vermont's Poet laureate, Sydney Lea.



I Was Thinking of Beauty


                                                                        -- for Gregory Wolfe

I've surrendered myself to Mingus's Tijuana Moods
on my obsolete record machine, sitting quiet as I sat last night.
I was thinking of beauty then, how it's faced grief since the day
that somebody named it. Plato; Aquinas; the grim rock tablets
that were handed down to Moses by Yahweh, with His famous stricture
on the graven image. Last evening, I was there when some noted professor


in a campus town to southward addressed what he called, precisely,
The Issue of Beauty. Here was a person who seemed to believe
his learned jargon might help the poor because his lecture
would help to end the exploitations of capitalism -
which pays his wage at the ivied college through which he leads
the impressionable young, soon to be managers, brokers, bankers.


He was hard above all on poems, though after a brief appearance
poetry seemed to vanish. It was gone before I knew it.
The professor quoted, Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, then chuckled.
He explained that such a claim led to loathsome politics.
I'm afraid he lost me. Outside, the incandescent snow
of February sifted through the quad's tall elm trees,


hypnotic. Tonight as I sit alone and listen, the trumpet
on Tijuana Gift Shop lurches my heart with its syncopations.
That's the rare Clarence Shaw, who vanished one day, though Mingus heard
he was teaching hypnosis somewhere. But back again to last evening:
I got thinking of Keats composing and coughing, of Abby Lincoln,
of Lorrain and Petrarch, of Callas and Isaac Stern. I was lost


in memory and delight, terms without doubt nostalgic.
I summoned a dead logger friend's description of cedar waxwings
on the bright mountain ash outside his door come middle autumn.
I remembered how Earl at ninety had called those verdigris birds
well groomed little folks. Which wasn't eloquent, no,
but passion showed in the way Earl waved his work-worn hands
as he thought of beauty, which, according to our guest,
was opiate. Perhaps. And yet I went on for no reason
to consider Maori tattoos: elaborate and splendid,
Jamaicans shaping Big Oil's rusty abandoned barrels
to play on with makeshift mallets, toxic junk turning tuneful.
The poor you have always with you, said an even more famous speaker,


supreme narcotic dealer no doubt in our speaker's eyes -
eyes that must never once have paused to behold a bird,
ears that deafened themselves to the song of that bird or any.
Beauty's a drug, he insisted, from which we must wean the poor,
indeed must wean ourselves. But I was thinking of beauty
as something that will return -- here's Curtis Porter's sweet horn -
outlasting our disputations. I was thinking it never had gone.


To a Young Father


This riverbend must have always been lovely.
Take the one-lane iron bridge shortcut across
the town's west end and look downstream
to where the water backs up by the falls.
Boys once fished there with butterball bait
because the creamery churned by hydro
and the trout were so rich, says my ancient neighbor,
they tasted like heaven, but better. Try to
stop on the bridge if no one's coming
to see the back of the furniture mill


in upside-down detail on the river,
assuming the day is clear and still.
I've lived here and driven this road forever.
Strange therefore that I've never taken
the same advice I'm offering you.
I've lived here, but I've too often been racing
to get to work or else back home
to my wife and our younger school-age children,
the fifth and last of whom will be headed
away to college starting this autumn.


I hope I paid enough attention
to her and the others, in spite of the lawn,
the plowing, the bills, the urgent concerns
of career and upkeep. Soon she'll be gone.
Try to stop on the bridge in fall:
that is, when hardwood trees by the river
drop carmine and amber onto the surface;
or in spring, when the foliage has gotten no bigger
than any newborn infant's ear
such that the light from sky to stream


makes the world, as I've said -- or at least this corner --
complete, in fact double. I'd never have dreamed
a household entirely empty of children.
It'll be the first time in some decades,
which may mean depression, and if so indifference
to the river's reflections, to leaves and shades,
but more likely -- like you, if you shrug off my counsel
or even take it -­-­ it'll be through tears
that I witness each of these things, so lovely.
They must have been lovely all these years.


Note:  Poems printed on this page appear courtesy of Sydney Lea.



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