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MacArthur Fellow Ellen Bryant Voigt on the poetry of small-town life

Watch poet Ellen Bryant Voigt read her poem “Storm.” Video shot by Gilberto Nobrego and edited by Steve Mort

Poet Ellen Bryant Voigt described herself as a “glass-half-empty kind of girl” in one of her poems — but she’s optimistic about the future of poetry.

Voigt, who last month was awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious “genius” grants, has published eight books of poetry and served as Vermont’s poet laureate from 1999 to 2003. During that time, she toured the state and was amazed at its abundance of poetry, even in Vermont’s smallest communities. “The poetry readings, the poetry slams and the spoken word that all of the kids do now, the availability of poetry through the Internet, poetry blogs … It’s a really exciting time,” she said.

Having grown up on a farm in southern Virginia, Voigt spent the last 45 years on a non-working farm in rural Vermont. Animals, plants and the natural world are the subjects of many of her poems. “It’s clear I prefer to be out in the natural world,” she said. “I don’t do very well in cities.” In her work, she is a keen observer of both animal and human behavior, as in this passage from “Geese”:

one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
no one in charge or every one in charge in flight each limited goose
adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds
do they mean together to duplicate the cloud
like the pelicans on the pond rearranging their shadows
to fool the fish another collective that constantly recalibrates but fish
don’t need to reinvent themselves the way geese do
when they negotiate the sky

Watch Voigt read her poem “Geese.” Video shot by Gilberto Nobrego and edited by Steve Mort

Voigt has always sought out solitude, she said. As a child in a very large family, she initially found it by playing the piano and contemplated becoming a professional pianist. In college, she discovered poetry and went on to earn an MFA at the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Now, looking back on her work at 72, Voigt said she’s always been fascinated by the interplay — even conflict — between the individual soul and the larger collective. “I think I can trace that back to coming from lots and lots of relatives close by. A small town that knew all of your business,” she said.

Watch Voigt read her poem “Apple Tree.” Video shot by Gilberto Nobrego and edited by Steve Mort

Voigt, who is known for her precise, exacting style, typically writes 50 to 100 drafts before she is satisfied with a poem. For many years, her handiest tool was the scalpel as she constantly tried to hone down her poems to a bare essence, she said. Her recent collection, “Headwaters,” eliminated all punctuation in her poems. “It allowed more excess, more repetition, without me pulling out my scalpel and cutting them out,” she said.

Read Voigt’s poems “Storm,” “Geese” and “Apple Tree” below.

Storm

one minute a slender pine indistinguishable from the others
the next its trunk horizontal still green the jagged stump
a nest for the flickers
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllone minute high wind and rain the skies
lit up the next a few bright winking stars the lashing of the brook

one minute an exaltation in the apple trees the shadblow trees
the next white trash on the ground new birds
or the same birds crowding the feeder
one minute the children were sleeping in their beds

you got sick you got well you got sick

the lilac bush we planted is a tree the cat creeps past
with something in her mouth she’s hurrying down to where

the culvert overflowed one minute bright yellow
marsh marigolds springing up the next
the farmer sweeps them into his bales of hay

Geese

there is no cure for temperament it’s how
we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it
a narrowing imprisons or is opened such as when my mother
in her last illness snarled and spat and how this lifted my dour father
into a patient tenderness thereby astounding everyone
but mostly it hardens who we always were

if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl
you wake to the chorus of geese overhead
forlorn for something has softened their nasal voices
their ugly aggression on the ground they’re worse than chickens
but flying one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
no one in charge or every one in charge in flight each limited goose
adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds
do they mean together to duplicate the could
like the pelicans on the pond rearranging their shadows
to fool the fish another collective that constantly recalibrates but fish
don’t need to reinvent themselves the way geese do
when they negotiate the sky
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllon the fixed
unyielding ground there is no end to hierarchy
the flock the pack the family you know it’s true if you’re
a take-charge kind of girl I recommend
houseplants in the windows facing south
the cacti the cyclamen are blooming on the brink
of winter all it took was a little enforced deprivation
a little premature and structured dark

Apple Tree

No choice for the apple tree.
And after the surgeon’s chainsaw,
from one stubborn root

two plumes of tree now leaf
and even blossom, sky’s
cool blue between them,

whereas on my left hand
not a single lifeline
but three deep equal

channels–

llllllllllllllllllllO my soul,
it is not a small thing,
to have made from three

this one, this one life.

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