Reasons to Simile
In the winter of 1992, a small group of us wondered: If we produce a summer poetry festival, will anyone come, and, the “poetry business” being what it is, could such an enterprise sustain itself? Here, an informal log:
The Very Idea. Two people were responsible for it: Rennie McQuilkin, a poet and longtime teacher at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, and Sarah Lytle, then the director of that town’s Hill-Stead Museum, a destination for Impressionist art lovers. They came to me—I was then editor of the Hartford Courant’s Northeast magazine—with the suggestion of a partnership.
The museum would raise the funds and provide the venue. Rennie would schedule the poets. The magazine would get the word out about the new Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. Yes, I said. By all means, yes. I had reached the stage when my original idea of journalism had changed; the matters that actually keep people awake at night, I’d discovered, seldom make headlines. There is something deeper to explore.
“Chair Women.” They’d read Northeast’s cover story about the first season. Outdoors, among the flowers—how quaint. So they counted themselves among the surprising turnout of several hundred on opening night, and planted their lawn chairs in front of a hedge. Poet Hugh Ogden’s reflections were dark, including the death of a lover, and they contained four-letter words that weren’t spelled “r-o-s-e” or “l-o-v-e.” The two women snapped up their chairs and stormed out.
The Naked Truth. During that first summer, it rained on two occasions, forcing the festival indoors to the museum’s Makeshift Theater. On one of those nights Sue Ellen Thompson was at the podium, the door behind her having been opened to let the air in and reveal the full expanse of Hill-Stead, designed by pioneering architect Theodate Pope Riddle as a home for her parents.
Thompson read a poem about her parents, and just after she recited the line, “I never saw my father naked,” a bolt of lightning struck a few feet behind her. As the steam cleared and the gasps subsided, it seemed clear something more was afoot than any of us had imagined.
A Dressing Down. The opening of the second season drew more than 1,500 to hear Pulitzer Prize winner James Merrill. As was the case in those early years, I was invited to deliver opening remarks. That night, I offered a lesson in poetry etiquette since many in the audience were first-timers, and, I knew, might feel intimidated. They might wonder when to applaud, as during a classical music concert. My advice: “Anytime you’re moved to.” So they did after Merrill read his first poem. Whereupon he said, “Please, don’t. If you still like my work by the end, you can do it then.” So much for what I knew. But as the years passed most poets seemed to agree with me; anytime you can get applause in life, you should take it.
Endurance. Word of the festival’s success made it possible to get corporate financial support in addition to personal donations. There was also some personal endurance displayed. Rennie invited Donald Hall to end the fourth season of readings, but worried that the great New Hampshire poet, whose colon cancer had metastasized, would have to cancel. It was a lesson in irony. Hall came, drawing a crowd estimated at 2,500. But by then his much younger wife, Jane Kenyon, also a poet, had contracted leukemia and died from the illness.
When two years later Rennie booked another U.S. poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, he pointed out that Kunitz would be 95 by the time of his appearance. But he stood in the garden, reading a poem about his 16th year, “The Portrait,” in which he finds a painting of his father, whom he had never known and who had committed suicide. Young Kunitz had shown the painting to his mother, who slapped him hard. “. . . I can feel my cheek still burning.”
Crowded Out. The large turnouts became big news. The New York Times headline on a story about the festival mentioned “Poetry Traffic Jams.” Some people said they wouldn’t come anymore because it was too crowded.
The Elements. Every season was threatened at some point by rain, inspiring Courant reporter Garret Condon to coin the weather phrase, “poetry front.” But rain wasn’t the only impediment. Early June winds arrived just in time for the 2000 opening.
Philip Levine, another Pulitzer Prize winner (he would be named U.S. poet laureate in 2011), took the podium and, wrapping a scarf around his neck, said, “They told me how to get to Farmington. They told me how beautiful this setting is. They told me we’d have a large crowd. But no one told me I’d freeze my ass off.”
Accompaniments. From the beginning, there has been music for an hour before the poetry. The festival has featured renowned soloists (Paul Winter, for example) and many ensembles (I was at the keyboard with A Klez Act). But some of the accompaniment was built in. When Honor Moore read a poem about birds singing, several in the branches above her serenaded us.
Billy Collins. During his first of several festival appearances, he read “Forgetfulness” and “Nostalgia,” and the audience roared. A representative of the Connecticut Humanities Council was there that night, in convulsions. In the following weeks, we got word of a grant from the council.
The Poem Dome. This was my “idea.” Seasons of worrying about Wednesday-evening weather led me to the brink of poetry insanity. What if the sunken garden was covered by a retractable dome, as with a modern baseball stadium? We’d offer naming rights—“Travelers New Umbrella,” for example. Alas, this idea went nowhere.
Summer’s Pace. I used to lament that as I aged, summers flew by more quickly. But in that beautiful garden designed in 1920 by Beatrix Farrand, words so carefully chosen and roundly delivered made us sit up straight in our folding chairs, and summer slowed. Wise people counsel: “Live in the moment.” Easy to say, hard to do. Except when you are listening to poetry outdoors. When in that garden Galway Kinnell paid tribute to Jane Kenyon by reading her “Afternoon at MacDowell,” I hung on every word, and wept with sorrow and delight.
The Fundraiser. On April 1, 2012, 70 people gathered in a living room in a Gilded Age private home in Farmington. They were there to support the festival, on the brink of its 20th season yet still having to push hard for donations. It has been harder to get the word out, too, Northeast having perished many years before. Mimi Madden, the festival’s present director, wrote a skit for the occasion. Rennie McQuilkin and I were invited as two of the co-founders to participate. Audience members included Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his wife, Cathy, who later told the crowd about her 95 year-old father, who still wrote poetry. A local Stanley Kunitz.
The Book On It. Sunken Garden Poetry, with works by every poet who has read at the festival, published by Wesleyan University Press, will launch during the 20th season’s gala weekend, June 1-3. (See hillstead.org).
This summer features, among others, Richard Wilbur (another U.S. poet laureate), Marilyn Nelson (the new Frost Prize winner) and the sturdy Donald Hall. Come. Laugh your head off. Or snap up your lawn chair in disgust. Hold onto summer and discover something buried about yourself.