New Hampshire and Vermont are known locally as “The Twin States,” collectively forming a quasi rectangle with the Connecticut River cutting diagonally across the middle, like an N. Alas, it’s an N that stands for “Not in Anyway Alike.” New Hampshire residents consider Vermont to be a socialist republic filled with hippie tourists from New York, and Vermonters view their New Hampshire neighbors as libertarian gun nuts with a Masshole tourist problem. Both states are territorial over their celebrities, their ski revenue and basically everything else.
Still, both states are proud of the same Yankee heritage and tradition, which is why Robert Frost and Donald Hall, two iconic New England poets, can have deep roots in New Hampshire but be fêted in Vermont, at Woodstock’s recent Bookstock Literary Festival. New Hampshire might claim both of these artists, but it’s not as if these men have kept entirely to the east of the Connecticut River or were even born there: Frost, who was born in San Francisco, was Vermont’s poet laureate and a longtime teacher at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School; Donald Hall, born in Connecticut, was U.S. poet laureate in 2006 and received a National Medal of Arts in 2010, making him not just a New Hampshire treasure, but a national one.
As an occasional New Hampshire resident, I was interested to see if and how both men embodied aspects New Hampshire and Vermont, or if they found themselves featured in Bookstock because stone walls and deep woods are universal — at least in that neck of the woods.
The Robert Frost Bookstock event was especially intriguing because his work was featured in a nature walk, with poems posted in points in Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park, even though his original farm, in Derry, New Hampshire, is a state park and the farm he kept near Middlebury is also a landmark. In other words, I wanted to see how Robert Frost was represented in a state he wasn’t from and in a place he’d probably never been.
The Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park, which includes vast lands, a mansion and a working dairy farm, was donated by the Rockefeller family to the Parks Service in 1992. The tour was created by former ranger Julia Lynam, and it uses the natural beauty of the park as general, all-purpose New England settings for a series of Frost’s poems — those both lesser-known (“After Apple Picking”) and part of American pop culture (“The Road Not Taken”). It’s a nice effect, especially as the tour began with “The Cow in Apple Time,” which is about a dairy cow getting drunk on fermented apples, and the poem itself was placed next to a pasture of dairy cows. It was easy to imagine them covered in apple pulp and drool, as the poem describes (although not necessarily pleasant to do so).
Frost’s most uniquely New Hampshire trait wasn’t revealed in his descriptions of the forests or farms which cover the entire region, but in his personality, which was notoriously bristly. Frost’s own epitaph (which is taken from his poem, “The Lesson for Today”) is “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” He did not get along well with others, and while that kind of attitude might seem negative in Vermont, a state where Tevas have never fully gone out of style, it’s fully embraced in the land of “Live Free or Die.”
As the tour went past a bend on the park’s dirt road in the woods, the poem “A Time to Talk” made Frost’s sourness clear, with its description of having to be polite and talk to a neighbor even though he’s annoyed at having to leave his work and do so. Under an apple tree, we read “After Apple Picking,” which is less about the beauty of his orchard than how much he hates picking apples. The fruit gives him nightmares, and he declares, “For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” He loves the land in the manner of a Vermonter, but his unwillingness to romanticize his life on the farm is what keeps him from going totally native, no matter how many summers he spent teaching there.
Donald Hall, on the other hand, is as romantic as Frost is not. He’s written several books about both his life with his late wife, poet Jane Kenyon, and his struggle to overcome the grief caused by her death in 1995. He’s also written extensively and lovingly about his farm near Eagle Pond in Wilmot Flat, New Hampshire, which he inherited from his grandparents and adored spending summers at as a child. During his reading at Bookstock, he came across as a warm and charming yet classic New Hampshire eccentric, like the crazy old man all the kids are afraid of until he opens his mouth.
Hall read one of his most romantic poems, “Gold,” and it was a testament to how genuine Hall is that he can read such a sexual poem at 85 without sounding creepy. It’s the last stanza that makes it so beautiful and a frequent selection at local weddings (at least among the liberal arts set):
“We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.”
At Bookstock, Hall explained that he felt a good love poem couldn’t be without darkness and had worried that this poem was too light until he realized, “I kill [the lovers] at the end. That made it OK.”
He also read “Names of Horses,” which details the life of an average horse to a horse on his grandfather’s farm, describing how “Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill / of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass,” and goes on to describe their deaths at the end of a shotgun. The last line is a list of the horses’ names. It’s a poem so simple and powerful that the first audience member to speak during the Q&A was a self-proclaimed horse lover who just wanted to thank him, through tears.
It’s hard to articulate what makes Hall easier to claim for New Hampshire than Vermont. In part, it has to do with the fact that he’s written three books about Eagle Pond, where he lives and where the water was so polluted with rust that, for many years, your bathing suit would turn orange after a few swims. Hall is the other side of the “Live Free or Die” coin, the side where people take pride in living in a state where, yes, the winters are brutal and the most natural crop is large rocks and the swimming hole is full of rust, but they’re our winters and rocks and rusty ponds, dammit.
Maybe that’s a universal Yankee thing, but if Hall is right and a good poem needs a balance, then he provides the light to balance Frost’s darkness and to create New Hampshire’s poetic essence.
Sarah Bennett has written for various publications (Women’s Wear Daily, Glamour UK, YM), websites (Vulture, About) and sketch comedy teams at the UCB Theatre. She’s the founder/former president of Black Top Street Hockey in Tompkins Square Park, an on-foot hockey league whose credo is “Don’t be a Dick.” Sarah has a small dog named Avon Barksdale and lives in both the East Village and Western New Hampshire.