Sydney Lea has three books coming out, including his new essay collection A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press) this month. At an age when old dogs curl up before the fire and dream ancient dreams, Sydney is all spark and vigor which I find endlessly appealing and optimistic. Sydney is also the Poet Laureate of Vermont, and I guess poet laureates hobnob in ways that mere mortals don’t. He and Fleda Brown, recently Poet Laureate of Delaware, have been writing essays back and forth. As Sydney writes, “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”
Earlier on these pages I published the essay “Unskunked” which is part of this poet laureate interchange. In “Unskunked” we were treated to the image of the author running naked through the dark and dripping forest. In “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know,” Sydney Lea waxes less overtly spectacular and delivers a lovely, wise account of his education as a young poet. He is a paradoxical intellect; part athlete, hunter and woodsman; part scholar; mostly a poet. This is the story of how these impulses somehow coalesced around his admiration for what we might call the New England old timer (in 2012, there aren’t many of these left). At the center of this is an idea of manliness (not macho posturing but old fashioned manly virtue — a good thing).
Sydney Lea is a great friend and former colleague from my early days at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s a source of deep satisfaction that he has found Numéro Cinq a congenial home for his work.
When I was young, who thought I’d choose poetry as my prime mode of knowing the world?
Not I. It’s true that as a high school punk, despite my enthusiasm for football and my wilder one for hockey, despite my commonplace tough-guy posturing, practiced by so many of us guys at that stage of life, I did secretly like to think of myself as a bit arty too. I was a musician. I could sing. I even thought I drew pretty well. I was a big cheese in the dramatic club, as a senior playing Oedipus in the eponymous play (a lisping king, who addressed “generationth of the living in the land of Thebeth”).
But I don’t remember writing poems, save maybe the sorts that any person may have written, and that he hopes have long since utterly biodegraded: rants about being ditched by a girlfriend, just for the tritest example.
I was also a pretty good student. Indeed, had it not been for what would now be diagnosed as a mathematical learning disability, my GPA would have been of the very highest. My truest proficiency was foreign languages, a gift nourished by the best instructor I ever had at any level, Ted Wright, who taught French. I began to speak the tongue pretty quickly, and I recall how strange it was that the words and the grammar often almost seemed to be granted me by some power outside myself.
It’s a feeling I would later come to recall – if not as often, naturally, as I could wish – when I composed a poem successful in my own eyes.
It’s at once simple and weird: words and phrases, whatever the language, simply enchant me, seduce me, especially if I hear them. Things spoken in my presence, if they have a particular, inexplicable resonance, will lodge themselves in my mind for decades. For example, I lately remembered a friend’s describing the death of his farmer uncle, who fell dead in his tracks while shutting the tailgate of his truck on a calf bound for the abattoir. I heard that description, unremarkable in most respects, about forty years ago. I wrote the poem last week.
Like my exemplar Robert Frost, I want my poems to have something of the ring of actual talk in them. But that’s to get ahead of myself. The college I chose had no writing courses as we know them in our era of too-rampant MFAism. But somehow, on my own, I started to feel an itch to write, which I did, my only audience, really, being my roommates, who tended to think I was good enough, if they thought about my work at all. My genre was short fiction, and I wrote a lot of it in those four years; it seemed to keep me balanced somehow, while everything else – including the alcoholism that would plague too many later years – was doing just the opposite.
Ultimately, of course, graduation loomed, and I had to figure out what I might do. Yale had accepted me as a grad student in French, but much as I loved the language and the literature, something in me recoiled from living as a kind of literary expatriate. I never imagined applying to a place like Iowa, though quantitatively, my portfolio would have permitted me to. (Who knows about the quality?) I had barely even heard of any of the far fewer MFA programs that existed in those days. I never dreamed, either, of Being a Writer. Professional writing, I assumed, was something other people did; there must be some secret to it, and no one had shared it with me.
I did not want to go to Vietnam, as one those roommates did, becoming one of the earliest casualties of that wrong-headed adventure. And so, because schoolteachers were exempt from the draft at that time, I elected to go back to my own private high school, having no credentials to teach in a public one.
I taught French and English, and came to understand how Ted Wright managed to be so inspired and inspiring a teacher. He simply committed himself to that end every minute of the day right through the evening’s class preparation. No one messed with Ted: he was a big, muscular guy, the football coach, a former semi-pro pitcher. At a mere 21, I didn’t have that sort of gravitas, and I devoted a lot of time to quashing the same sort of ill discipline I’d imposed on all my other teachers, now my forgiving colleagues, just a few years before.
Top quality high school teachers are, to my mind, the heroes of American education. They deserve to be paid a lot more, and college teachers (especially those at the sorts of “prestige” institutions where I myself have taught) a good deal less. To say it tersely, even after one year in a pretty cushy job at that level, I knew I didn’t have the endurance and commitment Ted did. In deed, I concluded there wasn’t enough money in anyone’s bank to keep me at his sort of work. Too hard, too demanding, too much time just being present.
So I did go to grad school after all, not in French, but not in English either. I did comparative literature, wanting to use my languages while I focused on fiction and poetry as fields of study. I was too naïve to know that comparative literature was just then leading such study in the “theoretical” direction that has made it unappealing to me and apparently – judging from the radical shrinkage in literature majors at the majority of colleges – to most students.
Not that my dabbling in theory didn’t have its heady moments. I particularly recall a fabulous seminar on European Romanticism, presided over by the second best of my many teachers, Geoffrey Hartman. And yet Geoffrey became, quite unintentionally, a bit of a villain in my history. I had settled on a perfectly conventional dissertation topic, Frost and the Romantics, but he persuaded me to expand one of my seminar papers, an examination of several supernaturalist authors of the nineteenth century, most of them deservedly forgotten. Unlike my other choice, he averred, this would be “a real contribution.”
Contribution? What about nightmare? To indicate how sheep-like I’d been in acceding to my professor’s suggestion, most of my texts were written in German, the one major western European language I didn’t really command, which meant that I was forevermore rifling through the stacks for translations from the original into French, Italian or Spanish, few being available in my native tongue.
In due course I took a job at Dartmouth College, without, however, having finished that accursed dissertation. Indeed, it would take me more than four years to do so.
There were no writing courses at Dartmouth in those days, any more than there had been at Yale when I was there. But a fair amount of clamor arose from students for that lack to be remedied. The result, in my second year, was English 70, an omnium-gatherum offering in which students could write fiction, poetry, drama, personal essays, what have you?
The heavies of the department, many of them good people and true, to be sure, were exclusively male – women adjuncts were referred to as “lady lecturers”! – and white and old, and at least marginally Christian. (These descriptives fit me better as I write this than they fit the people in question then; but such, in my late twenties, was my regard for them, one and all.) They assigned English 70 to me, of all people.
This was meant, though, as an act of kindness. Since in the eyes of those senior colleagues, such a course was not a “real” one at all, not the kind that demanded any genuine thought or preparation, I would have more time to complete my burdensome dissertation.
And yet a strange thing happened (or perhaps not so strange). In teaching that course, ineptly, I’m sure, given my utter lack of credentials, I found that old itch returning. It had been suppressed for more than half a decade, but now I began to write again myself.
I began, though, to write poetry. Why? Well, pardon a detour to something very relevant: on my father’s side, my family has had a relation to a remote part of Maine that now goes back generations. In these times, my brother and sisters collectively own our cabin there. My time in the neighborhood had exposed me to certain notable characters, ones who would be 120 or so if they lived still. These were men and women whose early lives had preceded the advent of power tools, so that the male lumberjacks had cut millions of board feet by hand. And to call the females “housewives” would be downright laughable: they lacked all domestic conveniences we take for granted. Stunningly hardworking people, they quite literally kept the home fires burning, cooked in wood-fired ovens, slaughtered chickens, skinned game, cleaned fish and did whatever else was called for to sustain a homestead.
Because these people had no electricity, they of course had no radio either, let alone movie theaters or the great drug television. No, they had to make their own amusement, and as a result, man and woman alike were fabulous raconteurs. Their magical turns of phrase ring in my head every day: some get into my conversation, a lot into my poems, as it were, in disguise.
It seemed inevitable that, when I moved for my job to another part of northern New England, I sought out their Vermont and New Hampshire counterparts, who were equally eloquent, grammar and syntax be damned. And even at my young age, I somehow recognized mine was the last generation who would have known these precious souls.
I wanted to get their voices onto the page.
And yet I knew I’d prove no genius. I wasn’t Mark Twain. I wasn’t Willa Cather. I couldn’t resort to dialect without on the one hand sounding condescending, which was the opposite of how I felt, or simply sounding “off,” or both. I came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that if I used poetry to tell their stories – or rather to tell stories suggested by their stories – I might capture the rhythms and cadences of that old-time, entrancing speech without having to imitate it.
My earliest poems, consequently, were in the main quite specifically narrative ones. And although I have drifted away from overt story-telling in my verse, I have never quit believing in certain narrative values: even if plot remains implicit, I want my reader at least to know who’s talking to whom, and where and why. Character, setting and dialogue: why should we poets have ceded these endowments so readily to the fiction writers?
To this day (and I am old enough now to be indifferent about what the Smart People think), I want whoever encounters a poem of mine to know some literal truths when he or she first sees it. I want to make him or her aware of who the actors are, perhaps especially the one named I. If I can make allies of my readers, I’ll be pleased – and genuinely grateful to them. To these ends, I feel I owe them a welcome. A good poem will be complex, no doubt, but that’s a different thing from complicated. Those who are willing to consider it shouldn’t be taxed to figure out the plain facts of its matter.
Back to the academy. One of the department elders – a man whom I greatly liked from those days up to his fairly recent death – was chairman at a critical juncture. He approached me one day and said, “People are starting to regard you pretty favorably around here, but you know the saying, publish or perish. I’m glad it didn’t apply when I was your age, but without some scholarship in print nowadays, you have very little chance of tenure.”
Okay, then… I liked where I lived. I particularly liked the landscape and that access to the old story-tellers, and since in those days one did not have to publish a book, but rather a few articles, to pass the publish-or-perish test, I thought, well, I’ll just take a chapter or two from my dissertation (a screed still incomprehensible, even to its author) and try to stick it somewhere.
Mind you, I had gotten lucky with my poetry pretty quickly. I’d put poems in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, The New Republic and a slew of high-end lit magazines. But however different things are now at Dartmouth, in those days publishing poetry was not “real” publishing; that my first collection was under contract cut no ice, then.
I took the dissertation over to my library carrel, opened it up, and felt as I sometimes have upon looking over a shear precipice. My head spun, my stomach knotted, and I uttered aloud, despite the fact that I was in my thirties: “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.”
I closed that dusted-over tome, vowing that I would go on writing poetry and let the chips fall where they might. I did not of course get tenure, but was fortunate enough as almost immediately to be hired by Middlebury College, where the tradition of writer-professors had been fairly long established.
I now ponder that cri de coeur of mine, and I wonder why scholarship should not have appealed to me as something to do as a grown-up; why it couldn’t draw me more than it did or does. Understand, after all: nothing I say here is intended as an attack on scholarship. The contrary. I have benefitted enormously from other people’s labor in scholarly endeavor. It’s only that it isn’t for me.
Or not to the exclusion of other things. Oh, I have done a few genuinely scholarly articles since, copious annotation and all, and have even enjoyed doing them. But something always seems missing when I finish. It’s the missing something that’s provided by so-called creative writing, especially the writing of lyric, though I must struggle here and elsewhere to name that element.
For me, poetry is another mode of knowing the world, one that is different from the either/or, syllogistic one whereby people (myself included) generally conduct their business. Nothing wrong with that: if Shelley claimed poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, from what I’ve seen of them (myself included), it’s likely a good thing that their legislation does go largely unnoticed.
In any case, the lyrical approach is largely divorced from either/or, is in fact an approach well described, the way Carl Jung did in another context, as either/and/or –which is to say that it enables the writer (and ideally the reader) to see and feel from multiple angles simultaneously. To choose a hyper-obvious example, with the fairly recent birth of each of my grandchildren I have felt an indescribable surge of joy contemporaneously with numbing despond to imagine the world they may inhabit: over-heated, desperate for drinkable water, fratricidal, on and on.
It is this either/and/or quality, I believe, that John Keats famously called Negative Capability: the capacity to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Any number of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and so on can exist in a poem at the same time, including ones like the above, which are evidently contradictory of one another. In these respects, poetry’s path to knowledge, more nearly than any other, seems the path my mind inclines to follow.
And of course there is again the matter of language. All those voices, old and new, anglophone and otherwise, that reverberate in my skull and, more importantly, in my heart. To abandon myself to what I called their rhythms and cadences, to let the words and phrases, as it were, bear me along like a tide to such enlightenment as I’ll ever have – that feels, and not just slightly, like a self-abandonment (allow me) to something divine.
— Sydney Lea
SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, will be out from U. of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in April 2013, his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).
He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.
Loved this essay. Thanks so much Sydney and NC.
Thank you, Jen.
Thanks so much, Doug, for getting this into Numero Cinq where I could read it. I turned at the end of it to find some of Sydney Lea’s poetry online and came across his remarkable “The Nightmares You Knew.” Gad, how beautifully crafted that poem is. It was interesting to have the story of how he slowly turned towards poetry in my mind as I read and re-read it.
Julie, Syd read at the first VCFA residency I attended as a teacher. It was the most amazing reading I’ve ever witnessed. I’m glad you like the essay.