Monday, November 7, 2011

Newly-Appointed VT Poet Laureate Sydney Lea in Burlington Free Press

from the Burlington Free Press:
The following is a slightly abridged version of Sydnea Lea’s acceptance speech Friday on being designated Vermont Poet Laureate:

I want immediately to start this commentary with some modesty, dismissing the notion, for example, that the opinions of poets are brighter than others, and particularly that poets are more “sensitive.” I’ve known barbers, loggers, and waitresses more sensitive to those around them than many poets. If poets do possess an enhanced sensitivity, it is surely only to language.

I have always hoped that my own words might speak to and sometimes for people whose command of them is less developed than mine. Yet even my poet’s claim to eloquence can collapse before me. I don’t want to strike an anti-intellectual pose here, because I have greatly benefited from scholarly intellects, nor some phony pose as poet of the people. Yet I’ll insist that if those with fancy educations like mine have no exclusive claim to brains, still less do they have one to lyric expression. Certain yarns and poems have had the profoundest influence on my view of the world. I heard most of these early on, from a cherished group of northern New England men and women with scanty formal education; but those testimonies have stayed with me at least as vividly as those of literary lions who sleep in more visited graves.

I have learned, too, in large part by association with my dear introducer Mary Leahy of Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, that a sophisticated demeanor is no indication of a deeper humanity than that of many who struggle with the daunting challenges of illiteracy or sub-literacy. The accomplishments of such people make my own seem minuscule; they humble me.

But a little humility never hurt anyone. I know that in this poetry-rich state, there are people who have as good a claim to my new distinction as I do. I’m conscious too of the mastery that precedes me in the work and person of outgoing laureate Ruth Stone. Self-congratulation would erect barriers between my work and fabulously rich relationships and narratives, available from those fellow poets, yes, but also from many another citizen. With that in mind, I mean during my tenure to visit as many of Vermont’s town libraries as welcome me. I’m a long-time trustee of my own town’s library, and so understand the centrality of these institutions to community life. I’ll make my visits, though, not to spread wisdom but to garner it.

In “Hyla Brook,” one of my favorite poems by Vermont’s first poet laureate, Robert Frost celebrates a brook so small that it’s “A brook to none but who remember long.” With Hyla Brook, he says, things are “other far/ Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.” The poet concludes, however, that “We love the things we love for what they are.”

Like Frost I am no native, but like him too I do love our tiny state. I love Vermont for what it is: an enclave of civility amid the virulence of our current national life; a cauldron of inventiveness when many of us seem stuck in our tracks; a repository of humor at a time when Americans appear addicted to grimness; and –as the response to Irene demonstrated– a context for collaboration at a moment when, as one of my dear old native friends puts it, “people sometimes forget how to neighbor.”

Let us remember the imperative to neighborliness. Let us remember, in the words of another great poet, W.H. Auden, that “We must love one another or die.”