First of a Kind

History of The PSOV, 1947-2023

The Mountain Troubadour cover 1961

On May 15th, 1947, at the Hotel Vermont in Burlington, Mary Newton Baldwin witnessed the birth of a long-cherished idea: the creation of The Poetry Society of Vermont. Long a believer “that there ought to be a statewide organization for poetry,” Baldwin had begun preaching her gospel in 1946 at a writer’s conference in Durham, New Hampshire. Such was the strength of her conviction that she had converted many writers and members of the Vermont intelligentsia into poetry activists; now finally, on that afternoon in May, surrounded by her adherents, she watched her vision become a reality.For the time was right. In the ensuing months, the nascent poetry organization would attract an impressive array of talented people. As wife of United States Senator Ralph Flanders, Helen Hartness Flanders could facilitate political backing. Professional expertise was provided by Blanche Gile, publisher of a poetry magazine, and Betty Cassie Liddell, former editor of The Vermonter. Professor Arthur Peach, President of Norwich University, brought prestige and intellectual leadership. Nor was there a dearth of accomplished writers. Ruth Wyllie Holden and Corinne Davis were among those who swelled the ranks of those poets who wanted to hone their craft in an atmosphere of professional stimulus.By the late fall of 1947, these activists had drawn up a constitution, established rules for poetry contests, composed a list of Vermont poets approved for membership, and elected council officers from their own ranks. Finally, on January 24, 1948, under the auspices of the newly elected President Peach, Vice-President Gile, Executive Secretary Baldwin, Recording Secretary Davis, and Treasurer Holden, The Poetry Society of Vermont was ready for its first workshop meeting.

And what a meeting it was! Braving the brutal snows and deeply rutted roads, the twenty-two charter members of The Poetry Society of Vermont met for the first workshop in Montpelier, Vermont. Dressed to the nines in pearls and black ties, these poetry enthusiasts knew they were witnessing an historic moment: a statewide society dedicated to “promoting one of the finest of creative arts.” And they came ready to spend the day in celebration of poetry — this first meeting began in early afternoon with a workshop in the Woods Art Gallery; it ended with a formal banquet in the Montpelier Tavern.

We owe much to these early meetings. Many of our awards are named in memory of these pioneer poets: Marian Gleason, Arthur Peach, and Corinne Davis are all remembered when prizes are yearly bestowed. Afternoon workshops where poets revise and redraft verses have become a PSOV tradition–as has the presence of a critic, a well-known poet who comments on the anonymous works submitted by members. And from the beginning PSOV members have voted on the most popular poems submitted to the workshop. When Professor Jeremiah Durick accepted ten dollars and the Poetry Workshop prize in January, 1948, he was the first of over a hundred poets to be so honored. He is linked to today’s workshop winners by a ribbon of tradition stretching over six decades.

And so it is tempting to linger over early newspaper articles and Troubadour accounts, perusing descriptions of the long but glamorous gatherings that characterized the early days of the PSOV. For the first anniversary celebration, a formal dinner held at the Pavilion Hotel in Montpelier, we read that “yellow tapers and chrysanthemum pompoms decorated the two long tables.” And there was the “Charming Mollie Baldwin in a pretty blue taffeta gown; stately and beautiful Katherine Scholl Smith, her hair in a coronet of braids . . .” Nor were the men undone; many of them wore tuxedos. And as they dined on a four course dinner, they listened to music. Perhaps a classical trio from St. Michael’s college was on the agenda – or a solo like “The Sword of Farrara,” sung by talented local.

And, slowly, out of the context of these early meetings and statewide poetry readings, grew two publications. One, The Mountain Troubadour, was first published in 1949; a four page newsletter, it contained editorials, book reviews and essays about poetry. In 1956, through the dedicated efforts of Mary Baldwin, Jeremiah Durick and William Halvosa, The Mountain Troubadour was reformatted as a poetry journal; its publication continues to this day, providing a venue for showcasing the work of PSOV members.

The second early publication, an anthology entitled First Harvest, was a representative collection of poems by PSOV members. Published in April, 1954, and appropriately dedicated to Mary Baldwin, it was seventy-four pages long and sold for $1.50. The publication was successful; both the first and the second printings sold out. And a few poems from the collection found fame beyond Vermont borders. Marian Gleason’s poem was put into Braille for the blind; Bettie Liddell’s poem was read by Arthur Godfrey on his radio program. But, most important, then President Arthur Wallace Peach’s fear that “First Harvest may be the last harvest” did not come true. In August, 1982, under the auspices of Patricia Belding, Marian Gleason, Robert Goldstein, Miriam Herwig, and Bette S. Wright, Second Harvest succeeded the first. And, as 28 years separate the first anthology from the second, so 25 years separate the second from the third. Brighten the Barn, the 2007 anthology of The Poetry Society of Vermont, is part of a proud tradition.

Another salient part of the society’s heritage is encouraging young poets. 1960 marks the first PSOV-sponsored annual High School Poetry Contest; winners’ poems were printed in The Mountain Troubadour, Fall, 1960. By the early sixties, the sponsoring of annual high school contests in cooperation with WCAX-TV had become a PSOV tradition. And a 1961 article in the Burlington Press tells of Governor Keyser — himself a member of the PSOV – closing the society’s meeting with a banquet honoring Vermont’s young poets. By 1969, the society had expanded its role in the schools, reaching out also for students in grades 1-8. Again in co-operation with WCAX-TV, PSOV judges awarded prizes to students in each grade; winning poems were then read on “Across the Fence.”

But no organization can escape politics and financial realities. Claiming that the number of poetry submissions had substantially declined, WCAX-TV stopped sponsoring the student contests in 2006. Without the financial backing and support of WCAX-TV, the Poetry Society of Vermont could not sustain this tradition; in 2012 the PSOV ceased printing High School Contest winners in The Troubadour.

Another politically influenced change involved the selection of the Vermont Poet Laureate. In a 1965 editorial in The Times Argus then President Arthur Wentworth Hewitt states that the “greatest occasion” of The Poetry Society of Vermont occurred “in midsummer under Mt. Mansfield at the Spruce House.” Hewitt was referring to the day in 1961 when “Governor Keyser conferred on Robert Frost a citation . . . making him Poet Laureate of Vermont” — an award the PSOV had recommended to the State Legislature. For, in those early years, the connections between the State and The Poetry Society of Vermont were indeed close. Had not Governor Deane Davis been active in drawing up the society’s charter and by-laws? Was not Governor Keyser a PSOV member? Had not the legislature supported the recommendation of the society for Poet Laureate of Vermont?

The eighties witnessed a change in this rapport. The stormy controversy, focusing on the choice of Poet Laureate of Vermont in 1989, first broke in the August 14 Brattleboro Reformer before being picked up by newspapers nationwide (even The New York Times.) Two Vermont poets stood out as candidates for Poet Laureate; one, William Daniel Mundell, had the backing of The Poetry Society of Vermont. The other, Galway Kinnell, was the candidate chosen by a five-person selection panel named by Governor Madeleine Kunin. On the recommendation of this panel, the State Legislature named Galway Kinnell as Vermont Poet Laureate. Not to be undone, The Poetry Society of Vermont, under the auspices of then president Miriam Herwig, crowned William Mundell as the Poet Laureate of their organization. On August 12, 1989, a cloudy day in East Dover, Herwig placed a laurel wreath on Mundell’s brow. Later, in her Tribute to a Native Son, Roberta Goldstein would write of that day, saying:
The country folk he has etched will live forever between the covers of his books. Vanishing Vermont will be found in his books forever.

And, as her words show, the moment lasted long in the minds of PSOV members. The choosing of the Poet Laureate of Vermont, a cooperative process shared by both governor and PSOV president twenty-eight years before, now lay in the hands of the state legislature. And a bitter rift was created, one that lasted for years. But fortunately not forever. Again the turn of the century brought new opportunities. In 2002 a member of the PSOV sat on the selection board for Poet Laureate of Vermont; again the voice of that organization was heard on a state level. And the PSOV is now careful to nurture its connection to the state of Vermont; our President now participates regularly in the selection process of the state Poet Laureate.

The ensuing years have witnessed other changes. The PSOV now has a website –www.poetrysocietyofvermont.org. The site has proved successful, pulling in new members and allowing for publication on the internet of contest winning poetry. And the society has reached out in other ways. Poets from the PSOV participate in Poem City, the poetry celebration held yearly in Montpelier. And, in this Post-Covid world, the PSOV celebrated its 75th Anniversary by holding poetry readings around the state.
But, even as the PSOV moves into the future, it is also preserving the past. In 2005 the state of Vermont, wishing to preserve the poetry and history of the PSOV with completeness and certainty, asked for its records. Today two complete sets of The Mountain Troubadour are preserved in the Vermont Historical Society in Barre; the society has also donated financial, biographical and photographic collections for preservation in the state archives. Important in this collection is the existence of a Troubadour Index, a compilation that lists all the poets and poems that have been published in The Troubadour since 1947; this index documents the contribution of the PSOV to Vermont culture for over 75 years.

The founders of The Poetry Society of Vermont thought in terms of marathon meetings – those black-tie, high-heeled affairs formerly described. But, in keeping with the increasing informality of Twentieth Century life, those formal dinners have been replaced by more relaxed luncheon workshops. Beginning in 1970, the summer workshop of the PSOV took place at Knoll Farm, a setting of spectacular views overlooking the Mad River Valley in Fayston, Vermont. Here casually clad PSOV members could picnic in the bucolic countryside while penning their verses; later they could attend a poetry reading in the high-raftered, hay-strewn barn. In the ensuing years, the locale has changed; a barn in Duxbury, a Meeting House in Waitsfield, Stone Valley Arts Center in Poultney, have all proved inspirational sites.

And those formal banquets held at The Pavilion or The Tavern in Montpelier? Again the society has transformed itself. Quiet and professional, the poets now gather every Fall and Spring at country inns and restaurants. They come not for formal dinners but for an intense and serious evaluation of their writing. The galas have given place to seminars; the speakers have been replaced by critics; and musical backgrounds have been superseded by talk of rhythm and rhyme. Only be not deceived! In the most important sense, these poets differ little from those who gathered in 1947. On this, the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Poetry Society of Vermont, we know we have everything — and one thing–in common with those voices from the past: a passion for poetry.

Written by Carol Milkuhn and Jane Wollmar, 2005
Updated by Carol Milkuhn, 2021

 

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