In an earlier version of this story Gutman's poetry list-serv address was incorrect. The correct address has since been added.
Huck Gutman brings a bit of poetry and verse to U.S. Senate colleagues
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Bernie and Huck eat dinner together almost every night.
Chinese usually, or that little Italian spot. Huck thinks the food's pretty unremarkable -- can't even remember the restaurant names -- but the mediocre meals-of-choice are close to the office. The office being that domed building on Capitol Hill. Theirs is a rite of steady companionship for a couple of guys from Vermont who work in this working town of Washington, but whose wives are back home.
The old friends -- the senator, Bernie Sanders, and the chief of staff, Huck Gutman -- live a Washington paradigm: a fraction of a life here, a fraction elsewhere. For some, Washington can never be a whole place. "At times for us, it can be a lonely road," Gutman says one afternoon. That road is all the more isolated because his boss is a caucus of one: the only socialist in the U.S. Congress.
Gutman, a pleasantly rumpled 66-year-old with a thick, gray Vandyke beard and a puckish glint in his eyes, is searching for the right words to explain Washington in a windowless basement restaurant of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He pauses, starts to say something, stops and looks around. A stray senator chats quietly with an aide a few tables over. To his left, a reporter tries to extract secrets; to his right, papers are being shuffled. Conversation hovers at low-hum.
"This is a very strange world we're eating in the middle of," he confides. "It's entirely absorbed with itself. It's all so inside the Beltway. I feel the occasional need to break out of this world."
And so it is that he began lobbing poems into the e-mail inboxes of every chief of staff in the Senate. Each note offers escape through verse. Meaty, challenging, thought-provoking lines, accompanied by pages and pages of Gutman's analysis. Poetry that has nothing to do with cloture votes or amendments or motions to recommit. Poetry intended to get his BlackBerry-addicted, tunnel-visioned, life-as-a-treadmill colleagues to think about the "huge dimensions of life that get shortchanged" in the grinder that is Capitol Hill.
Gutman, you see, is also an English professor, though he's on an extended leave of absence from the University of Vermont. Poetry is his way of connecting on a different plane. Despite the myriad interactions of government process, Washington often undermines deep human connection; poetry is his attempt to make the fractional city whole. Or something like that. Gutman is grasping to distill a thought. But Emily Dickinson, a poet of exquisite eloquence on loneliness and isolation, or W.H. Auden or Pablo Neruda always express it better, he says.
As if on cue, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) walks past with her chief of staff, Jane Campbell, the former mayor of Cleveland.
"Hey, Huck," Campbell calls out, "thanks for the poem. I needed that."
"See?" he says. "Times are tough. This life is tough enough . . . "
Again, he's at a loss for words. He turns to William Carlos Williams to bail him out.