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At Frost Farm, poetry series presents masters of language

  • The Robert Frost Farm in Derry

    The Robert Frost Farm in Derry

  • Stephen Burt

    Stephen Burt

  • The Robert Frost Farm in Derry
  • Stephen Burt

Robert Frost would be proud. Although the iconic poet lived and wrote in Derry more than 100 years ago, poetry is still being created at his farm, now a state historic site and the home of the Hyla Brook poets.

The Robert Frost Farm’s 2014 Hyla Brook Reading Series opens today at 6:30 p.m. with poet, literary critic and Harvard professor Stephen Burt reading in the intimate setting of Frost’s barn. Hyla Brook poet Stephen Scaer will also read. 

The New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt has published eight books; his new book of poems, Belmont, was featured as one of NPR’s great reads of 2013.

Named for the Massachusetts town where Burt lives with his spouse and two children, Belmont explores topics of parenthood, gender, identity, climate change, and the gap between reality and imagination.

Burt’s poems are populated by real-world things, people and events rather than abstractions, yet they speak to larger issues. It’s fitting that he will be reading at the Frost Farm, since Frost also used mundane topics to lead us to deeper thought.

“I think that one of the many purposes of poetry,” Burt wrote in an e-mail interview, “might be to bring the concrete (streetlights, roses) and the abstract (love, fear) into new and more fruitful relations.

“And after all, every term is more concrete than some and more abstract than others: consider ‘life,’ ‘plants,’ ‘flowers,’ roses,’ ‘the third rose from the bottom on the rose bush at the corner of Baker and Concord,’ and then ‘a few molecules from the tip of the thorn.’ ”

The concrete reinforces the abstract, he wrote, and the abstract, when you focus on it directly, recedes.

As examples, Burt noted Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose.” In both poems, real-world experiences (Frost seeking his reflection in the water of a well, Bishop’s encounter with a moose) produce a flash of insight into a bigger idea, which quickly evaporates.

Burt often writes persona poems, in which the writer assumes a different identity. In “Kendall Square in the Rain,” he writes

What we can’t say openly

we say in poetry

speaking about another as myself.

“Persona poems are great,” he wrote, “because you can pretend to be somebody else who does not feel the way you feel, or say things you do feel but don’t want attributed to you in your real life, or try out claims, expressions, ways of feeling that you aren’t even sure belong to you outside of poetry – and no one can know the difference.

“I use personae in that way all the time. A lot of them are women or girls, since I identify as transgender (I like being called Stephanie, presenting myself as female on occasion), but some of them are inanimate objects, like a stapler, or men, like the ancient Greek poet Callimachus.

“Also, persona poems let you enter another character’s world, and they let you describe it.”

Why poetry?

Poetry is embedded in the human experience. It’s the oldest form of literature, said Bill Gleed, the curator at the Frost Farm and a poet himself. Epic poems such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey tell the story of societies and heroes.

Aboriginal people in Australia have a poem that expresses 10,000 years of their history in an oral tradition that goes back to what they consider the beginning of time.

Poetry is also big enough, Gleed said, to include rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.

“Shakur’s song ‘Dear Mama’ is appropriate for any Mother’s Day and is real poetry,” he said.

However, there are those who claim they don’t like poetry. Even though it surrounds us in music, in celebrations, in ceremonies and in children’s rhymes, Gleed said that many people don’t realize that they know some poetry and like it.

They distance themselves from what they call “poetry”, he said, because they see it as inaccessible, believing that there’s some trick to understanding all that symbolism and all those metaphors. They’re worried they’re not going to get it.

It’s not all that complicated, though.

“Poetry in the broadest sense of the word,” Burt wrote, “is just language organized so that you’d want to reread or re-hear it, and organized so that you care how it sounds: We are language-using creatures, some of us depend on language, and so some of us – throughout history – have set a lot of store by how it sounds, and by what it can help us imagine.”

And, it plays an important role in our lives.

“Frost himself,” Burt wrote, “emphasized meter and rhyme, which help make pieces of language memorable.

“Poems can describe, or encode, or interpret, emotions and experiences and questions and answers that we want to remember – about love or God or sex or the absence of God or the shape of particular pine needles.”

Gleed mentioned the importance of poetry in a country’s culture.

“Sometimes I resent that when a catastrophe happens,” he said, “they don’t yell, ‘Send in the poets’. But after the catastrophe is over and we’re trying to make sense of it as a culture, they say ‘send in the poets’.”

The real tribute that a civilization pays to its poets, Gleed said, is that their words become the way we express ourselves to each other. They become our figures of speech.

“It’s astounding the number of phrases in everyday speech that originated with Shakespeare,” he said. “Frost is there, too. As Americans, we express ourselves, and we care about things, and we explain things to each other, often using the words of Robert Frost.”

Growing the Farm

Gleed and Robert Crawford, a trustee of the farm and also a poet, launched the Hyla Brook Reading Series and the writing group Hyla Brook Poets in 2009 to take the historic site to a new level.

“The farm just lends itself to poetry so well,” Gleed said. “Robert Frost is so essential to American literature, so central to the American voice. If you take yourself seriously as a poet, you should spend some time with Robert Frost.

“You see his poems in the architecture of the place, in the lay of the land. It’s part of the landscape of the farm. It’s a very inspiring place to be.”

Gleed said that it had been his dream to share the magic of the place with the people of New Hampshire.

“It just felt like it had to have a writing group,” Gleed said. “There needed to be creation of poetry on the property again.”

Crawford agreed, and the pair, with the approval of the trustees, got to work.

The Frost Farm Prize for metrical poetry was established in 2011. The winner receives $1,000 and an invitation to read at one of the series events.

The writing group, the reading series and the contest have fulfilled Gleed’s and Crawford’s goal of expanding the function of the farm.

“It’s really helped us to transform the farm,” Gleed said. “It’s made the Robert Frost Farm a hub of poetry, certainly in New England, and even for the United States and internationally. The farm attracts people from all over the world.”

“There are no finer poets in the world than the poets who come and read for us,” Gleed said. “It’s the draw of the Frost Farm.”

This season’s series of nationally acclaimed poets also features appearances by Joshua Mehigan (July 10), Kim Bridgford (August 14) and Sydney Lea (September 11).

The series is held at the Frost Farm located, at 122 Rockingham Road (Route 28), 1¾ miles south of the traffic circle in Derry.

Admission is free and open to the public. An open mic follows the readings and all audience members are invited to share their work. For information, call 432-3091.

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