A POETIC RESPITE FROM POLITICS
BURLINGTON, Vt. - Broadsides and partisan bickering pass for business as usual in Washington these days, but the chief of staff for the Senate’s liberal firebrand has created an unlikely patch of common ground.
That place lies in the power of the poetry that longtime University of Vermont professor Huck Gutman, aide to US Senator Bernie Sanders, distributes by e-mail to 1,700 readers who include all the Senate chiefs of staff, several White House staffers, university presidents, academics, journalists, and former students.
“It’s to remind them there are other things than the debt ceiling and Social Security,’’ says the 67-year-old Gutman, who began teaching at UVM in 1971 and has known Sanders, an independent, for nearly as long. “I don’t have a political test for poetry. I don’t think of Washington when I do it.’’
Instead, he says, the poetry and his attached commentary are provided for the noncombatant pursuits of intellectual pleasure and personal enrichment. Even staunch conservatives who disagree with Gutman and Sanders on nearly everything but the time have been impressed.
“It’s far too rare,’’ says Mark Schwartz, chief of staff for Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma. “The problem is that everybody is so focused on our jobs that we tend very rarely to look over the edge at other dimensions of reality.’’
Stopping to smell the flowers - in a very literal sense - is something that Gutman sees in short supply in Washington. He recalls sitting at Senate meetings on education policy and being annoyed by the drone of clinical bureaucratic patter.
“People are not always in touch with the realities of daily life,’’ says Gutman, a rumpled bundle of gesturing animation who switches riffs often and easily from Washington policy to Romantic poetry and back again.
“I would go to these meetings and think, ‘We’re talking about all this policy stuff, but we’re losing sight of the fact that education is about people.’ I’d say to them, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute! I’m going to read a poem.’ ’’
Gutman, who is on leave from the university, carves time from a frenetic schedule to circulate a poem about every two months, and adds commentary about language, structure, message, and value. The poems reflect a wide variety of subjects and styles and are chosen because they appeal to him, Gutman says. A high degree of difficulty is not an asset.
He has distributed verse and references, both obscure and famous, that span millennia, from ancient Greece to Shakespeare to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams.
His advice to the audience: “LISTEN to the poem.’’
“The worst thing to do with a poem is to try to get at its meaning,’’ Gutman said at the senator’s office here, his back to a second-floor window that overlooks a downtown pedestrian mall. “We have done an absolutely horrendous job in teaching people how to read poems.’’
Instead, Gutman encourages his audience to read for enjoyment, just as they would listen to music. A poem should not be a test to measure intelligence, he said, but rather an accessible way to hear an array of voices that speak profoundly and passionately.
“They can lead us toward what we ought to be thinking about,’’ said Gutman, who fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. “I would be really happy if when people read some of these things, if they’re out walking, they’ll stop for a moment and ask, ‘What’s blooming?’ ’’
David Wade, chief of staff to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, described Gutman as a welcome change from the legislative merry-go-round.
“You become a part of this fraternity of Democratic chiefs of staffs, and one of the first rites of passage is being added to Huck’s list,’’ Wade said. “At first you think, ‘Hmm, what’s this?’ And then as time goes on, you realize it’s one of the great unsung Senate traditions.
“The Senate used to have Robert Byrd’s oratory and his annual homage-to-spring poetry reading on the floor. He’s gone, but the staff still has Huck. And you realize, it’s a great thing.’’
Gutman, who has circulated poems since 2009, adds about five to 15 new readers a week. “People just hear about it and sign up,’’ Gutman said with a bemused shrug.
But this is not a dialogue. Taking questions from a classroom of 1,700 is impossible. So, instead, Gutman selects a poem, composes a few signposts for readers, and lets the words perform their magic - or not.
“I’m sure there are some who think it’s dopey and get rid of it,’’ Gutman said.
Schwartz, chief of staff for one of the most conservative members of the Senate, is not among them. “He’s got a good mind, he’s intelligent, and he’s not narrow,’’ Schwartz said. “That’s not something that you find every day.’’
Gutman also can straddle two starkly different arenas, academia and politics, where the peer-reviewed musings of one world contrast with the media-targeted spin of the other. Gutman is not shy about hurling verbal grenades at what he sees as obstructionist Republicans, but he also warms when he speaks of the bipartisan collegiality of senior staff.
“I have many more Republican friends in Washington than I do in Burlington, Vt.,’’ he said.
But he deeply loves Vermont; Washington, not so much.
Scrambling after the devastating floods caused by Tropical Storm Irene, Gutman helped coordinate Sanders’s response in Vermont.
Amid the emergency, with its once-in-a-century urgency and daunting logistics, Gutman made time to send his stressed staff what he considered a relevant poem by W.H. Auden that reads in part:
“In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.’’
The poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts,’’ is a reflection on a 16th-century painting by Pieter Brueghel, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.’’ In the painting, the mythic Icarus falls into the ocean and drowns after his failed attempt at flight. But near the site, seemingly oblivious, life proceeds.
“It’s about how disaster strikes,’’ Gutman said, “and the world keeps going.’’
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.