Poet preserves New England formalism

Last modified: 8/9/2012 12:00:00 AM

The poems contained in Robert Crawford's book, The Empty Chair, are a meticulously crafted distillation of life's experiences, many of which center on family and relationships. Many of these poems are set in the New England landscape where Crawford, a resident of Chester, has spent most of his adult life.

But while he readily admits that ''sometimes a stone wall is just a stone wall,'' Crawford is most interested in New England as a metaphor; the fact that we have four seasons gives us rich poetic fodder for reflections on death and rebirth, for example. Every word on the pages of his book reflects a long gestation period in which the writer has thought hard about the most effective and aesthetically complete way in which to deliver his ideas.

Crawford's work is sometimes compared to that of Robert Frost with whom he shares a deep feeling of kinship, a way of taking in the world - so it is only fitting that his Hyla Brook poetry group has found a home at the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, where Crawford is a trustee. While Frost may have only lived there for 10 years, they were 10 of his most prolific.

A formal poet

A recipient of the prestigious Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, Crawford is first and foremost a formal poet - words like sonnet, iambic pentameter, tetrameter, villanelle and rhyming couplet come readily to his lips. However, this is not to say that these poems are inaccessible or obtuse; any discussion with Crawford emphasizes that poetry is very much a form of communication.

In fact, many of the emotions expressed in these poems are intimately familiar: ''I'm Fine,'' relates an all-too-common internal dialogue about being anything but fine. Some of the most effective works of art, be they poems, paintings or songs, evoke this ''it-was-on-tip-of-my-tongue'' or ''on-the-tip-of-

my-paintbrush'' reaction. They forge an immediate emotional connection between the artist and the observer. And how many of us have been to that same ''Moving Sale'' in which we find ourselves creating a narrative behind the purging of family treasures. In this instance, the narrator's attempts at empathy are almost humorously misplaced: ''I felt each Christmas morning in the toys. / She simply stared right back, appraising me'' writes Crawford.

Several poems in this book take the form of sonnets, and lest that word take you back to traumatic memories of freshman English classes, be not affeared. Readers won't necessarily know or care what vehicles are used to deliver Crawford's images and ideas. However, all of these pieces take unexpected and freshly original turns in the poet's thought processes, and all of them resolve with rhyming couplets that deliver a punch, and on occasion, a punch line.

Ideas delivered in this way resonate long after you've closed the book.

''Sonnets have an internal logic that is really helpful in developing an emotional core to the poem,'' Crawford said.

Some of the most delightful moments derive from Crawford's subtle humor, often directed toward himself: among these are ''The Observer'' a wry, philosophical musing on physics, and ''Kitchen Remodeling'', an artfully bawdy exploration of distraction and attraction. Other pieces are raw and direct, as in ''Hard to Say'', which explores the complex relationship between love and memory, or ''Radio Silence'' about failures in communication. ''Fire'' or ''For My Youngest'' are simply unadorned love poems: ''It seems such a shame / to burn this wood/for anybody else but you.''

Passing on the craft

Like many successful writers, Crawford is part of an age-old continuum of artists who pass on their craft. He recently returned from a major writing conference in West Chester, Pa., where he gave a workshop on how to form a successful poetry group. In discussing his own Hyla Brook writing workshops, Crawford says that the best constructive criticism separates the poet from the narrator of the poem; poems need to stand and be understood on their own.

Crawford also advises writers to, in Frost's words, ''plow it under'' for a while when writing about new experiences. ''Direct reportage of experience in poetry is often less effectual,'' he said.

And while he may not offer this information up front, Crawford tutored Derry poet Kyle Potvin for seven years and helped launch her on a literary career that includes publication in journals such as Journal of the American Medical Association, the Yale Review and The Barefoot Muse among others. She also went on to help organize the Prickly Pear writing group for cancer survivors and caretakers.

Anyone who spends his or her life writing knows that the act of creating good literature depends upon alternating moments of solitude and reflection, as well as continual dialogues with other writers and readers. In this sense, The Empty Chair is a sort of confluence of waterways between the Powow River poets (based in Newburyport), and the Southern New Hampshire Hyla Brook poets, of which Crawford is a co-founder.

Sitting on a simple, wooden bench in the un-insulated, whitewashed Frost barn at a recent Hyla Brook poets reading, one had the sense that this modest 19th-century homestead (which goes largely unnoticed by many a daily commuter on Route 28), is fast becoming a stronghold in New England's literary life - due largely to Crawford's quiet but steady efforts.'


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