Celeste Huck swallowed Thai chicken soup straight from its container as she walked down State Street in Montpellier. Although Huck ate her lunch from Wilaiwan’s Kitchen on the run, she stopped on her way home from work to read poems displayed in the Botanica Florals window.
The poetry is part of PoemCity, Montpelier’s annual spring initiative in which hundreds of poems are displayed throughout the city. Huck said she always makes time to read poetry on display in her hometown during April, National Poetry Month.
“It slows me down and gives me a little window to reflect on the beauty of the world,” Huck, 31, said. “The poems also remind me that we are a community.”
This is the 13th year of PoemCity, hosted by the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. The event includes poetry readings and other programs throughout the month. But what characterizes it are dozens of poems written by Vermonters, which line the city.
Appearing in storefronts among menus, advertisements and products, the poems are easy to spot because each is printed on an 8-by-17 sheet of paper with a blue letterhead reading “PoemCity”. This year, 205 poems are displayed around Montpellier; some are written by schoolchildren, others by published poets.
“It’s a good thing,” said Burlington poet Greg Delanty. “I like to have poems where people will see them.”
Her poem “Formicidae” is in the window of AroMed Essentials, a CBD and aromatherapy shop on State Street.
“It’s wonderful to me, and it’s wonderful that poetry is out there and part of the community,” Delanty said, adding that Poetry Month, like Earth Day, is something that it celebrates all year round.
Some poems are located at outlying sites such as Hunger Mountain Co-op, Hubbard Park, and the Berlin Mall. But viewers can find most of them in the buildings on State and Main Streets while strolling through town — from Chill to the Skinny Pancake, from Walgreens to the Library — a sort of scavenger hunt for worms. The poems are accessible to strollers, shoppers, workers, soup slurpers and “street gazers,” as Tanner Cameron calls people who stop to read the poetry on the windows of the AT&T store where he works.
Cameron, 22, from Riverton, said he and a colleague read the poems during their lunch break before displaying them in the Main Street store. He was delighted to find that “Interludes” by East Calais’ Mark Brown was “really relatable”. The poem makes Cameron think of winter on his porch, with his mittens and a mug of coffee to keep him warm.
“I think they’re cool,” Cameron said of the poems. “It gets people’s minds going. It gets heads ringing, as Dr. Dre would have said.”
Coming from someone who works in a phone shop, Cameron’s use of “ringin'” suggests a poetic understanding of the event.
PoemCity began in 2010 and was conceived and curated by Rachel Senechal, who has since retired from the library. East Montpelier resident Michelle Singer worked with Senechal on the project for several years and now oversees it as Kellogg-Hubbard’s adult programming coordinator.
Her poem “I Love Rivers Best of All” is at Artisans Hand on Main Street. “I started as a participant,” she said. “And a very grateful one.”
The singer attempts to match the poem to the location. For example, a poem by Roberta Harold from Montpellier called “The Octopus’s Garden”, which echoes the name of a Beatles song, can be found in the window of Buch Spieler Records on Langdon Street. Mr Fraser’s fast and clear ‘new watch’ is displayed at Katie’s Jewels on State Street. You can read the Montpellier’s poem in less time than it takes for a second hand to complete its course around a watch dial. (And probably faster than you just read the previous sentence.)
In the window of Bohemian Bakery at the corner of State and Main streets is a pair of poems that will make you want to pop in for a snack. Give a hand to Sarah Rejoice Brown of Essex Junction, who wrote “Java Jargon”, and Alicia Hingston of Danville, who contributed “Commonsensical Cupcakes”, for inspiring a coffee and cake break.
Inside the bakery, on a pair of blackboards near the door, its slogan is written in English and French: “All the butter / All the sugar / All the caffeine / All the time; Tout le beurre / All the sugar / All the caffeine / All the time.”
Words in both languages contain poetic traits in their rhythm and repetition. This is one of the benefits of walking around Montpelier reading poetry: you notice hints of poetry in other writings.
Poetry and walking go hand in hand, according to Jay Parini, poet and professor of English and creative writing at Middlebury College.
“The pace of walking creates rhythm in the head,” Parini wrote in an email. For a poet, he continues, “this rhythm becomes a particular poem”.
A notable poet-walker was Robert Frost, Vermont’s first Poet Laureate. Parini, author of a biography of Frost, wrote in his email that after Frost gave Middlebury a reading, he asked a female student if she would like to go for a walk.
“How could you say no to that?” Parini wrote. “But she didn’t expect him to walk, with her, to Bridport and back – maybe an eight hour walk!”
An hour or two of walking — depending on the speed of foot and spirit — is enough to enjoy a poetic stroll in Montpellier. On your travels, be sure to stop by the liquor store to read “Lamentation of Another Evening Wasted” by Ralph Culver, a poet who lives in South Burlington.
You might want to go “to the banks of the Yangtze at the dawn of revival” after reading Culver’s poem. But you can make do with a bar stool at the Three Penny Taproom, a few doors down from Yankee Spirits and the site of Two Poems and 24 Taps.
Montpelier is the part-time home of Louise Glück, who in 2020 won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She’s a former Vermont Poet Laureate, a title she held in the 1990s, before PoemCity, when Glück lived in Plainfield.
Speaking by phone from California, Glück said she hadn’t seen PoemCity but thought it was “a nice idea”. It has no use for National Poetry Month.
“I don’t like promotions. I don’t like PR. I don’t like branding,” Glück said.
“I rather lament the whole poetry month thing,” she said. “I don’t like to see poetry advertised. I think it’s unworthy. Poetry has survived many periods of desecration and illiteracy. And I think it will survive this one.”
But Glück uses a double standard when it comes to Montpellier.
“I love Montpellier,” she said. “So whatever he wants to do is fine with me.”