Poetry in the Sunken Garden

Madeleine did not want to go to the poetry festival in July, because no one else’s mother forces children to go to poetry festivals. She lowered her hat down over her forehead, leaving only a glower visible. No one. Else.

She wanted to know why.

Not a promising conversation in which to explore the ineffable draw of beautiful language.

Here’s the difficulty for me: I couldn’t tell you why poetry on a good day, even without all the hostility. I’m not a poet. My language is prose, and as a reader I speak fluent fiction. Poetry is like conjuring. It’s like answering why we have parents or why I like the color green.

“I just want you to come,” I said. “Only one poet is chosen to represent the United States at any given time, and we can see Natasha Tretheway in person, now, before the crowds grow too large. We are going as a family.” Madeleine stomped her foot.


A dear friend, Susan, sent me a link to The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, near Hartford, Connecticut. With Christian Wiman reading the last week of June, my husband and I quickly made plans for a date-night.

We found a well-established community committed to outdoor readings on an historic estate that feels like another world. A circular stone wall surrounds an amphitheater of grassy terraces, with a stage at one end (backed by a herd of sheep) and a raised podium near the front.

Susan and her husband held a space for us. We shared a picnic supper and a bottle of wine.

When Christian Wiman read about a falcon in his window, a red-tailed hawk circled low from an overhanging branch. When he read about living near an airport, a helicopter hovered through. He read the work of another poet, about radiance, and this garden was indeed radiant. The sun set, and people lingered after the reading, hindered only by the arrival of mosquitoes.

That was late June.

In mid-July, we took the family on the three-hour road trip to hear the newly-named poet laureate, Natasha Tretheway. Both children were polite, but not enthusiastic. Still, the location allowed them to lounge, to change seats often, to run around the grounds. During the musical act, Daisy Mayhem, Susan brought out a bowl of fresh strawberries and a can of whipped cream, with which we amused ourselves while listening to gorgeous harmonies. I introduced my children to poet Brad Davis, a friend and the editor of the new Sunken Garden Poetry collection.

Natasha Tretheway first read at Sunken Garden 14 years ago. This time, she launched into poems about fly-fishing with her father, about seeing the world differently from her parents, about the shadow of race and how that tangles history, even intimate history.

For both Wiman and Tretheway, I could easily connect with poems. I could be with my friends and family, hanging on words, listening in the open air.


As the evening wore on,  my son wanted to sit against the legs of my chair, to see the poet better — a good sign. My daughter quietly donned headphones after five or six poems, and I thought she wasn’t listening.

Afterward, she attacked Brad Davis with questions that surprised me: why did she have to SAY it that way? I HATE poetry. She had this THING she did when she was reading a story about her father. Brad said he’d noticed that very same stylistic issue, that Madeleine was so right — the poet could have delivered that poem in a different tone. I hate poetry, too, he ranted, poetry is so boring. Unless it’s great. And when it’s great, there’s nothing like it. My daughter smiled, quick friends with Brad before she realized she’d somehow lost the argument.

Photo by dhammza, Creative Common license via Flickr. Post by Denise Frame Harlan.

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  1. says

    I will have to check out that collection. Thank you for bringing it to attention.

    And thank you also for the link to the word candy. That’s a fun prompt to get children writing poems.

    Your daughter might enjoy Jack Prelutsky’s work. He’s fun for any age.


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