When hundreds of people showed up for a outdoor poetry reading in Farmington in 1992, causing a traffic jam, "it dawned on us," said an organizer, "this was going to be a yearly thing." That was an understatement.
That first blockbuster evening has turned into a venerable summer institution, the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, a destination for rock stars of poetry, including the late James Merrill, Carolyn Forche and Galway Kinnell.
This Connecticut treasure begins its 20th year at the magnificent Hill-Stead estate on Friday with a weekend of writing workshops, music, even dancing (see http://www.hillstead.org), headlined by Richard Wilbur's reading on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Where else can a language lover sink into a camping chair, with a plastic glass of wine, and be swept away by the voices of the nation's greatest writers, accompanied by a chorus of birds? Or sometimes just trying to be heard above them?
How blessed Connecticut is to have this tradition — "a poetic Tanglewood," in the words of crowd favorite Billy Collins — on the grounds of the 111-year-old home that novelist Henry James called "an exquisite palace of peace, light and harmony."
Indeed, it's easy to imagine the ghosts of other Hill-Stead house guests of the past — Edna St. Vincent Millay, Archibald MacLeish, Ida Tarbell, to name-drop just a few — hovering, as transfixed as the living crowd in their lawn chairs. In the same garden where artist Mary Cassatt once chatted, Donald Hall gave his first public reading after his wife Jane Kenyon's death. "It's one of the very best settings for a poetry reading in the whole country," poet Stanley Kunitz said.
Susan Kinsolving said of her 2000 reading in the garden's perfumed air, "I wondered if Yeats ever had it so good."
Yet Connecticut nearly lost this jewel five years ago when major grants ended. A heroic effort restored funding. Once again cars will line Route 4 to hear Bessy Reyna, Dana Gioia, Natasha Tretheway, B. Yung, Christian Wiman and many more wonderful writers.
Go early, beat the traffic.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun