Cain '13 Explores Pastoral Poetry Through Emerson Grant

Martin Cain '13
Martin Cain '13

Creative writing concentrator Martin Cain’s poetry has already appeared in a number of literary journals, so his award of an Emerson Foundation Summer Research Grant to pursue a study focused on “pastoral” poetry should come as no surprise. Cain ’13 was also the youngest writer to attend Middlebury College’s prestigious Bread Loaf Conference in 2011.

The concept of “the pastoral” is still subject to literary debate, but Cain describes the classical definition as “a genre of literature that is concerned with the lives of shepherds in idyllic landscapes.” This definition seems harmless enough, but Cain is concerned that the picture presented by this genre ignores the difficulties associated with rural existence. He is interested in exploring this distortion of country life and is conducting his study under the guidance of Professor of English Onno Oerlemans.

Cain grew up in the small agricultural hamlet of Marlboro, Vt., a town of only 900 residents and dotted with picturesque colonial inns among the surrounding woods. Beneath the pastoral beauty, though, hide the hardships associated with rural life. Cain’s house is located on a dirt road that becomes impassible with mud during the wet season, his closest neighbors live miles away and the town’s population has been slowly shrinking for the past 100 years – the beauty of a quaint existence, according to Cain, is not all that it may seem to be.

Cain doesn’t remember his introduction to the concept of the pastoral, but he does recall being struck by its inaccuracy as a depiction of rural life. “Living in the middle of nowhere is quite a bit more challenging than the lives of Virgil’s shepherds,” he said. “They sit around in fields all day singing and lamenting lost love.” Cain claims that “pastorals were written by city folk for city folk,” and says he’s intrigued by their romanticized descriptions of rural life.

The relationship between the pastoral and modern surrealism is the basis for Cain’s personal interpretation of the topic: “As America is progressively leveled into a wasteland of manicured suburbs, Wal-Mart’s and billboards, the experience of living in a small rural town is becoming increasingly surreal,” he said. Cain is writing poetry that emphasizes the surreal attributes of rural life by contrasting pastoral elements with modern urbanism and suburbia. He is also exploring the relationship between dreams and the emotional nature of traditional pastoral landscapes.   

The process Cain follows when writing poetry, as he describes it, is practically an art form itself. His poems typically start off with a “seed,” such as a dream, a memory or a snippet of an overheard conversation, which he then lets germinate in his mind as he considers the music and tension he is trying to achieve. Cain writes his first draft as quickly as possible to get his ideas on paper, and then he begins the process of consulting fellow writers and revising his work. He says that “sometimes a poem will blossom fairly quickly for me, but more often I find myself obsessively revising pieces for lengthy periods of time.”

This summer’s Emerson project is the beginning of a yearlong exploration of the pastoral that Cain will undertake as a component of his senior fellowship. The majority of his courses this semester will be geared toward researching and writing poetry, along with creating non-narrative videos to be presented with his work. His project will culminate with a multi-media poetry presentation on the pastoral at the end of the academic year.

Cain is a graduate of Brattleboro Union High School (Vt.)

Back to Top