More Great Thoughts: Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference

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(Host) As VPR continues to explore Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Nils Daulaire reflects on the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and how it changed the way we learn to write.

(Daulaire) There are no Vermonters in Heaven. It’s not because we’re wicked. No, according to 1890’s poet Ernest Fenwick Johnstone – a Vermonter himself – it’s because we’re naturally and unanimously good: all Vermonters pass through the Pearly Gates. But nice as Heaven is, we get homesick.

Johnstone’s imaginary angel explains:

We give them the best that the Kingdom provides,
They have everything here that they want;
But not a Vermonter in Heaven abides,
A very short time period here he resides,
Then hikes his way back to Vermont.

Johnstone certainly doesn’t qualify as a great poet – he always kept his day job as an itinerant tooth-puller. And he may have exceeded his poetic license: I’ve come to learn that not all Vermonters are saints, and some may never even see the Pearly Gates.

But Johnstone was clearly right about one thing: Vermont is close to Heaven – for poets.

That’s because one of the greatest of American poets, Robert Frost, loved the Green Mountain setting of Middlebury College so much that he helped found the nation’s first writers’ conference: the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which has been bringing famous and aspiring writers together every summer since 1926.

The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference was a success from the start – and started trends in writing and teaching that have shaped both the American literary scene and our educational system.

Before Bread Loaf, there was no “creative writing” movement in American schools, and not a single collegiate creative writing department. Today, more than 200 writers’ conferences and almost 400 college or university creative writing programs represent one of the fastest-growing sectors of higher and continuing education.

And Vermont is still setting the pace in literary education: the hottest national trend in graduate level teaching – “low-residency” programs for poets and writers with day jobs and families, even for tooth-pullers – got its start at Plainfield’s Goddard College.

Bread Loaf helped start a collegiate business boom, but the growth in creative writing programs has been still more important for the enrichment of countless millions of Americans’ lives. It’s almost impossible to name a contemporary state or national poet laureate whose career hasn’t been nurtured by Bread Loaf and the hundreds of programs it inspired. Conferences and writing programs have sparked thousands of books that Americans have taken to heart – books that have helped shape our national sense of self, from John Irving’s The World According to Garp to Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.

It’s no longer true that Vermonters are laggards from the past century, as Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote during the Great Depression. Our state is still heavenly to behold, but we’re not immune to disposable consumer culture and information overload, box stores and chattering hot-heads.

But poets and writers still gather every August in Middlebury, where the Bread Loaf Conference carries on in the heart of Vermont, helping America use words in ways meant to add depth and texture to all our lives, and to tell stories heavenly enough to last many lifetimes.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Dr. Nils Daulaire is president of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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