Around the Island

Death, life, laughter and poetry


Wallace Stevens wrote that “Death is the mother of all beauty.”

A century later, in the basement of the Shelter Island Library, Virginia Walker, the new leader of the Art/Rich Poetry Roundtable, quoted the line when describing the ephemerality and complexity of human life that, for thousands of years, poets have been tasked with capturing.

For more than six years, the Art/Rich Poetry Roundtable (formerly the Art Barnett Poetry Roundtable) has assembled on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. to discuss the works of classical and contemporary poets. After a brief hiatus following the unexpected passing of the Roundtable’s former literary coxswain, Islander Richard Varney, the group seems to be back to business as usual.

Five returning group members and two newcomers chat around a large table. One returning member, Islander Karen Kiaer, is a published biographer and the historian for Shelter Island’s Daughters of the American Revolution chapter.

George Nemeth, a newcomer, saw an advertisement for the group in the Reporter and is hoping to workshop some poems he started writing a few years ago.  He says he’s loved poetry since he was 20, when a girl he was dating sent him a poem by e.e. cummings called, “Since Feeling is First.”

Ms. Walker greets the attendees in turn and passes out papers, including “Definitions of Poetry by Poets” and works by artists like Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur. The theme of the week — summer.

Throughout the discussion, members speculate about poets’ intent, consider the merits and pitfalls of rhyme scheme, and contemplate the validity of various descriptions. Questions like, “Is that how a newborn calf really looks when it first stands?” and, “Is the ‘nature’ he’s referring to that 18th-century ‘Nature’ with a capital ‘N,’ or more of a modern force?”

All questions are followed by lively debates.

Every so often the stream of words like “melodic” and “tactile” is interrupted by someone’s self-deprecatory joke, usually about growing old, and the whole room rumbles with laughter. Death is on people’s minds, it seems, for a number of reasons, Mr. Varney’s passing being one of them.

“Rich was the ever-invigorating mind that took us through poem after poem,” Ms. Walker told the Reporter a few weeks ago when announcing the re-naming of the group. “He was never critical of any choice or reflections from the rest of us. I have enormous shoes to fill.”

A former professor of English at a series of distinguished colleges and a published poet herself, Ms. Walker is well equipped to lead the group, but even a first-time observer can tell that Varney’s absence is still deeply felt.

Also likely weighing on the minds of group attendees, most of whom are retirees, is the fact that impermanence is the subject that poets seem to grapple with most.

“Poetry, of all the arts, is the one art that is trying to stop time, but time cannot be stopped,” says Bliss Morehead, when discussing “The Bean House” by John Koethe.

Many cultures consider written verse to be the “highest art form” because of its arcane power to — in the words of Ms. Kiaer — “get to the essence,” but as modernity marches on, poetry recitation is no longer considered a marketable skill or even a popular romantic pastime. Since 2002, the number of poetry readers has contracted by 45 percent, resulting in the steepest decline in participation in any literary genre, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.

Nevertheless, as evidenced by the Art/Rich Poetry Roundtable and groups like it, there are still true believers out there who maintain that poetry’s value transcends its pricetag. Under Ms. Walker’s leadership, members will continue to meet every Tuesday at 4 p.m. in the basement of the library. They welcome new members, regardless of expertise.

Ms. Walker hopes to examine more contemporary poetry in the future and bring in local Long Island poets for readings and events. She also noted that there will be a tribute gathering for Mr. Varney at the Library on Thursday, August 9 at 5:30 p.m.

Friends of Mr. Varney, many of them from his Harvard days, will join the Roundtable members to share memories and reflect on his life.