Burt Porter – “America’s best bard”

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by Chris Braithwaite

GREENSBORO — There was a small void in the Northeast Kingdom’s Christmas tradition this season.  The 50 or so people who have come to look forward to their card from Burt Porter didn’t get one. 

Mr. Porter thinks he’s been sending his greeting cards, inscribed with an original poem, for 20 or 30 years. 

But this Christmas he was confined to a bed at the Greensboro Nursing Home.  And that has finally put a stop to the flow of poetry from the pen of the man Howard Mosher called “America’s best, and perhaps last, bard.”

A nursing home bed, Mr. Porter said last week, “isn’t an inspiring environment.”

Mr. Porter isn’t a well man.  “I got really sick,” he explained.  “It made me really weak.  When I got over the sickness, I was still really weak.” 

He’s too weak to go home to the Glover farmhouse he moved to in 1966, where he’d much prefer to be. 

His prognosis?  “I’m either going to walk out of here or be carried out of here.  I’m waiting to see which.”

At the moment, Mr. Porter’s life is gravely circumscribed.  After a lifetime spent observing birds and animals in the woods, and celebrating them in scores of poems, Mr. Porter can only watch the chickadees that come to the feeder that his companion, the poet Lindsay Knowlton, hung just outside his window. 

And the master of so many musical instruments, chiefly banjo and fiddle, is reduced to a pair of harmonicas on his bedside table. 

They speak to a life that has come full cycle.  “When I was a little kid,” he recalled in a January 7 interview, “I started playing the harmonica and mandolin.  Then I played a little piano.  I bought my first banjo at an auction for $7 when I was 19, and learned to play it.”

It would be hard to spend many years in the Kingdom without catching a Burt Porter performance.  He’s played at family reunions, called square dances, been a regular at the Glover talent shows and at the Bread and Puppet Theatre, which moved in next door to him in 1975.  He’s played at every fair in Vermont and a couple in New Hampshire.  He was part of the Bicentennial Bandwagon that toured Vermont’s towns in 1976.

“I was just being a comedian with a fiddle,” he says of his Bicentennial performances.  “That was fun.”

Then there was what he recalls as “The Big Deal,” playing at President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural in Washington, D.C.

Sometimes Mr. Porter sang to his own accompaniment, and many of the songs were his own.  He figures he’s written about 40 of them. 

With only one or two exceptions — “a poem that turned out to be a song” — Mr. Porter said, his songs are his songs, his poems his poems.

The latter can be found in slender books:  Rhymes of the Magical World in 1994, The White Crow’s Tongue in 2008, A Flock of Words in 2011.

But his body of work is most accessible in Rhymes from the North Country; New and Collected Poems, published in 2016.  It is a rich and remarkably varied collection.

Because he has written so much about his observations of nature, often in rhyming couplets, Mr. Porter’s work is often compared to that of Robert Frost.  Mr. Porter offers a straightforward explanation:

“He and I were often dealing with the same subject matter, life in Vermont.”

Here’s a sample, from “Three Birds”:

Great Blue Heron

He seems to swim through easy air;

His wings flap slow, a steady pair

Of fins that float him in the dusk

Above the swampland sedge and brush.

From some far, distant time he seems —

A time we remember from old dreams —

And when he’s gone behind the hill,

The marsh is empty, calm, and still.

“Where I grew up, right on the Connecticut River, was beautiful.  It was like a childhood dream to live there,” Mr. Porter said.  His home was in Chester, Connecticut, about half a mile from the river, a dozen miles north of Long Island Sound.  He had a rowboat, and spent a lot of his time on the river.

“When I was a kid I was always a loner.  I never liked team sports, didn’t like school.  I liked hunting and fishing, being out in the woods, observing animals and birds without necessarily shooting them. 

“I learned about birds at an early age, knew the names of most common birds by the time I was six or eight.”

Then came the “big highway” and the development it encouraged.  His childhood dream was destroyed. 

“I couldn’t stand it, so I came up here, where things weren’t being destroyed — or at least being destroyed much more slowly — to escape all that awfulness.”

But the collection wanders off in some wonderful directions.  There are poems — “Zeus”; “Odysseus at Ninety Remembers the Princess Nausicaa”; “Lear’s Fool” — which reflect Mr. Porter’s career as an English teacher at Lyndon Institute, where he retired as head of the department. 

There are Celtic myths retold, like the wonderful “The Selchie,” which Mr. Porter thinks came from the Aaron Islands.  This connection comes through his mother, who was raised by a Scotland-born grandmother, and was able to school the young poet on the works of Robbie Burns.  It’s about a man who interferes with two seals who shed their skins on the beach under the full moon to share a moment of very human passion:

While the selchies lay together on the sand

And their soft cries were on the wind,

Stealthily he then crept forth

And stole away her soft sealskin.

There’s a witty retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, from the points of view of Jack, his mother, the sly old man who swaps a handful of beans for Jack’s cow, and the giant’s wife.  Jack comes out ahead in Mr. Porter’s version, but for rather different reasons.

Since November of 2016 this writer has struggled to find the words that might express his dismay at the mood that descended upon so many of his friends after the election.  Perhaps my greatest surprise in reading Mr. Porter’s collected works was the discovery that this man, who wasted few of his precious words on politics, got it exactly right in the poem “The Best and the Worst.”

It begins with a famous quote from an Irishman:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are filled with passionate intensity.

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming.”

Yeats thought that he’d described our time,

When passion justifies each crime

While honest men stand idly by

And vacillate and wonder why

Others bomb and rape and kill

And none can stop them, or none will.

But far more dreadful is our age,

When all our best are filled with rage

That clouds each noble decent mind

And leaves all common sense behind;

In God’s or right’s or freedom’s name,

The best and worst now think the same.

“I’m obviously coming near to the end of my life, at 82,” Mr. Porter said.  “I look back with great satisfaction.  I had a lot of fun.  I played a lot of music.  I wrote a lot of poetry.  I had a terrific family.  What more could I ask?”

He’s not entirely pessimistic about his immediate future.  “I might live another five years.  But it doesn’t look good.”

When the interviewer brought up a poem that seemed to speak to the subject at hand, Mr. Porter recited some of it from his remarkable memory.  Here’s the last stanza of “Arrivals and Departures.”

And as we squall upon our birth

When we arrive upon this earth,

So may we learn the gentle art

To make no fuss when we depart.

The interviewer closed his notebook.  “I’ve run out of questions,” he said.

“That’s too bad,” said Mr. Porter.  “I’ve still got a lot of answers.” 

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