At the height of summer, as you turn into the walled driveway of the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, trees obscure the Colonial Revival home that now houses the museum. Completed in 1901, this building was part of a working family farm designed by Theodate Pope Riddle, who led a colorful life as an architect, salon hostess, and survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania.
Carved into a depression of earth in front of the house sits the Sunken Garden, where, each summer for the past two decades, thousands of people (including me) have come out on Wednesday evenings to listen to poetry. The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival has hosted some of the great poets of the past 20 years, from Grace Paley and Eamon Grennan to Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds. While most people wouldn’t have predicted that such a festival would be so popular, one of the people unfazed by its longevity and success is the festival’s co-founder and former director, Rennie McQuilkin.
“Hugh Ogden read the first night [in 1992] and 800 people showed up, and that didn’t surprise me. I think it surprised everybody else,” McQuilkin says, laughing.
With a gazebo at the center of the garden, the space might seem less than ideal as a theater for poetry and music. And yet it works beautifully, precisely because it is not an auditorium with perfect acoustics but a natural setting. A bird nest sits in a tree next to the gazebo; birds and squirrels and bats and bugs are this theater’s most regular guests. In the field behind the garden, which was designed in 1920 by landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, a cluster of Shetland sheep graze. When Mark Doty read for the second time at the festival, in 2011, he observed that the root meaning of “paradise” is “sunken garden,” making Galway Kinnell’s comment that the festival was a “little paradise for poetry” all the more apt.
“A poet who has as much of the natural world in his poems as I do feels rather happy standing out on the grass somewhere with stone walls wandering around him,” 91-year-old Richard Wilbur has said of the festival. “I don’t insist on the plane overhead,” he joked, “but I can rise above it.”
Like any sanctuary, the garden sits apart from the world, and yet you’re never more a part of the world than when you’re in the sun or under the stars, bitten by mosquitoes and distracted by the bleating of sheep or the roar of a passing aircraft. “I think the garden brings [poetry] closer to being a daily necessary art form,” says McQuilkin, “so that we won’t die miserably for lack of it, as Carlos Williams says, quite as much as we used to.”
The outdoor setting has led to a few happy accidents, as when Marilyn Nelson read in 1992. As McQuilkin relates in his introduction to the newly released anthology Sunken Garden Poetry:
She was reading “Star-Fix,” in which her father, a Tuskegee airman and the navigator in a Flying Fortress, is guiding the bomber back to base after a dangerous mission, “shooting the stars” with an octant. As Marilyn’s words evoked that moment in the life of her long-dead father, we all heard the deep drone of a large, prop-driven, no doubt military aircraft in the distance. It may have been a transport on its way to Bradley International, but we knew better.
The Sunken Garden Festival has long emphasized poetry’s value as a performance art and does not favor any particular school. McQuilkin mentions that this wasn’t always the case; a reading by James Merrill in 1993, in one of his last appearances before his death, helped convince McQuilkin to change his approach.
“Like Eliot, another intellectual poet of the last century in this country, [Merrill] was very much a man of the theater. He loved performance and brought his poems fully alive, I think, when he performed them,” McQuilkin says. “They’re alive enough on the page, but not always as idiosyncratic or whimsical or funny or terribly sad. I wasn’t interested in having him read in the garden because I didn’t really cotton to his poetry. I found it difficult, esoteric, overly intellectual. And then when he read it, I was just blown away.”
Shortly before he read at the festival’s opening weekend this year on June 2, Richard Wilbur spoke to me about the link between poetry and performance. “I think that poetry began with things like the charm, the riddle, the song, with things that were said or recited aloud,” Wilbur said. “The poetry that I like best is poetry that challenges you to figure out how it should be said aloud most successfully. If poetry doesn’t seem to ask to be done aloud, then I think it’s an inferior grade of poetry we’re talking about.”
The festival’s current artistic director, Mimi Madden, jokes that “part of our mission is to undo what you learned in the 10th grade.” The festival’s reach extends far beyond its summer readings: it also organizes poetry contests, broadcasts its readings on public radio, hosts an online journal, and sponsors events throughout the year, including workshops, readings, and poetry parties. It also just compiled the aforementioned anthology, published by Wesleyan University Press, which includes work by the poets who have read at the garden over the past two decades.
Those poets are diverse—men and women of many ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Some are known for their humor, others for their politics. They document working life, the AIDS epidemic, and the Vietnam War. As a group, they capture less the poetry world of the last two decades than recent American culture at large.
The 20th anniversary of the festival, which concludes on August 8, marks the debut of some poets who have never before read at the festival, such as B. Yung, Minton Sparks, Toi Derricotte, Christian Wiman, and Dana Gioia.
It also involves the return of others. Richard Wilbur read at the festival for the third time, as will Mark Doty. Tony Hoagland, whose first appearance last year was cut short because of rain, will both give a reading and lead a workshop on how to teach poetry to children. Natasha Trethewey was just a few years out of graduate school and had yet to publish a book when she first read in the garden in 1998; she returned this year as a Pulitzer Prize winner and the nation's current poet laureate.
Another returning poet is Donald Hall. His first reading at the garden marked my first visit to the festival. It was in 1995, less than a year after the death of Hall’s wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and his words moved me in a way that I didn’t know poetry could.
In his recent book, Unpacking the Boxes, Hall wrote: “One’s life begins on so many occasions, constructing itself out of accident derived from coincidence compounded by character.” Though I did not realize it at the time, part of my life began the evening I first set foot in the Sunken Garden, and I have carried a piece of that garden with me ever since.
My memories of the festival are fragmented. I remember individual poems, like Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” or Dick Allen’s “Ode to the Cold War,” and setting up folding chairs and carrying the podium down the steps into the garden on the morning of an event. I remember Stanley Kunitz’s recollection of being slapped by his mother and Carolyn Forché’s vision of Walter Benjamin when reading from her book, The Angel of History. I remember standing in the rain directing traffic and Billy Collins causing over a thousand people to laugh hysterically. I remember strikes of lightning and bursts of thunder and helping to dry things off after a sudden rain shower.
Standing in the garden waiting for Richard Wilbur to read during the opening weekend this year, I saw many people I’ve come to know over years of attending the festival. I spoke with Rennie McQuilkin, and he mentioned a bird he had seen the night before whose song he couldn’t place. We all sat in the grass, defying the gray storm clouds, and after the introductions we listened as Wilbur—still strong and vigorous at 91 in a way we all hope to be—spoke of blackberries and the alphabet, Candide and the countryside, with such life that even the sheep bleated encouragement. A light rain began to fall; none of us moved.