A cursory review of poetry societies across the country reveals that 32 have their beginnings in—or at least now are attached to—the National Federation of State Poetry Societies organized in 1959. At least 30 are affiliated with the Academy of American Poetry’s Poetry Coalition and can be found at poets.org.
The Poetry Society of Vermont falls into neither of these camps. The PSOV archives remind us that “On May 15th 1947 at the Hotel Vermont in Burlington Mary (aka Mollie, PSOV’s fourth president) Newton Baldwin…witnessed the birth of a long-cherished idea…the creation of The Poetry Society of Vermont.”
What was the impulse that fueled Baldwin? An answer may be found in something Baldwin once said that inspired Nancy Vandenburgh, and has motivated countless others since, when she met Baldwin in 1975. What Baldwin said to Vandenburgh, PSOV president from spring 1987 through fall 1988, was this: “There is a tremendous satisfaction in writing something meaningful to oneself and then finding that someone else has found it enjoyable or helpful.”
Vandenburgh says, “This quote from Mollie Baldwin…still expresses my feelings about writing poetry which have continued since meeting her in 1975 when she encouraged me to submit five poems to the editorial board of The Mountain Troubadour and was delighted when my poem “Under Leaves” was published.” That idea of a community of poets dedicated to supporting each others’ writing is still what defines PSOV today.
Coming out of the time in which it was spawned, the flavor of PSOV’s beginnings was marked with academics, Arthur Wallace Peach and Jeremiah Durick; political connections, Helen Hartness Flanders, the wife of US Senator Ralph Flanders (an accomplished folksong collector (as many as 9,000 items, the PSOV archives note)); a cleric and scholar known throughout the state, the Rev. Arthur Wentworth Hewitt; a poetry magazine publisher, Blanche Gile; and poetry editor at The Vermonter (which published from 1895-1945), Bettie Cassie Liddell.
Officers were chosen in September 1947 at the Montpelier Tavern (now Capitol City Plaza Hotel and Conference Center) in Montpelier, and according to PSOV archives, by January 1948, they braved “…the brutal snows and deeply rutted roads” for their first workshop at the TW Wood Art Gallery, followed by a formal banquet at the Tavern. Durick accepted the $10 first workshop prize. Peach, an English professor and department chair at Norwich University, was the first president; Gile, vice president; founder Baldwin, executive secretary; Ruth Wyllie Holden, treasurer; and Corinne Eastman Davis, recording secretary. Council members were Mabel Ruggles Cobb, Durick, Liddell, Frances Lovell, Maude Wheeler Pierce, Gertrude Sylvester, Morris Wilcox. The other charter members included Flanders, Mary Elkins Gardyne, Marian Gleason, Bernice Graham, Hewitt, E. Dorcas Palmer, Alice Cone Perry, Enid Crawford Pierce, Nellie Richardson, Katherine Scholl Smith, and John Spargo.
The names of some of those who laid the ground for the organization are memorialized in PSOV awards, the Troubadour Awards named for Davis and Peach; summer contests for Mary Margaret Audette and J. Richard Barry, one-time presidents Gleason, Roberta Goldstein, and Chris White; and member Laura J. Spooner who was “a very quiet person” known for writing love poems, Ann B. Day, recalls. She co-chairs the Summer Contests with Philip Coleman.
Audette was a member for more than 20 years, beginning in the mid-’70s. “The Mary Margaret Audette prize was set up by her daughter after her mother’s death,” Day said. “I only met her once (the daughter) and do not remember Mary Margaret Audette at all. The daughter was very specific about having the contest be for light verse, humorous, and fun. So that is important. My poem for last year’s Audette contest (“Mussels,” see page 66) is a good example.”
“The J. Richard Barry award is very important to me,” Day said. “Richard Barry was a good friend. He lived in Morrisville and was a farmer and teacher of high school kids. He loved Vermont and country life. I have his books. Carol Collins was a dear friend of Dick’s and saw him often as he came to Harwood Union High School where Carol was teaching and also Carol’s husband, Fred, who taught woodworking.”
Day continued, “The Barry award should have a country theme and particularly about farming. And it should be short. He never wrote long poems. It is important that this theme be adhered to.”
The state took an interest in PSOV from the beginning, with the governor helping to draft a charter and bylaws. National Life Insurance Company sponsored Wednesday morning radio programs. It wasn’t too long before PSOV celebrated its first anniversary, replete with taffeta, tapers, and tuxedos. Chrysanthemum pompoms dotted the tables when members sat down to a four-course dinner; classical music filled the air.
Soon followed The Mountain Troubadour, from 1947, a four-page spread carrying editorials, book reviews, essays about poetry, and reports of meetings and workshops for those not able to travel in the non-Zoom era and which might have been called Mountain Corn, but the moniker was “discarded with scorn,” the September 1948 Troubadour reported.
Day associates Hewitt, a classical Greek scholar and minister, with the journal’s christening. “The person who first called it that was a minister in Northfield Falls, the Rev. Arthur Wentworth Hewitt,” she said. “He was president when I first joined. He published a little book in 1962 with the Golden Quill Press and titled it The Mountain Troubadour. The ‘Troubadour’ was in reference to him. I was at his house often in the 1960s and with Marian Gleason and others put the Troubadour together. I remember Arthur Hewitt well and he was a great president. We always had a noon meal wherever we met, and he recited a blessing which we said together before the meal. We continued that custom long after Rev. Hewitt passed away,” she said.
A troubadour, of course, was a lyric poet or knighted poet-musician of the 11th and 13 th centuries who sang folk songs and of courtly love and might live anywhere throughout the south of France and the north of Italy. One scholar from Hewitt’s time, Robert S. Briffault, detailed their presence in The Troubadours (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1965); they continued to be studied as in the more recent From Dawn to Dawn: Troubadour Poetry Translated into English from the Occitan by A.S. Kline (Poetry in Translation, online, 2009).
By 1956, the Troubadour began to resemble the literary journal we know today; PSOV has bolstered its publications list with three anthologies. The First Harvest, in 1954, was dedicated to Baldwin (Gleason translated the book into Braille). Arthur Godfrey read Liddell’s poem on his popular radio show. Second Harvest came out in 1982, followed by Brighten the Barn in 2007, its title taken from Day’s poem, “The Quick Coming of Night”.
From its start, PSOV’s mission has included supporting young poets, sponsoring the first annual high school poetry contest in 1960 with winners’ work published in the Troubadour. In 1969, President Gleason invited WCAX-TV to co-sponsor high school contests. During this period, contests were held for elementary school students and winning poems were read on today’s still-popular program, “Across the Fence”. This year PSOV reignited the flame of that mission, bringing on board Beniamino Nardin, a high school intern for the Troubadour, and gathering high school poets to read at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s PoemCity with editor Mary Rose Dougherty.
The site of the PSOV summer festival for 46 years, beginning in the ’70s, was at Day’s home, Knoll Farm on Bragg Hill Farm Road in Fayston, where barn readings and workshops took place. TIME magazine captured the festivities in 1970: “‘Gathered for the gala summer festival’…43 guests paid $2.50 each for a cold roast beef lunch in a clover field on a 225-acre farm and filed into the red barn for readings.…They celebrated a touching and suspended pastoral world savoring of a benign Frost. Some of the more modern verses, though dealt with hippies and urban loneliness.” Day’s first-prize poem, “Summer Sanctuary,” graced TIME’s pages, capturing those days: “We reached the barn as the first drops/glazed our faces./ The huge loft surrounded us/with the rap of rain on the roof/and the sweet, heavy smell of hay./We looked at each other/with happy exhaustion,/and smiled.”
In 1983, Day made one of the earliest conservation agreements and, during this time, as an American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) ambassador, began traveling to Nicaragua where civil war seethed; the farm became a refuge for asylum seekers. After nearly 20 years, she transferred care of the land to a new generation with shared values. Well-known auctioneer Dick Hathaway called the AFSC auction. For a few years following, the festivities were held at the home of Carol Johnson Collins, in nearby Duxbury.
In 2002, a regional group, the Mad River Poets, published Pebbles from the Stream, featuring the work of Carol Johnson Collins, Day, Earline Marsh, Carol Milkuhn, Ruth Pestle, Inga M. Potter, Sally Anne Reisner, Dorothy M. Warren, and Jane Stewart Wollmar. Potter, 95, recently recalled her time as president (1983-84) saying, “It was a lot of work, and I had a lot of fun doing it. It was all special and fun, with many good friends to work with.”
The middle years brought some reconsideration of who should represent Vermont as poet laureate. Back in 1961, at the Toll House on Mount Mansfield in Stowe, VT, Gov. F. Ray Keyser, a PSOV member himself, named Robert Frost, Vermont’s first poet laureate. It was the PSOV that had recommended to the Legislature the award be established. Frost served until 1963. Though PSOV had been actively involved in his naming, after Frost died in 1963, the role remained vacant until 1989. In December 1987, news of William Daniel Mundell, published in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly as well more to-home places, such as the Brattleboro Reformer, suggested Mundell might be the next poet laureate. State Representative Eugene Godt forwarded Mundell’s name.
Though Mundell and Kinnell were both PSOV members, and notable poets in their own right, some favored Mundell, a fourth-generation Vermonter from South Newfane. His membership in the PSOV boasted 27 poems published in the Troubadour to Kinnell’s goose egg. Kinnell was a professor of creative writing at New York University, with a home in Sheffield and a national reputation, and in some Vermonters’ view, considered an outsider. Some felt the poet who would represent the state should live here full-time; others countered that hadn’t been true for Frost, who was said to have considered Vermont his physical and spiritual home.
In August 1989, The Rutland Herald’s Sally Johnson wrote a piece for Kinnell’s hometown paper, The New York Times. In Vermont, The White River Valley Herald reported “Mundell’s nomination zipped through the House of Representatives… stalled in the Senate.” Gov. Madeleine Kunin called for a panel which included Godt, though no one from PSOV. Five candidates, including Mundell and Kinnell, emerged. The panelists went home and read the poets’ books. Kunin named Kinnell the new poet laureate. Saying “poetry is going to be strengthened” by the dispute, PSOV President Mim Herwig named Mundell PSOV poet laureate “for life.” To reconcile poetic and political differences, Kinnell extended an invitation to Mundell, and they read from their work to 200 at the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center to quell “the Great Poetry Debate.” From that point on, the Vermont Council on the Arts, the state’s legislative arm of the arts, became responsible for naming the state’s head poet and the PSOV president has, since 2002, sat on the naming committee which most recently named Mary Ruefle as Vermont poet laureate.
“TO INFINITY AND BEYOND”
Venturing into the archives, the passage of time shows quite plainly in early handwritten memberships list, which became typewritten, then in the 1970s mimeographed (a low-tech copying process in which texts appeared a blueish purple ink that everyone from churches to schools once used), then IBM Selectric (which had 75% of the market for 20 years until the mid-80s), and finally word processing. As Gutenberg once changed publication and access to books with his press, in 1990s, with the advent of broad access to the Internet, emails appear. By 2005, PSOV entered the digital age with a website, providing a wider forum for workshops and contest winners and for member publications. The following year, the Troubadour went from twice yearly to once a year. Other technologies and software, such as cell phones and desktop and online publishing evolved, impacting the way we share information, our experience, and our language. Yet, we still write poetry together.
In 1948, PSOV recorded 29 members. In the ’70s and ’80s, membership grew to 130, dropping to just under 100 beginning in the ’90s. Despite the pandemic, or perhaps because of it, with people seeking connection through Zoom, this year PSOV has surpassed the 100 mark and continues to add new, and younger, members. The type of memberships has changed as well. Early on, poets petitioned to become active (as opposed to associate) members by submitting five poems, which the president screened. Or, with publication of three poems in the Troubadour, members could become active. Today PSOV has honorary and student members in addition to regular membership, open to all wish to join a community of appreciative practitioners of the art and their enthusiasts.
In fall 2007, PSOV celebrated with a Sixtieth Anniversary Gala at the TW Wood Gallery and Arts Center with former poet laureate Galway Kinnell and the release of Brighten the Barn. Over the years the tuxedo-tailed, high-heeled events have given way solely to the regular rhythm of the early framework of spring, summer and fall meetings—workshops and readings in which poets gather in retreat, casually, and in earnest, to settle into the work of crafting and writing poetry.
Soon someone will pen the winning poem for a new award added this year to the stable of contests with which PSOV members have become familiar: the Carol and Arnold Abelson Award, established by one-time acting president Carol Milkuhn in memory of her late husband, invites the poet to consider “an event or place that fosters opposition, controversy and/or social change.”
Every era is marked by upheaval. During the pandemic, PSOV was forced to respond promptly. George Longenecker, president at the time, had to quickly learn Zoom. PSOV’s executive council shifted to online meetings. For the spring and fall workshops, members submitted online. Starting in late 2020, PSOV sponsored member readings on Zoom. Just as in 2002, when The Valley Reporter included PSOV members’ poetry in its coverage of 9/11, numerous publications have covered the COVID-19 pandemic of the last two years, including Haiku of Sheltering from the Highland Center for the Arts and A Year of Its Own, A Mad River Valley Pandemic Story Project from Joslin, Moretown, and Warren libraries. Some of our members’ works appears there. Today, as climate change destroys the planet’s ecosystems and a war rages against the Ukrainian people, poets continue to give voice.
In 2018, PSOV became a sponsor of PoemCity, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s “walking anthology of poems,” which Rachel Senechal, former library programs director created, and Michelle Singer ably manages. Throughout Vermont, the communities of Montpelier, Randolph, Rutland, St. Johnsbury all celebrate National Poetry Month with readings, broadsides in storefront windows and other events. Children’s poems greet shoppers at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier in a poetry garden as they stride the path from the parking lot. Among venues where PSOV readings are held throughout the year are other libraries and bookstores, too. Some will remember reading at the retail chain Borders which failed in 2011; now the tradition continues with Phoenix Books.
Our world has become visibly rich in the expression of all variety of poetic arts, which include not just writing on the page for publication, but performance art projects like Poetry Out Loud, Sundog Poetry’s “Poetry and Justice” project, transformative language arts that foster healing and infinite mixings of art, poetry, music, and more. Take a look at PSOV Executive Secretary JC Wayne’s Poartry Project at poartry.org for an example of what such vibrancy brings, all in service to others, or PSOV President Bianca Amira Zanella’s work as a spoken word poet at thepaperpoet.com. Poets, including PSOV members, are opening the world in courageous, creative, and expansive ways.
On this 75th anniversary, as we pause to acknowledge PSOV’s ancestors and past, with every moment we also lay the groundwork for the future, reaching to novelty and innovation to solve problems and create exciting possibilities as we reach beyond what we ever imagined we were capable of.
by Mary Rose Dougherty, Editor
Ed. note: Thanks to Ann B. Day, George Longenecker, PSOV Archivist and Historian Carol Milkuhn, and Carol Johnson Collins for their contributions to this article.