death of a poet laureate
Walter E. Butts, W. E. Butts, Wally. Old friend.
photo source, drunkenboat.com
New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate has passed with absolutely no fanfare. I can’t find an article in my google searching.
His Wikipedia has been updated, though no mention of how he passed.
In a way, this is fitting for a man who was very private while he publicly wrote from his deepest self.
When I first moved to Boston in the fall of 1989, I sought out poetry readings and found him sitting at a corner table upstairs at Green Street Grille/Charlie’s Tap in the Stone Soup Poets run by Jack Powers. Wally was among the first and most influential people I met there. Later, two other poets who also became big in my life joined him, and I eventually dubbed them The Triumverate. They helped me find my poetic voice, whittled it down for me, and made me laugh a lot in my early days in Boston as a poet. They were Peter Kidd and Bill Kemmett. I will always remember them affectionately, but mostly it was Wally.
Wally treated me like his daughter, and talked a lot about his love for his daughter with me, as she and I were about the same age. I got the feeling their relationship, at times, was estranged, but after a visit with her, his whole spirit would be lit up and his distinctive laughter would burst out of him like a bull honking during mating or an old crow signaling others of a roadside kill. Tears streamed out from behind his thick glasses when he laughed. Peter and Bill, along with Dick Martin and James de Crescentis and occasionally Vincent Ferrini or some another visiting poet would join them, and I was mesmerized. I spent more time at that table in the back even when Stone Soup moved to TT the Bear’s, with a bunch of middle aged and a couple of old men, than I did listening to the poets on stage. Though we did listen. They respected the younger poets, and enjoyed their progress. I just happened to bask in their experience and turn of words, and occasionally felt I could keep up with them, but probably mostly entertained them as a hubris filled 23-29 year old. It was they, and again, mostly Wally, who said I had what it takes.
And then I had kids and largely disappeared from the scene, and Wally moved up to New Hampshire, joining Peter Kidd at the base of the White Mountains, and our lives took divergent paths. Wally became became Poet Laureate, and I started focusing more on my kids and fiction and wound up being a ball hit off a bat from the Boston area to southern Virginia.
Life is strange and unexpected, but I found Wally again about a year ago, and we emailed briefly, promising to keep in touch. He sounded happy. Happier than I ever knew him. We didn’t really keep in touch.
Wally was one of the most sensitive souls I ever knew. He shared it with the world in his poetry. He wasn’t a complainer, he wrote his depths like no one else, and everyone could relate. I will always consider him my poetic father. And Peter and Bill, to a degree, too. but mostly Wally.
I was lucky to know them when I did.
I knew he was going through some big stuff at the time, but didn’t know what. But it bore him down.
I leave this remembrance with one of his poems from the days I knew him, from his Chapbook on Igneus Press, The Required Dance:
How We Pray
We walk through a place
where men sleep in elegant cars,
and voices flutter onto the street
like magnolias across a lawn.
At the Baptist Church, women
sing “Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.”
My three year old child
wants to know what those people
are doing. I tell her this
is how we pray, and then the spirit has faith in its body.
That is why there is dancing.
A hymn demands we go to a mountain.
The gleam of sweating faces,
and rhythm of clapping hands
will take us there. Not poverty,
need for grace is what
we believe. My daughter,
rich from her mother’s country,
doesn’t notice her father lives poor,
but understands flowers rise
from the mouths of the forgotten.
A dear old friend emailed this to me on April 8: