Early Sunday morning, Vermont lost one of its defining voices. Poet, playwright and musician David Budbill died at the age of 76.
He had suffered from a rare form of Parkinson’s disease. Like many of his generation, Budbill came to Vermont as part of the "back-to-the-land" movement of the 1960s and '70s.
He was the son of a streetcar driver in his native Cleveland, but he came to embrace life in rural Vermont.
Budbill settled in Wolcott – a town he fictionalized as "Judevine" – and he found work on Christmas tree farms and in the woods cutting pulp.
These experiences provided a deep well for his poetry and plays, such as The Chain Saw Dance, Judevine and his play "Pulp Cutter’s Nativity."
His later work emulated ancient Japanese and Chinese reclusive poets. Like those ancient sages, Budbill wrote about the struggles of living a simple life in a complex world.
“David's work will live on, and we will have his mind and his expression to treasure for many, many years to come,” says Tom Slayton, the former editor-in-chief of Vermont Life Magazine, a VPR commentator and a friend of Budbill’s for more than three decades.
Slayton has described the “four worlds of David Budbill”: The Vermonter embodying the life of an ancient reclusive Chinese poet, the man who loved New York City, the jazz aficionado and the musician who played the Japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi.
“I guess what I'll remember most is his vitality and his wonderful sense of humor,” Slayton says. “When I first met David he had just published The Chain Saw Dance. This was back in 1976, and it described life in rural Vermont in rather raw, rough terms, but with an undertone of gentle humor.
“In the 1990s his work kind of shifted and he began to write in the voice of an old Chinese sage, somehow transported onto aWolcott hillside called Judevine Mountain.
“He had a high reverence for real work in the real world – work using your hands. And so he personally loved working in the woods, working in his garden, and playing the shakuhachi."
Hear David Budbill's interviews on Vermont Edition:
- June 30, 2016: David Budbill On Illness And Writing
- April 21, 2010: A Conversation With David Budbill
Budbill wrote about the grittiness of Vermont life – a kind of anti-Vermont Life Magazine look at the state. Smalltime poverty, alcoholics, pulp-cutters, guys that worked the ski lifts. When those poems first came out in The Chain Saw Dance, Slayton says the work wasn’t well-received in Wolcott.
“He got threats by phone,” Slayton recalls. “He was somewhat ostracized, because it conflicted with the idealistic view of Vermont life.”
But, Slayton says, readers came to understand that Budbill wrote with affection, not pure criticism.
“That viewpoint and that affection eventually triumphed and people saw what he was doing,” Slayton says. “I think that the ordinary working Vermonter realized that David was one of them.”
Today, we might associate David Budbill with Vermont, with being “our” poet. But Slayton says his friend’s work transcends geography.
“He expressed certain truths about Vermont that connect with truth everywhere,” Slayton says. “And so by digging down to that universal core about Vermont, he was able to translate it, in a way, into ancient Chinese poetry. I used to kid him that he was a reincarnated Chinese poet. But what he was doing was expressing truths that are common to rural people no matter where they live.”
Despite Budbill’s popularity, he was never named Vermont's poet laureate.
“He never let it show that it bothered him. I suspect it did,” Slayton says. “I know he was nominated for Vermont State Poet, because I nominated him twice. I think the reason that he never received the honor which he surely deserved was that he was writing largely in a tradition that is different from the classical Western tradition that most of our poetry is based on. And therefore people who give awards and who are deeply based in scholastic poetry Western poetry just didn't get it about David and therefore didn't award him the honor of state poet despite his widespread popular appeal.”
Slayton recalls a poem of Budbill's, “On Looking at a Picture of Myself”:
Who is that old guy standing in front of my woodpile?
How come he's got my overalls and chaps and my
hard hat on? And he's wearing my mittens, too. And
that's my chainsaw on top of the woodpile just behind him.
He looks like my father, exactly like my father.
Where did he come from? What's he doing there?
“The poem goes on, [to the effect of], this old guy in the picture really does a pretty good job of stacking his wood and taking care of his tools,” Slayton says.
…Maybe I ought to try to track
him down and see if he would like to work
with me out in the woods. He does a nice job, even if
he is an old guy and looks just like my father.
David Budbill's last book, Broken Wing, will be published posthumously in November by Green Writers Press.