Sydney Lea

NER Classics | Democracy and the Demotic

Between Jazz and the Blues, Dr. Ernest Williamson IIISydney Lea‘s nonfiction piece, “Democracy and the Demotic: Reflections on the ‘lingua franca et jocundissima’ in American Poetry,” appeared in NER 16.3 (1994).

The title of my remarks is high sounding enough, yet in fact I do little more here than muse about a tradition in American poetry that my friend Stanley Plumly describes as “speech barking back at song.” More poet than scholar myself, I offer a kind of reverie.

In a journal entry for 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson, engaging in a reverie of his own, imagined himself “a professor of Rhetoric–teacher of the art of writing well to young men.” “I should use Dante for my textbook,” Emerson surmised: “Dante knew how to throw the weight of his body into each act, and is, like Byron, Burke, and Carlyle, the Rhetorician. I find him full of the nobil volgare eloquenza; that he knows ‘God damn,’ and can be rowdy if he please, and he does please.” What Dante could teach was that daily surroundings were “the very best basis for poetry, and the material which you must work up.”

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VT Poet Laureate Sydney Lea to teach a class and read at RWC

leaVermont’s Poet Laureate, Sydney Lea, will be teaching a poetry class for 8-12 students at the Renegade Writers’ Collective on Sunday, November 24. This class is for committed writers and will take place in the RWC classroom in the Karma Bird House at 47 Maple Street in Burlington. The class is from 4-6 pm and will be followed by a reading of his work, Q&A, and book signing, which will take place in the first floor gallery in the same building. The reading will take place from 6-7pm, and is free and open to the public. You do not have to take the class to come to the reading. Click here for a full course description and to reserve your spot in the class.

Sydney Lea is a founding editor of New England Review, and his work has appeared in the magazine in recent years.

New Books from NER Authors: I Was Thinking of Beauty

lea450Sydney Lea, a founding Editor of NER, has published a new poetry collection. From Four Way Books: “It’s been said about conservationist and Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea that ‘this extraordinary poet finds an elegance and beauty that can be glimpsed throughout his often harsh landscape.’ I Was Thinking of Beauty, his eleventh collection of poems, evidences that skill. In this collection, we follow a speaker who no longer feels he can ‘distinguish regret from knowledge, / accountability from sorrow,’ as he wades through the layers of memory and experience: ‘I was thinking of beauty then, how it’s faced grief since the day / that somebody named it.’ Lea’s keen narrative eye keeps us fully in the present as he reminisces on a past—which Lea unravels, chisels away at in search of a deeper understanding—so vivid it could be our own.”

Sydney Lea is the co-founder of New England Review and has appeared numerous times in NER, most recently in its current issue, 33.4.

I Was Thinking of Beauty is available at Four Way Books and other booksellers.


New England Review in Boston

AWP logoMarch 6 through March 9

8:30 am. to 6 p.m.
AWP Book Fair
New England Review, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf School of English, New England Young Writers’ Conference, Middlebury College Program in Creative Writing: Tables C5-C7
(for AWP conference registrants; free to the public Saturday, March 9)

Friday, March 8: 9:00–10:15 a.m.
New England Review Celebrates Vermont Writers:
Kellam Ayres, Robert Cohen, Castle Freeman Jr., Sydney Lea, Cleopatra Mathis
Vermont is home to more writers per capita than any other state in the nation, and Vermont authors work in a wide variety of aesthetics and styles—some with no particular ties to place and others decidedly rooted. Founded in 1978, New England Review publishes authors from all over the world, but in this reading, we’re proud to present five outstanding writers who live and work in our home state, and whose writing has recently appeared in our pages.
Hynes Convention Center, Room 303
(for AWP conference registrants only)

Saturday, March 9, 3 p.m.
The Teaching Press: Literary Magazines and Learning. (Travis Kurowski, Jay Baron Nicorvo, Carolyn Kuebler, Ben George, Jodee Stanley) Editors from leading literary magazines New England Review, Ecotone, Ninth Letter, and Third Coast discuss the educational benefits of literary magazines on today’s campuses. Topics will include the teaching press, experiential learning environments, learning-based outcomes, and how campus literary magazines are changing 21st-century publishing.
(for AWP conference registrants only)
Hynes Convention Center, Room 313

New Books from NER Writers: A North Country Life

northcountryFrom the publisher: “A North Country Life is the story of author Sydney Lea’s powerful connection to his family, friends, and the northern outdoors. Loosely organized by the changing of seasons, different sections feature essays on such topics as childhood family fishing trips in the wilds of Maine, trophy fly-fishing the northern reaches of the Connecticut River, the opening day of turkey hunting season in Vermont, and getting lost in the deep woods while deer hunting. The essays are introspective and dramatic illustrations of the blending of the human and natural worlds; emotion is attached to both spheres and adds texture to the sketches. Readers of varied interests will be drawn to the sincerity of the author’s voice.”

Sydney Lea, founding editor of NER is Vermont Poet Laureate. His story “How in a lifetime?” appeared in NER 20.3, and his essay “Negative Capability in Kansas” appeared on NER Digital.

A North Country Life is available at Skyhorse Publishing.

Reasons for being there

Negative Capability in Kansas | By Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

I’m just back from a week in Kansas, my reasons for being there irrelevant. I’m thinking of the farmer outside the town I was staying in, the one who said to me, “They think we’re crude and stupid because we’re poor.”

This was far from my first visit to that part of the world, and vehement judgment doesn’t seem part of the citizens’ makeup. But they may resent, however gently, the conspicuous smugness of some northeasterners, their studied diction, their oh-so-refined tastes: certain brand and food fetishisms, certain looks and styles.

On this recent trip, I met a goodly number of people who were anything but crude and stupid, and I noted how many of them were doing things that we all like to talk about: comforting the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the misfortunate. I ate breakfast every morning, for example, at an eatery called The Gathering Place, run by a local pastor. The menu had “suggested prices” only, the restaurant’s guiding notion being that a customer paid what he or she could, precisely so that those who could pay nothing need not go hungry. In these tough times, a lot of the latter showed up each day.

When I told this or that Kansan I was a poet, I was met with curiosity and genuine interest. Mr. and Mrs. Kansas seemed a lot more willing to walk a mile in my shoes than some of my friends would care to walk in theirs.

One of the things that most attracted me to life as a poet is that lyric can see several sides of an issue, situation or personality at the same time. This is a capacity our nation could surely use. John Keats called it Negative Capability. Kansas people seem to intuit its meaning. Do we?


NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Sydney Lea, founding editor of NER, is Vermont Poet Laureate. 

Sydney Lea on Ruth Stone

The Burlington Free Press published Sydney Lea’s tribute to the late Ruth Stone:

Editor’s Note: This column was written before former Vermont State Poet Ruth Stone died Nov. 19. Current state poet laureate Sydney Lea writes about how Stone, in a few words, evokes life while writing about loss.

I want to pay a brief and inadequate tribute to Ruth Stone, my predecessor as Vermont Poet Laureate. Ms. Stone is remarkable in every way: 96 years old and all but completely blind, the woman still generates some of America’s most compelling poetry.

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