Often thought and sometimes well-expressed about Maine’s literary history, is the peculiar fact that three of probably the four most popular American poets of all time were Mainers: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), was born and raised in Portland and graduated from Bowdoin College; Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), three-time Pulitzer prize winner, was born in Alna and lived much of his life in Gardiner; and Edna St.-Vincent Millay (1892-1950), a Rockland native, made her name with the poem “Renascence” in 1912 and skyrocketed from there into all kinds of poetic shenanigans, including a Pulitzer prize and what are probably the most graceful sonnets ever written by an American.
This is old news, but, as I say, sort of peculiar for the most out-of-the-way state that is not Hawaii or Alaska. The fourth of those top four is Robert Frost, whose nearest residence was in New Hampshire. Whatever the literary momentum was that gave us Longfellow, Robinson and Millay (not to mention R.P. Tristram Coffin, Louise Bogan, Ruth Moore, on and on) flowed on past World War II, when (as noted here before) a slow-motion explosion of creative arts and writing was breaking out.
“Who’s alive now that we’re supposed to be reading?” we asked long ago in college, and received mostly exasperating answers. Who are the Longfellows, Robinsons or Millays of our time?
Well, all the possible replies may be even more unsatisfactory now than they were 40 years ago, for a lot of reasons. The sheer number of competent poets, for one thing, which no single person has a complete handle on, even in small-population Maine. Then there is the enclave factor, which is the tendency for friends to bill friends as great writers. And there is the ever-present problem of what even makes a “good” poem? Is it the heartfeltness of expression? Is it the moral or political viewpoints expressed (in Longfellow’s time, Poe referred to this as “the didactic”)? Is it the volume at which the words are screamed during slam events?
To me it’s more mysterious than any of these things, and while I don’t have room to mystify you with what I mean by that, I can offer a few names of Maine poets writing now who channel it.
First, Maine’s poets laureate have been remarkably well-chosen, considering how bureaucracies usually function. All four handle the language at world-class levels: Wesley McNair, of Mercer (2011-present); Betsy Sholl, of Portland (2006-10); Baron Wormser (2000-05, now lives in Vermont); and Kate Barnes (1996-99, died in 2013). They’re all well worth looking into.
Let me mention some poets whose new works I actively await, like they’re magnets.
Patricia Ranzoni, of Bucksport, is one of the most powerful poetic voices from the “real Maine” (whatever that means) of our time. Her recent book, “Bedding Vows: Love Poems from Outback Maine,” contains quintessential examples of her deeply layered, deeply felt sense that individual, family, community and ancestral lives converge not just in fantasy, but right along the riverfront or in the kitchen — “What did we know of Rosemary over on the Town Farm Road / where none had grown before.” Her 2000 book “Settling” is a compendium of personal and coastal history that is frankly beautiful and uncomfortable — especially for those of us who recognize the native emotional territory.
Hancock County might harbor more skilled, active poets by population density than any other, and Thomas Moore, who spent a good many years there in Brooksville (but recently moved to Belfast), quietly crafts gorgeous, razor-sharp poems about his surroundings, travels and past that convey unusually forceful emotional complexes with humor and something far outranging mere pathos. “The lights are on in the kitchens / of the lobstermen, and the radio / cautions batten down.” His two books are “Chet Sawing” and “The Bolt-Cutters.”
Out of Camden operates Dave Morrison, rock and roll star turned poet, whose mostly short, direct lines tell well-sketched stories with vivid characters, and in other modes plow head-first into the most fundamental feelings of all: “I’ve never seen a / night sky like / this one — it is / a child’s sky,” begins “Bright White Stars,” one of a number of poems he recently converted into recordings with backing music. His lines channel the earth energies of rock and roll.
Also in Camden is Kristen Lindquist, a naturalist by profession, and unique among academically trained poets for the naturalness of her observations. Her one book is “Transportation.” John Holt Willey, of Waterville, sprang onto my radar recently with poems emerging from deep in the Maine vocal chords. Robert Chute, of Poland, is a long-practiced, hyper-observant poet of the western Maine woods. In Portland, Kenneth Rosen has produced ironic, lusciously musical lines throughout a long academic career. Jim Bishop, of Bangor, who leaks his writings only sparingly nowadays, captured in his early poems facets of the same Maine as Ranzoni’s.
There are poets recently passed who could be mentioned in copious detail: H.R. Coursen, of Brunswick; Leo Connellan, Rockland native; Peter Kilgore, of Portland; Constance Hunting, of Orono; Burton Hatlen, of Orono; Kenneth Frost, of Wilton.
What’s the point of naming these names, and leaving out literally dozens more that should be included but can’t because of the size of this newsprint page – or because I haven’t run across them yet? Twofold, at least: to keep Maine’s distinguished literary tradition on our tongues, and to point readers, maybe our summer visitors, in directions they might not otherwise know to follow. A few words of description for those “for whom the word is the making of the world,”as Wallace Stevens — a visitor to Pemaquid — wrote.
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].