Poetry then and now

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton appreciates the work of Vermont folk poet Gordon Tallman.

(Slayton) Poetry today, with some notable exceptions, is regarded as an art form to be savored by college-educated elites: something difficult, hard to understand, and a bit precious. That’s very different from the way poetry was seen a century and more ago.

Throughout the 19th century, poetry was an art of everyday people. Poets like James Whitcomb Riley and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were emulated by thousands of backwoods versifiers, and often, instead of publishing their work, the grassroots poets of Vermont and elsewhere recited their work at family gatherings and public meetings.

Prize speaking contests in which a young person recited a poem from memory were held regularly in most rural Vermont towns not so long ago. Many very traditional Vermonters wrote poetry – a fact I know to be true because some of them were members of my own family. Subjects were as traditional as the people – hunting, maple sugaring, haying, family events, local tragedies, and rural life generally. The poems, recited aloud, were both entertainment and a commentary on the events of the day. And no Vermonters wrote better traditional verse than the Tallman brothers, Clifford and Gordon.

When Vermont Life Magazine and the Vermont Folklife Center awarded Gordon Tallman this year’s Vermont Heritage Award for Traditional Artist, it was also a recognition of the lifework of his late brother, Clifford, and the tradition of rural folk poetry generally. Gordon Tallman, who grew up on a Hyde Park farm doing chores and logging, is a living master of this folk art form. In a recent poem, Gordon Tallman describes an all-too-common contemporary scene – the auctioning off of the family farm. The elderly farming couple hide their tears, though they are “hurting inside.” And Tallman writes:

“They know it ain’t gonna be easy in that little apartment in town;
A way of life ended for them today, when that auctioneer’s gavel came down.”

Sentimental, yes, but accurate in its concern for the loss of a traditional Vermont way of life. And Tallman’s poetry often uses humor to make its point. Once, when a relatively new neighbor reacted with an outraged letter to the editor when she saw a deer hanging on Tallman’s property during deer season, Tallman responded with a gentle rejoinder in verse. His poem, “Of
Trees and Tolerance,” tells how he waters a favorite rock maple tree and, in
return, it gives him shelter and shade:

“Couldn’t find a better neighbor in this world anywhere,
For we respect each other and we mind our own affairs.
The way that neighbors used to, we get along just fine.
He lives his life the way he wants, and he lets me live mine.”

As the life of rural Vermont continues to change, Vermonters can be thankful for the work of folk poet Gordon Tallman, recipient of this year’s Vermont Heritage Award for Traditional Artist.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.

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