Monday, October 3, 2011

Sydney Lea Featured in Valley News

In Select Company
By Nicola Smith
Valley News Staff Writer

When he was in early 30s, poet and essayist Sydney Lea was on the long march toward an academic career. He'd received both a bachelor's degree and a doctorate from Yale, writing his comparative literature dissertation on 19th-century supernatural fiction. He had an appointment at Dartmouth, teaching freshmen English composition, and giving classes on the American novel and English romantic poetry. So far, so good.

But, Lea recalled in an interview at his Newbury, Vt., home, something in him chafed at committing himself to the path he'd set himself on. And while reviewing what he calls his “inscrutable dissertation, inscrutable even to its author,” he had an epiphany.

“I looked at that scholarship of mine when I was in the vaults of Baker Library and said, this is not what I want to do when I grow up.” He was 34 at the time.

Now 68, Lea can savor the road taken. His career has embraced poetry, fiction and essays, with works published in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Sports Illustrated and Gray's Sporting Journal. He founded The New England Review in 1977. His 2000 book of poems Pursuit of a Wound was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And now he has been awarded a post that represents, if not a final accolade, then at least a singular flourish.

On Nov. 4, in a ceremony at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Montpelier, Lea will take on the role of Vermont Poet Laureate with Gov. Peter Shumlin in attendance. It comes with a stipend of sorts: $1,000 for the four years. But money isn't the point.

“I'm really honored,” said Lea, a burly, bearded man who seems, initially, uncomfortable talking about himself, but who warms to the idea of talking about writing, writers and the pleasures of reading. He sits on a porch on the back of the home he shares with Robin Barone, his wife of 28 years, and gazes searchingly at the trees that surround the property, as if they might yield answers.

“I never imagined I'd have this honor, but if I had, I would never have imagined it would gratify me as much as it does. I knew I had been nominated, but it had never occurred to me I'd be the one,” he said.

It is an honor that has been accorded to a select few, beginning with the appointment of Robert Frost, who served from 1961 until 1963. After a gap of 26 years, then-Gov. Madeline Kunin resurrected the position in 1989, naming Galway Kinnell to the four-year post. Since then, it has been held by Louise Gluck, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Grace Paley and current Poet Laureate Ruth Stone. The criteria are these: A poet must have a long association with Vermont, amassed a respected, critically acclaimed body of work and consistently show excellence in her or his work.

The Advisory Committee that made the selection cited Lea's poetry for its “dramatic intensity, narrative momentum, and musicality,” and praised his “extraordinarily evocative descriptions of Northern New England's landscapes, animal and plant life and the seasonal panorama.”

Of his work, poet Cleopatra Mathis, who teaches at Dartmouth College, wrote by email, “His love for both the land and the people of New England is unsurpassed by any other poet I can think of writing now. Like Frost, he lives the present through the past, elegiac and elegant and yet conversational and idiomatic.”

Lea began writing poetry when he was a teenager growing up in suburban Philadelphia. These poems addressed themselves to, he said, the usual kind of adolescent angst, like break-ups with girlfriends. He didn't begin to seriously engage with the idea of poetry as an avocation until after college, but even then it seemed unobtainable.

“It never occurred to me to apply to MFA programs,” he said. “I thought to have a career as a writer involved some secret that people weren't telling me.” As a younger man, he said, he was not accustomed to thinking highly of himself. “I used to be unduly fearful of not making a good impression,” he said. A former professor once described him as being both “volatile and shy.”

But writing poetry felt natural to him. “I really did feel some confidence. Even when I was suffering rejections, as I still do, I thought I knew what I was doing.”

Even so, it took some time to find his natural voice, a voice that echoed out of the woods and fields and rivers of Northern New England. Here he formed a spiritual kinship with the woodsmen and women who logged and hunted in its forests, and gathered at night around campfires or in bars to drink, smoke and tell stories. This was the New England he'd first experienced when his father took him at age 9 on a canoe trip in northern Maine, a vast, remote and wild place as far from suburban America, and what Lea calls the “plastic octopus” of strip malls, gas stations and car dealerships, as you can imagine.

In 1963, his family bought a camp in Washington County in northernmost Maine, on the border with New Brunswick. He has returned every year since, along with his family and children, and now grandchildren, and is active with forest conservation there. He has also pursued a lifelong interest in hunting and fishing, a passion picked up as a boy at his grandfather's farm in Pennsylvania and nourished with a steady diet of Field & Stream and the works of, among others, the turn-of-the-century naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, who wrote scores of books, including Wild Animals I Have Known.

“I am old enough that I knew older men and women in Northern New England who came before the age of power tools, and they were fabulous raconteurs,” Lea said. “I just loved their voices, the last true woodsmen and women.”

Uninterested in trying to mimic their actual speech patterns through dialect, which can often sound forced or patronizing (unless, Lea said, you happen to be a genius like Mark Twain), he aimed instead for “capturing something of the lilt of their voices in poetry.”

It is their stories, and the stories of the farmers and anglers around him, that fuel his poetry. This has led him to be designated by some as a “regional” poet. But one of the compensations of getting older, he observed, is realizing that he doesn't have to be universally liked to be happy or to succeed and that he can write what he wants to write, not what others might expect or urge him to do.

“If you start writing to someone else's expectations, you don't do very well. I was writing what I was meant to write,” he said.

As Poet Laureate, Lea, who has also taught at Middlebury College and returned to Dartmouth to teach in the MALS program (he's now retired from that), intends to go out to the state libraries to read. When he found out he'd been named to the position, he went to the Vermont Library Association and printed out a long listing of the libraries in the state. There are, he said, some 330 in all, which, for a population of 600,000, is, he said, “amazing.” He has sent out query letters to the libraries, asking if he can come speak.

“The more remote or unlikely the library, the happier I'll be,” he said.

He has read at Lions Clubs and fish and game clubs and, just last week, at colleges in Texas and a writers' workshop in Dallas, an experience that he enjoyed up until the moment the audience was unhappily riveted by what sounded to Lea like 20 rounds of small arms fire outside. The quiet stretches of the Upper Valley look pretty good to him, for that and numerous other reasons, as they have for the 43 years he's lived here.

Among Lea's reasons for picking libraries as his brief, apart from his interest in literacy, is that he wants to dispel the idea that modern poetry is the province of the academy and the intellectual elite. “I'd like to think that people not affiliated with the choir can understand what I do,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people who have shied away from poetry because it's too baffling. The problem can be sometimes be on the other side of the desk.”

Look at Frost, he said. “H was an unusual genius. Everybody can get something from him. You can't get it all but you can get a lot. He's not obscure.” Equally, Lea rejects “the notion that poets are more sensitive than other people. That's arrogance of the worst kind. Going in there with a little bit of humility never hurt anybody. The payoff for humility is you get to know people a little bit better.”

Although he'd undoubtedly demur at the comparison even while acknowledging the influence, Lea has established himself as one of the heirs to Robert Frost, writing narrative poems that are conversational, with all the revealing slips, affectations and elisions of speech. They stand alone on the page as little sculptures but achieve their full weight when spoken aloud. Most poems do, of course, but it's in the patterns of how people talk that Lea records the characteristics of an era, a region and a country.

In his poem "The Plainville Testament," published in his 1996 collection To the Bone, which was a co-winner of the 1998 Poet's Prize, Lea recounts a very New England tale of an old man Billy Fields who confides to his lawyer the truth about a dark incident in his past. Accused of letting a younger man die of severe injuries without getting him help, the old man rambles on in a haze of explanation and self-justification. The lawyer lets him spill forth and afterwards jots down what he heard. The lawyer writes “to hear the voice of Billy, to watch the landscape quicken as I listen.”

At poem's end, the lawyer sums up the principles that keep him listening and writing. They're sentiments that seem to epitomize Lea as well.

Tonight, recording this for you and you

--outsider, native, woman, or child--

but mostly for myself, as I've confessed,

I'll lie here with my story, cool, a while.

A little time, while the moon plays on The Bald Man,

I'll hold to it, and you can judge the rest.

Nicola Smith can be reached at