An Excerpt from

ON RECEIVING AN HONORARY DOCTOR OF HUMANE LETTERS FROM

NEW ENGLAND COLLEGE

Henniker, New Hampshire

27 January 2009

by

David Budbill

I

I never thought I’d be in a situation like this, not to mention seen in public in a get-up like this. I never thought I’d be a doctor of anything, except maybe Dr. of Nothing, of Emptiness.

 

II

I write poems and plays, occasionally a novel, and on a regular basis essays also, and I perform my work with jazz musicians. I also raise a year’s supply of vegetables and cut a year’s supply of firewood every year. I live in the mountains of northern Vermont as far away from academia and institutions as I can get. Therefore this honor is kind of embarrassing. It just doesn’t sound like me. On the other hand New England College and I have a history together. We go back almost 30 years. I feel connected to this place.

 

I posted this event on the calendar on my website awhile back and a friend in Iowa saw it there and emailed me saying that it gave him “great hope” that there are still some academic institutions out there in the world that think someone who writes poems and reads books, cuts wood and gardens, leads a quiet life of contemplation far away from any academic institution is worthy of an honor like this one. What my friend in Iowa said touched me. I agree with him. It is an honor, especially because it was bestowed on such an unlikely character as meself.

 

III

I have a checkered history with academic institutions. Being the egalitarian that I am, I’ve made it a point to get every grade offered, from the highest to the lowest, at every school I’ve ever attended. And since then, I’ve spent my life trying to stay away from academic institutions. Therefore, all the greater wonder that I’m standing here this morning.

 

I’m a writer but I have always been somewhat embarrassed about being a writer, an artist. I don’t like the elite and elitist air that so often casts itself over artists and the arts. It is obvious that many people involve themselves with the arts in order to distinguish themselves from the common people out of which I come and with whom I still fiercely identify. I’m interested in the invisible people, the ordinary and downtrodden, the put-upon and forgotten.

 

I hate pretense. I want to make art that the common people can understand, use, find meaningful and enjoy. Grace Paley once said to me after looking at a hand written note I’d sent her, “We both write big, David. We want to be understood.”

 

All this may explain why my writing is so plain and simple and easy to understand. In fact I have a poem in one of my books called ”
“On the Road to Buddhahood.”

 

Ever plainer. Ever simpler.
Ever more ordinary.

My goal is to become a simpleton.

And from what everybody tells me
I am making real good progress.
I hope this honor won’t ruin my reputation.

 

IV

I am the first person with my name to graduate from high school not to mention college or anything else. In other words, I was one of those–lo, those many years ago–First Generation College Students.

It wasn’t an easy road for me. My average grade coming out of high school was a C minus. I did a little theatre, ran track and played jazz trumpet, but in the classroom I was always the kid in the back slumped down in his seat trying to be invisible.

 

Colleges were interested in me only because I was a star on the track team, a record holding hurdler. Colleges hustled me. One college even offered to get me a tutor to help me through my classes.

 

When I got to college I had to go to the reading lab because I was reading on an 8th grade level. One of the reasons I was reading on an 8th grade level was that I have numerous learning disabilities that make reading difficult for me. I make a lot of reversals, for example, and that slows me down a lot.

 

After my first semester in college I was put on academic probation because I was doing so poorly. The dean at the college I attended called me into his office one day and told me that if I would buckle down and work really hard I could be a good solid C+ or maybe even a B- student. That condescension pissed me off so much that after my first semester on academic probation, I got on the Dean’s List and stayed there for the next seven semesters. That was one smart Dean.

 

After I got myself together in college, I got interested in studying Philosophy–I have absolutely no idea why. I’ve never been able to figure that out. I majored in it and minored in Art History. Then I got a Masters Degree in Theology. I never have studied English or Literature.

 

But back to high school for a moment, in my senior year I had an English teacher who inspired me greatly and who was enthusiastic about some little things I was beginning to write, assignments for his class. Suddenly and without warning, I found myself seriously interested in writing plays and especially poetry.

 

V

I think one of the reasons I got interested in poetry, both in reading it and in writing it, is that there are a lot fewer words on a page of poetry than there are on a page of prose. I like all that white space. And in poetry the lines don’t even make it to the right hand side the page. Fewer words, spaced out more, and with a rhythm to them, a cadence. It all made poetry easier for me to read. I know there is lots of modern poetry that is impossibly difficult to read: obtuse, obscure, impossibly dense, impossible. I’m not talking about that kind of poetry. I’m talking about my kind of poetry: simple, clear, straightforward, vivid, intense, gripping. I still like reading poetry best; or listening to it, such as every morning on NPR’s The Writers Almanac. Novels have just too many words on each page and they go on forever. Poetry, on the other hand, gets up there, does it job with a minimum of words and fuss, belts it out, gets it over with and sits down. I like that. Here’s three illustrations of what I’m talking about.

 

ALL OF US

Out of the undifferentiated Tao
come the ten thousand things:

the bug in the bird’s mouth,
the bird in the tree
the tree outside the window,
the window beyond the chair
the chair in the room,
the man in the chair

who has just risen from the chair
and walked across the room
to look out the window
at the bird in the tree
with the bug in its mouth.
See how all of us,
at our own and different speeds,
return to the Tao.
Oh, let us all
sing praises now for all of us,
so briefly here.

 

and a second:

BUGS IN A BOWL

 

Han-shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled
Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:
We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day
going around never leaving their bowl.

I say:  That’s right!  Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.
Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.
Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for your self.
Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.
Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice bowl!

 

and finally:

TOMORROW

Tomorrow
we are
bones and ash,
the roots of weeds
poking through
our skulls.
Today,
simple clothes,
empty mind,
full stomach,
alive, aware,
right here,
right now.
Drunk on music,
who needs wine?
Come on,
Sweetheart,
let’s go dancing
while we’ve
still got feet.

 

VII

I’ve been driving down here to Henniker for almost 30 years. It was easy to come back for this; I knew the way.

 

I thank you all for this honor. I am flattered, humbled and grateful.

Thank You.

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* * * * *
 

“Budbill’s frank self-awareness keeps him from sounding smug . .. .; he’s quick to include himself in the benighted . . . a list of references in the book shows how strongly he’s been influenced by the classical Chinese poets-but they find fresh expression here, thanks to Budbill’s good humor and gusto.”

–Joel Brouwer
The New York Times Book Review, July 17, 2005

If you think you’ll never like poetry, try Budbill, and if you think you like most poetry, try him, too. Either way, bet you’ll like him.

–Ray Olson
Booklist, July 2005

His poems deal directly with subjects many other poets cloak in poetical devices, and this directness makes Budbill’s poems accessible and moving.

–ForeWord Magazine

It’s that honest voice, spare and clean as a brushstroke painting, that bridges the centuries and makes his poetry so compelling. It takes a lifetime to learn to write like that. Fortunately for us, Budbill has devoted his lifetime to exploring the brevity, poignancy, and beauty of his life, and this life.

–Tom Slayton
Vermont Public Radio, June 2005

While We’ve Still Got Feet depicts a Spartan life of incredible interior richness. . . here are lyrics sharpened by solitude’s grindstone. . . . While We’ve Still Got Feet is a stirring record of Budbill’s commitment to living mindfully, simply and in concert with the world around him.

–John Freeman,
Seven Days, 25 May 2005

Budbill both informs and moves. He is, in short, a delight and a comfort.

–Wendell Berry

While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon Press, 2005) is a joyous collection of poems informed by the work of Chinese and Japanese recluse-poets and by Budbill’s own distilled observations. The poems are clear and often arresting, filled with wry humor and a refreshing matter-of-factness.

 Jason Krane, 28 February 2010, jasonkrane.org

 

 

* * * * *

David Budbill is beloved by legions for straightforward poems dispatched from his hermitage on Judevine Mountain. Inspired by classical Chinese hermit poets, he follows tradition but cannot escape the complications and struggles of a modern solitary existence. Loneliness, aging, and political outrage are addressed in these poems that value honesty and simplicity and deplore pretension.

The poems in While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon Press, 2005) grow out of the peace of a mountain wilderness home, the pleasures of daily life, and an acute awareness of the melancholy passing of time as the days turn through the seasons. These poems are written in a clear way with blunt honesty, humor, and insight into the human condition. Beneath the surface of these simple poems is a wealth of meaning and passion. As before, Judevine Mountain–and David Budbill–deal with opposites: solitude and loneliness, contentment and restlessness, the allures of the city versus the country and the ever present tension between the desire for engagement with the world on the one hand and withdrawal from it on the other. There is no resolution for the conundrums and dichotomies of this life, but rather the comfort that comes from a clear articulation between life’s opposites.

While We’ve Still Got Feet is a continuation of the Judevine Mountain poems begun with Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse (Copper Canyon Press, 1999) which was chosen by Booklistas one of the ten best books of poetry for 1999.

 

* * * * *
 

Tomorrow
Tomorrow
we are
bones and ash,
the roots of weeds
poking through
our skulls.

Today,
simple clothes,
empty mind,
full stomach,
alive, aware,
right here,
right now.

Drunk on music,
who needs wine?

Come on,
Sweetheart,
let’s go dancing
while we’ve
still got feet.

* * * * *

wwsgcov

 

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A few years ago a friend in North Carolina said to me in an email, Email is for old people. I was shocked. I thought, and still do, that email is about the greatest thing since sliced bread. What Brett meant was that for a whole couple of generations of young people, Facebook and Twitter have replaced email. Slowly I came to realize the truth of what Brett was saying. For people under about 40, whether we old folks like it or not, Facebook and Twitter are where it’s at. It’s what they do. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but by and large it’s true.

 

I turned 70 this year. I’m a writer of books, a poet and a playwright. It occurred to me that there were at least two generations of young people out there I was not reaching because I was not a part of the “social media” they rely on. I came to understand that if I were going to be in touch with that younger set, I’d have to communicate with them the way they communicate, which is why I am now on Facebook and Twitter.

 

I am also now on both those social media sites because I’m curious, curious to see how they might expand my reach, broaden my appeal, help to get more productions of my plays and sell more books of poems. Accuse me of slathering advertisements for my writing all over Facebook and Twitter if you want. I’m guilty.

 

Resistance to new technologies is an old response. Luddites–a word coined and a movement begun in the early 19th century–didn’t appear with people who refused to use computers or email. In the late 1950s I was the minister to two tiny rural churches in a farming and strip-mining area of southeastern Ohio. In one of my churches there was a bachelor farmer who did not have electricity because he thought it was a passing fad. The Rural Electrification Administration had come through southeastern Ohio in the middle 1930s.

 

Recently I sent out an announcement to the more than 2000 people on my emailing list saying I was now on both Facebook and Twitter. The responses I got back ranged from hearty welcomes, and Well it’s about time. to incredulity and outrage. Here’s a few of the latter.

 

Twitter? why oh why?

Will I be the last literate man standing outside the Twitter/Facebook  zone?

I’m planning an intervention.

My condolences. Best for a speedy recovery.

I draw the line at Twitter. For the love of God man!

What ‘turned’ you to the darkside?

I’m still resisting and I continue to refuse to get sucked in.

Twitter is just too weird for me.

 

As you can see from the responses, a lot of people accept the presence of Facebook but draw the line at Twitter. Why? Twitter with its 140-character limit is ideal for people who write haiku or tanka, for example. I write a lot of very short poems. I plan to use them on Twitter. It’s a great challenge to say something useful and meaningful in less than 140 characters.

 

Finally, one young friend wrote, I’m sorry that you are having to deal with some negative backlash about your adoption of new tools. I’m a little surprised, and can’t help but feel like a more careful reading of your work would make it clear to those folks that there has always been a tension in your poems between loving solitude and needing the noise of the crowd. This, by the way, is why I’m both a poet and a playwright. One is the most solitary of literary forms, the other the most communal.

 

Onward. I don’t know how long I’ll last on either Facebook or Twitter, but I’m going to give them both a try.

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Apr

19

2012

LITANY FOR TODAY

In the days following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, I wrote the following poem.

It seems relevant again.

 

LITANY FOR TODAY

A Response to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Accident

 

From Three Mile Island, from Vermont Yankee, from Seabrook,

from a hundred other places in the country

a cloud of fear has risen, floated, into our lives

and no commission or committee, no panel of experts,

no congressman or senator,

no President, can convince me I am not afraid.

am  afraid,

for my children, my wife, myself, my friends and neighbors,

for the people of the earth, for the plants and animals of the earth,

for the earth itself. And I am afraid because

there is something to be afraid of.

I AM AFRAID.

 

I don’t believe what officials tell me because they tell me everything.

I don’t know how to choose between what is true and what is not,

and I don’t know, because they don’t know.

I AM AFRAID.

 

200,00 people left their homes and fled in fear

and when they returned their fear returned with them.

I AM AFRAID.

 

Here is a picture of The President visiting

the Three Mile Island reactor.

He wears yellow plastic booties to protect himself

from the contaminated soil.

A half mile away, dairy cows eat grass, make milk.

They do not wear yellow, plastic booties.

I AM AFRAID.

 

There are 250,000 gallons of radiation contaminated water,

and no one knows what to do with it.

I AM AFRAID.

 

Inside the reactor building

the radiation level is a thousand times the lethal dosage.

An engineer said,

“Dealing with the radioactive reactor

is going to be a long term problem,

and one, as yet, we don’t know how to handle.”

I AM AFRAID.

 

The paper said, “Despite earlier claims by officials that the chance

of a core melt-down had never been more than slight,

Representative Morris K. Udall, D-Arizona, said,

after a White House briefing, ‘It was a very close call.

We were very close to a real disaster.'”

I AM AFRAID.

 

A melt-down would have contaminated a thousand square miles.

I AM AFRAID.

 

A woman asked an official, “Will I be able to plant my garden?
I AM AFRAID.

 

But I don’t want to be afraid.

I want to stand in a field, grow a garden,

raise my children, be with my wife,

wake in the morning–and not be afraid.

I want to play softball on Wednesday night and Sunday afternoons,

I want to listen to music, visit with friends, drink beer–

and not be afraid.

I want to watch my son slide into second,

teach him how to swing an ax,

use a chain saw, drive a team of horses–and not be afraid.

I want to help my daughter learn to talk,

watch her run across the room, her arms spread out, shouting,

abandoned to her joy–and not be afraid.

I love my life. I don’t want to be afraid.

I AM AFRAID.

 

I want to sleep and wake, eat and drink, make love and work–

and not be afraid.

Fear diminishes us. I don’t want to be afraid.

I AM AFRAID.

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In 16th Century Lahore, which is present day Pakistan, the artist, Miskin, on the leaf of a manuscript, depicted the story of how The King one day while hunting in the countryside shot a bird with his bow and arrow.

When The King approached the bird, The King discovered, much to his chagrin and dismay, that the bird was, in fact, a young man, who now lay lifeless on the ground with an arrow through his chest.

Overcome with grief at what he had done, The King approached the mother of the young man who was sobbing nearby. The King called his servants to bring forth two golden bowls and place them on the ground between himself and the bereaved woman. The King then spoke to the grieving mother and said, In order to make amends for my grievous error, I offer you a choice. In one of these golden bowls you may have as much gold coinage of the realm as the bowl will hold, or in the other bowl you may have my head. The choice is yours.

When the king was done speaking, he called his servants forth with bags of gold enough to fill to overflowing one of the bowls. Then The King drew his sword and handed it to a servant, rolled down his collar, knelt down and bowed his head in preparation for his own beheading.

Here there was a pause of quite some time while The King waited for the mother’s decision.

At last, the mother of the young man, knowing that revenge is futile, accepted the golden bowl filled with gold to overflowing. Upon departing the mother, through her tears, exhorted The King to continue his just rule.

Thus the mother and The King parted, each carrying their own grief away from that place.

Such integrity and scruples in a King!

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