Obituaries

David Budbill, 76, poet who highlighted everyday Vermonters

A play based on the writer’s “Judevine” poems has been produced 65 times.

Associated Press/file 1977

A play based on the writer’s “Judevine” poems has been produced 65 times.

In many of his early poems as a Vermonter, David Budbill wrote about those who are just getting by — woodcutters, millworkers, and people whose glances tourists avoid when they arrive for foliage season.

“They live lives more honestly. They are closer to the surface,” he said of his subjects in a 1987 Globe interview. “I’m not writing about quaint New England characters. I’m not writing good-old-boy stories about New England. I’m writing about the rich and the poor, about society in America.”

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Much of his finest work about those lives ended up in his “Judevine” poems about a fictional community modeled on Wolcott, Vt., where he and his wife, the artist Lois Eby, had taken up residence. These poems, which he later turned into a much-produced play, featured pickup trucks lining roads for farm auctions, sawyers at mills, a drunken couple who sing and dance to the rough music of a sputtering chainsaw.

He wrote: “The truth is,/in small and remote towns like Judevine it is not remarkable/what the town’s folk know about each other’s lives,/it is remarkable what they don’t know./The degree to which we all live our lives in real isolation from/each other is overwhelming.”

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A writer whose work ranged from poetry and plays to novels, essays, and an opera libretto, Mr. Budbill was widely considered an unofficial laureate of Vermont, though he never held the title. Garrison Keillor read his poems often on “The Writer’s Almanac,” and Mr. Budbill was a commentator on NPR and Vermont Public Radio. He was 76 when he died last Sunday in his Montpelier home of complications from progressive supranuclear palsy, according to his publisher, Copper Canyon Press.

Illness prompted Mr. Budbill and his wife to leave Wolcott, after living there for more than 40 years, and move to the state’s capital to be closer to medical care. The concessions were painful physically and emotionally. Poor health “has incapacitated me and made me incapable of all the things I used to love to do: I would cut wood and garden and mow, and I can’t do any of those anymore,” he said in an April interview with his friend David French that is posted on his website. “So I’ve had to revise my life completely. So far, I haven’t revised my life; I’ve just canceled it, dropped out.”

Many of his essays are collected on his website, including one from 2012: “Why I Am Now on Facebook and Twitter.” His decision to enter the social media fray drew a degree of derision from those who admired his work. “I’m planning an intervention,” one e-mailed. Yet for Mr. Budbill, whose later work was influenced by Buddhism and Chinese poets, Twitter’s 140 characters provided ample room for entire poems. In a tweet from May 2015 he wrote:

Pare everything down to almost nothing

then cut the rest,

and you’ve got

the poem

I’m trying to write.

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And in a May 2014 tweet he wrote:

The place where I stopped last night is far

away today. Tomorrow,

tonight will be last night. In an instant, the

present is the past.

Mr. Budbill was born in Cleveland on June 13, 1940. His father was a streetcar driver, and his mother was the daughter of a minister, according to his biography on poets.org, the website of the American Academy of Poets.

“In the late 1950s I was the minister to two tiny rural churches in a farming and strip-mining area of southeastern Ohio,” he wrote in an essay on his website. “In one of my churches there was a bachelor farmer who did not have electricity because he thought it was a passing fad.”

Mr. Budbill graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, where he studied philosophy and art history, and received a master’s in divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Before moving to Vermont, he taught for a couple of years at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the nation’s first degree-granting historically black college.

When he and his wife arrived in Wolcott in 1969, they planned to stay a year and then move on, he told the Globe in 1987. They rented a house on a dirt road where he would write and she would paint — she illustrated many of his books. The pause became permanent as the couple bought land and he worked a variety of jobs, such as cutting Christmas trees.

There was a bit of a backlash from some smalltown Vermonters when the early poems that would become the play “Judevine” were published. Each poem’s mirror reflected a little too clearly the rugged lives Mr. Budbill observed.

“He got threats by phone. He was somewhat ostracized because it conflicted with the idealistic view of Vermont life,” Tom Slayton, a longtime journalist in the state who formerly was editor-in-chief of Vermont Life magazine, recalled in an interview with Vermont Public Radio after Mr. Budbill died.

But eventually, Slayton added, “I think that the ordinary working Vermonter realized that David was one of them.”

Mr. Budbill “always identified with what was simple and ordinary — in life and in people,” The Times Argus newspaper in Barre, Vt., wrote after he died. “Yet he carried within himself the contradictions of an artist who cherished the isolation and simplicity of life in the woods but who feels the ambition and vanity of an artist who wants to be known by the world.”

In “Dilemma,” a poem Keillor read on “The Writer’s Almanac,” and which fits neatly in a tweet with room left for the poet to stretch his legs, Mr. Budbill wrote:

I want to be

famous

so I can be

humble

about being

famous.

What good is my

humility

when I am

stuck

in this

obscurity?

On Mr. Budbill’s Facebook page, his family said a memorial service will be announced for next year. He leaves his wife, Lois Eby; his daughter, Nadine Wolf Budbill; and a granddaughter.

“Nesting on Judevine Mountain in Vermont, where he has lived for some 40 years, David Budbill is a no-nonsense free-range sage who celebrates tomatoes in September, the whistle of a woodcock and sweet black tea and ancient Chinese poems,” New York Times reviewer Dana Jennings wrote in 2011, praising Mr. Budbill’s collection “Happy Life.”

Mr. Budbill was also a musician who played a number of instruments, collaborated with jazz composer William Parker, and wrote the libretto for “A Fleeting Animal — An Opera from Judevine.”

Though he produced a lengthy shelf of books in a variety of genres, the “Judevine” poems remain Mr. Budbill’s most public legacy. The play the poems became has been produced 65 times in 24 states, according to his website.

Perhaps anticipating that his words would someday keep him alive past death, Mr. Budbill wrote in one “Judevine” poem:

He who is dead

is dying.

Yet he goes on.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.
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