I met Walter in the dark outside Lawrence’s Eldridge Hotel one cold March night. He had just flown in for Poet Laureati, the national convergence of 20 state poets laureate I organized in 2011. Standing outside in spitting snow and ice, his trademark cigarette in one hand and a drink from the bar in the other, we joked about how he couldn’t outrun winter by coming to Kansas. His warmth made him feel like someone I had known for years.
Walter Butts, the poet laureate of New Hampshire, died on Easter Sunday at home after a harsh diagnosis in the last year or so of advanced lung cancer. He had a heart of gold, a gravelly voice, a tolerant temperament and a friendly soul. Coming from a working class background, he had a genius for making anyone — and their poetry — feel welcome, accepted, befriended.
I saw him next over a 10-day residence at Goddard, when I guest-taught in the BA and BFA in Creative Writing programs one snowy stretch in April. At Goddard we can be an especially fussy bunch at complaining about each other, but when it came to Walter, everyone simply loved him, unabashedly. Students sparkled at the thought of their work with him. Faculty in our dorm, which was mostly women, called him all sorts of endearments in between sharing beer with him indoors or company outside while he smoked another cigarette. He made it his business to sit down with each of us at some point, and share his awe at something we wrote or taught or said or did.
When I saw Walter some months later at a New Hamsphire poets laureate conference he helped organized, we shared long meals over overflowing tables of poets. There was ample chocolate cake, whiskey, stories about the great and the dead, and outrageous silliness. Walter and his wife, the poet S. Stephanie, made us welcome as rain in their home state.
Speaking of percipitation, I realize that all the times I saw Walter it was raining, snowing or sleeting, always on the prevernal edge between winter and spring. He’s crossed over to wherever he’s gone in this same edge, the many feet of snow behind us, the many blossoms ahead. It’s a time of a particular music that sings of absence as well as presence. I share this poem of Walter’s, one that Betsy Sholl (poet laureate of Maine) has been sending around, to remind us of what Walter saw and helped us to see.
THRUSH & SQUIRREL Suddenly a squirrel scampers along the edge of the tall wooden fence, a hermit thrush, high pitched, in pursuit, and you laugh because it seems like such play, but at stake are the eggs in their cup of moss, leaves, and rootlets, the four flutes you might never hear silent now inside the thin walls of their shells. And you understand why this must be your life, the melodious song you wait for certain to flicker, after all, through the absence your body will one day become. ~ Walter Butts, poet laureate of New Hampshire, 2009-2014