To live the life of a poet, says the actor Chris Noth, “is the ultimate political act, one of incredible bravery.”
At the very least, it’s an act of resistance or dissent, and one of last great dissenters, Peter Kane Dufault, will join Noth at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts on September 23 for a conversation, a poetry reading and a screening of a new film about Dufault, What I Meant to Tell You: An American Poet’s ‘State of the Union’.
Noth, best known for his roles in Law and Order, Sex and the City and The Good Wife, is the film’s associate producer.
In the 1970s, he was a student at the Barlow School, a small, progressive boarding school in the Hudson Valley, where Peter Dufault was a teacher.
Dufault was the best teacher he ever had, said Noth, who later attended Marlborough College and the Yale School of Drama.
“He opened up a way of life to me, a life of the imagination; he showed us through his example how that life can be developed and explored through poetry,” said Noth.
What I Meant to Tell You: An American Poet’s ‘State of the Union’ was directed by Ethan Dufault, the poet’s son, and is based on Dufault’s conversations with his father.
The title of the film, What I Meant to Tell You refers not only to what a poet might tell his country, were it willing to listen to poets, but what a father might tell his son.
“The title suggests what it is we wish we had said and heard from the people we love,” said Dufault, whose parents separated when he was a child.
But according to Michael Thomas, the film’s producer, What I meant to Tell You transcends the merely personal.
“Peter Dufault is a World War II veteran, a boxer, a musician, an environmentalist and a political activist as well as a poet. You can chart our history through his life,” said Thomas.
For Peter Dufault, poetry is the constant in his life.
“Everything else is secondary to poetry; poetry is the touchstone for every move I make,” he said.
“I concluded early in life that time was of the essence; it’s a non-recouperable commodity; every job I took was something that gave me time to squeeze out whatever poetry was in me,” Dufault said. “To be a poet means to live my own life.”
“His embattled status as a poet and a political activist is part of his strength,” says Ethan Dufault.
But, he said, his father’s “contentiousness” has hurt him professionally.
“He’s refused to play the game, but his life has not been an easy one,” said Ethan Dufault.
(Or, as Peter Dufault himself says, “I ain’t venerated, I’m resented. In England, I’m considered a great American poet. The English like my politics.”)
In 1968, Dufault ran for Congress on an anti-war platform; shortly thereafter, he began teaching at Barlow, where he taught a course in American history.
“It was unlike any other history course they were likely to take,” recalls Dufault. “It was a matter of life and death for these kids, who were either going to be drafted or find some dodge to avoid the draft. How did this nation get to the point where we were incinerating villages in Southeast Asia? That’s what I wanted them to understand.”
Politics has never been far from the center of Dufault’s life, nor for that matter, from his poetry, which makes him a rarity among American poets.
“What’s bothered me most about the majority of American poets is that they are less and less engaged; while the United States, this great millenial experiment, is crumbling at the joints, they’re undisturbed,” said Dufault. “They seem to be suffering from an attention deficit disorder.”
Dufault was first exposed to left-wing politics as an undergraduate at Harvard, when a classmate took him to a meeting of the campus chapter of the John Reed Club, then dominated by party-line communists.
Not one to adopt any party’s line, Dufault never returned. Nevertheless, in the 1950s, he found himself blacklisted from New York newspapers. He headed north, becoming editor of the Catskill Daily Mail. He then found his way into teaching.
“For me, he was a sage,” said Chris Noth. “He was always interested in what you had to say. When you showed him a poem or an essay, you always went away with a kernel of something to work with. He didn’t treat us as school boys to be talked at.”
But Dufault’s “vivacity, his capacity for enjoying life, whether it was through a soccer game, chess or a conversation,” was also a lesson in living in the world, said Noth.
“Chris Noth has done more for this film than I could have asked,” said Ethan Dufault.
In addition to helping win attention for the film, Noth also played a role, albeit an indirect one, in its inception, said Dufault.
“My father and I are both birders, and we happened to run into one another on a bird walk,” said Dufault. “He mentioned that Chris Noth had approached him about making a film about Robert Frost, but some how that fell through. So I suggested that I make a film about him.”
Of the film, Peter Dufault says, “Film is not my medium; I don’t have any personal, aesthetic or political stake in it. When Ethan first asked me to look at the footage, I was astonished by how good it was. The piece of film that I saw was of a person reciting a poem; it didn’t register as me, it was just some agreeable old fart speaking poetry; it sounded good. It was a collaboration of film and poetry which I’d never seen before. I agreed to sign on but to back off; I’ve remained outside of it by choice. Ethan has his own agenda.”
The Lake Placid Center for the Arts is located at 17 Algonquin Drive in Lake Placid. The program, which is co-sponsored by the Lake Placid Institute, starts at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 per adult and $2 per student. People under 18 will be admitted at no cost.
The film makers are especially interested in attracting young people to the event, hence the low prices for tickets, said Michael Thomas.
“Peter Dufault is an 87 year old volcano,” said Thomas. “The kids are open to his message. They get it. We’ve held Question and Answer periods wherever we’ve screened the film, and the questions have been fantastic.”
Chris Noth will screen the film at NYU, Columbia, Yale, Middlebury and other schools.
“I talk to a lot of kids, and I’m chagrined when they say they want to study business or communications; those years of high school and college should be the time of intellectual awakening. My hope is that this film about Peter Dufault will have the same effect on them that he had on me,” said Noth.
“Today, poetry is an endangered species,” Noth said. “Peter made you feel that poetry was a noble and worthwhile endeavor, and I still feel that.”
For more information about the event , contact the Lake Placid Center for the Arts at 518-523-1312.
Photos: Noth and Dufault in New York courtesy of Lake Placid Center for the Arts; Ethan and Peter Dufault courtesy of Ethan Dufault.
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