A Short History of Poetry in Woodstock, 1873—2008

(Published in the Woodstock Times, April 10, 2008)

By Michael Perkins

Part I

The first bard to sing or chant in the shadow of Overlook Mountain was probably a son of the Leni Lenape, the small, gentle people who had been visiting the Woodstock Valley for thousands of years before the arrival of the Dutch. This first poet may have offered his utterance as a form of praise. It would be nice to think so. But it is also possible to imagine that his motive was to ward off evil spirits, for life in Woodstock has never been an unmixed blessing for either poets or their audiences.

We can imagine that in the 18th and 19th centuries there were a few Sunday versifiers scribbling in the parlors and attics of Lake Hill, Shady, and Rock City Road, but we don’t know their names. We know, however, that by 1873 poetic afflatus had arisen like a cloud to Overlook’s broad brow. Sitting up there and looking down into the hamlet, a certain J.H. Hopper of Jersey City had christened his perch Poet’s Rock.

Gazing with casual curiosity from this spot on our native Parnassus, we can look back in time, and dream a bit.

In this dream of Woodstock, thee are two utopian art colonies and not a few communes where poets come to renew their poetic licenses.

Since Byrdcliffe was built in 1903, Woodstock has attracted artists and poets. Wallace Stevens showed up in 1915 to visit his wife Elsie, a summer resident of the colony. Because we know Stevens often composed while walking, we can imagine him pacing the broad porch of the Villetta while working out the rhythm of his early poem, “Lettres d’un Soldat.”

Another giant of American poetry, Hart Crane, was driven to Woodstock in 1923 by Mrs. Eugene O’Neill, and spent a memorable Thanksgiving with John Dos Passos and other friends on Plochmann Lane. In the few months he was here, he worked on “Emblems of Conduct,” was was to appear in his first book, White Buildings. (The English poet Richard LeGalliene was resident on Plochmann Lane the same year, but there is no record of the two poets meeting.)

The young Edna St. Vincent Millay came to Woodstock to stay at the Birdseye Cottages in the summer of 1920. Her first book, Renascence and Other Poems, had appeared three years earlier, when she was twenty-five, and made her famous.

When Hervey White, one of the founders of Byrdcliffe, broke away from that autocratically-run colony and and started his own on the Maverick he attracted a number of poets.

The most notable was probably Robert Duncan, author of The Opening of the Field, who arrived on the Maverick in 1938 to join a commune dedicated to the ideas of D.H. Lawrence and run by James P. Cooney, editor of The Phoenix. Duncan waxed enthusiastic about poesy while walking the shores of Ashokan “…my life has come round to dwell in the problematic, to seek those forms that allow for the most various feelings in one, so that a book is more than a poem, and a life-work is more than a book, yet they have no other instance than a word…” Duncan returned to his native California to become part of the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s, but his friend the Scottish poet Helen Adam was performing her bitter ballads in Woodstock at the Episcopal Church on Route 212 in the 1970s.

The history of poetry in Woodstock is recorded in small circulation literary magazines and remembered from readings at various cafes and gin mills.

Cooney’s quarterly, The Phoenix, was the most substantial of the magazines. Published from 1938 (when Henry Miller was its European editor, and D.H. Lawrence and Michael Fraenkel were contributors) until the 1980s, The Phoenix always ran a poem or two by the Maverick himself, Hervey White. In the 1920s, The Hue and Cry, edited by Frank Schoonmaker, published White, who had his own magazine, The Plowshare, “A Literary Periodical of One Man Exhibits.” (Among these was “American Poems” by the now forgotten Mary Ellis Peltz, and, of course, poems by White.)

Then there was 1924, a one-issue magazine responsible for publishing a poem Hart Crane wrote in Woodstock, “Interludiam”; Woodstock Gargoyles, which in 1947 printed a poem by Ohayo Mountain resident Eugene O’Neill Jr.; The Woodstock Seasoner, edited by Gary Irving in the 1970s, publishing Darcy Gottlieb, Frank Mele, and many others; and The Woodstock Poetry Review, which also appeared in the 1970s. These literary magazines and others enabled local poets to experience the salutary, chastening chill of seeing one’s midnight lucubrations in print. In more recent times, Prima Materia, edited and published by Brent and Wendy Robison, took up where The Phoenix left off.

And we mustn’t forget the book publishers: Peter Mayer’s Overlook Press, which issues volumes by nationally-known poets; Robert Wyatt’s Available Press, which published books by Antler and Janice King; Bushwhack Books; R. Mutt Press, which has issued chapbooks by Michael Perkins; and Sivastan, Shiv Mirabito’s Kathmandu-printed series of chapbooks. Heliotrope, edited by Susan Sindall, is well done.

(Michael Perkins is the author of Carpe Diem: New and Selected Poems and the co-author of Walking Woodstock: Journeys into the Wild Heart of America’s Most Famous Small Town.)

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