A poet’s hope: to be,

like some valley cheese,

local, but prized elsewhere.

— James Hayford

A day trip to Vermont recently got me thinking about the poet James Hayford, Amherst Class of 1935. Hayford was that other Vermont poet, the one you’ve probably never heard of.  At Amherst — indeed, throughout his entire life — Hayford was an admitted “disciple” of the more famous New England bard, Robert Frost. 

It is odd that Hayford, a Vermont boy with literary aspirations, had never even heard of Robert Frost until the fall of his sophomore year, when his parents gave him  a copy of Collected Poems (1930) for his birthday. Hayford tells of how first reading Frost was a thrilling revelation: “In Frost’s book I found myself.  This was my country; these were my people, my ways of thinking and feeling, my tones of voice.” (Preface to Star in the Shed Window:  Collected Poems, xi.)  Hayford had found his touchstone.

The young Hayford eventually attracted Frost’s interest at Amherst.  Frost told him that his appraisal of him was the opposite of what he told most college poets. “They don’t have much to say, but they say it very well. You have something to say, but you don’t say it very well.” Frost encouraged Hayford to find his poetic voice. To that end, upon Hayford’s graduation in 1935 he awarded his student with the first and only “Robert Frost Fellowship” in the amount of $1,000 – a rather princely sum at the time.  Frost liked to call it the “Desert” or “Bo Tree” Fellowship, because it was intended to allow the recipient to go off and be creative without being exposed to harmful influences. Specifically, the harmful influences he was to stay far away from were

  1. Colleges and universities
  2. Big cities
  3. Art colonies
  4. Europe.

Another condition of the fellowship was that Hayford was to promise to publish a book of poetry within twenty years.

Hayford was being asked to sit under the Bo Tree, like the Buddha, to find enlightenment, or in his case, his poetic voice.

Robert Frost letter to James Hayford, June 29, 1935

As we see in this letter from Frost to Hayford written shortly after graduation, the conditions laid down were meant in earnest but never with the intention of being stringently enforced.

My safest way is not to think of it too hard, just as yours is not to try to profit too much. Easy does it for both of us. […] [I]t is not too strictly for meditation nor too strictly for loneliness, remember.  Into your own hands I commend you. These formalities concluded, we will say no more about it when we meet, as I hope we shall now and then forever.

(In fact, Hayford “violated” conditions #1 and #2 within just a few years, earning a Master’s degree in 1942 from Teacher’s College of Columbia University, writing a thesis on none other than Robert Frost.)

Hayford’s poems are very accessible and they often sound spontaneous. They are almost never “confessional.” And they are laconic in the prototypical New England style — they make an observation and are done with it. Below are a few examples.

Star in the Shed Window

Coming into the shed without a light,
I saw the window blue with the outside night,
And in an upper pane a star to keep
My silhouetted sawhorse and my ax:
Observatories in the merest shacks
Open upon the universal deep.

Here is an earlier variant, as printed in a card from the 1940s:

This one thrills me with a sort of Buddhist twist at the end:

Goats in Pasture

Their bony heads untaxed by need of moving,
Changing, repairing, laying by,
Goats keep a comprehensive eye
On the condition of the sky–
Such store they set on keeping dry–
And live attentively, without improving.

Card: Rural landscape, ca. 1945, by James Hayford

Dry Noon

Their low house nooning in the maple shade,
The pair inside remember having hayed.

The day today is dry and very fine–
Good haying weather, he has said, yes sir–
He who will hay no more, come rain or shine.

In all the valley, not a breeze to stir
The old man’s breeches drying on the line.

Card: “Spring Tonic,” ca. 1945, by James Hayford

Hayford’s precision with poetic forms, his often startling observations, and his laconic, often wry New England wit, remind me of another local poet, Robert Francis.  Francis, too, is a “poet’s poet” closely aligned with Robert Frost.  Coincidentally, I came across this photo of Hayford together with Francis when they were at an event at Amherst College.

The Amherst College Archives & Special Collections holds a comprehensive collection of Hayford’s published books as well as a collection of poetry manuscripts which he gave to the library over a long period.  These include both draft versions and fair copies of several dozen poems.  (Finding aid for the Hayford Papers is here.)  In addition, we have an assortment of cataloged broadside poems and cards executed by Hayford himself.

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