JP inspires poet laureate proposal

February 2, 2007
By

LOU MANCINELLI

Boston may soon have a poet laureate, maybe to describe the skyline in a silhouette at twilight. Or to document the footsteps of the early 21st century city society, its men and women in pleated business suits, students and pockets of poverty. And the proposal came out of this community.

An order was filed by local City Councilor John Tobin Wednesday at the City Council’s regular weekly meeting in the form of a poem, written by Jamaica Plain resident and member of JP Carpenter Poets, Joseph Bergin. The order will be assigned to a City Council committee. A public hearing will also be scheduled to discuss the order.

“There are times in the affairs of a great metropolis/when only poetry can give a voice to the profound/sentiments of solemnity or celebration of the general populace…there is a rich and time honored tradition/of famed poets and poems written of this great city…Therefore Be It,” excerpts from the poem say.

Tobin said the idea originated when a group of JP residents approached him last month. He said a public process could begin by April, and a poet could be named as early as this summer.

“I’ve been wishing Boston had a poet laureate for years,” said Bergin in a Gazette interview. “I mentioned it to the Mayor’s Office a few years ago. I’m thrilled Tobin has taken the torch.”

Tobin said the laureate could read works at public events such as the state of the city or high school graduations. “The poet could even speak at solemn events like the funeral of a dignitary, if that’s what the family wanted,” he said.

Bergin said Boston is alive with a variety of characters, flavor and personality only a poet could capture.

A committee composed of representatives from the city’s colleges and universities, the arts community and city officials would judge potential candidates.

“I’m certainly in favor of Boston having a poet laureate…,” said another local Carpenter Poet, Bill Thibodeau, in a response to a Gazette e-mail. “Any city or state worth its salt should have such a rotating position…The office should be filled by someone who has the guts to say in verse all that is right and wrong with the City of Boston…Those in power should beware that they will often be the targets of the poet,” he said. “If it’s to be taken for a purely propaganda producing machine—bumper sticker quotes telling how great this or that person or historical event is—I think it best that it not exist.”

The laureate idea brings up some controversies.

Thibodeau said he fears only poets who work in academia will be considered. He said a quick glance through poetry magazines and anthologies will prove that a majority of the poets are professors or somehow affiliated with a university or institution. “I don’t think those poets spend much time in Roxbury or Mattapan or East Boston or Chinatown,” he said.

Thibodeau also said there is ongoing competition from poets from Cambridge who say poetry on their side of the river is better than Boston poets’.

Tobin said the laureate would serve a one- or two-year term and receive a stipend. “It won’t cost the city a lot of money,” he said. “This it not a $150,000-a-year-with-benefits position.”

Thibodeau said he is in favor of something like a six-month tenure. “A year or
longer with one laureate may prove limiting—and a year with a bad laureate may kill the whole thing,” he said. “There are too many diverse voices out there that need to heard.”

The position will reflect Boston’s already rich literary history, Tobin said. Edgar Allen Poe was born in Boston, and JP has been home to Sylvia Plath, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Anne Sexton. E.E. Cummings is buried here.

A number of cities around the US, like New York, Santa Fe and Denver, already have a poet laureate. There is also a poet laureate for the entire country.

Tobin said he is not himself a poet, but is a fan of the arts. Tobin chairs the City Council’s Committee on Arts, Film, Humanities and Tourism.

At the City Council meeting on Wednesday, Tobin talked about reading Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” at Word on the Street last summer and being impressed with the large crowd of listeners at Sweet Finnish. The poetry reading series is part of First Thursdays, sponsored by JP Centre/South Main Streets.

“Arts and music are treated as luxuries in the schools,” said Tobin. “I think it’s a crime. Art is a way for kids to express themselves and it builds confidence. It will stay with you forever.”

Tobin joked, “If you play football you could lose your knees by 35.”
Not all Boston residents are excited about the order. “More proof the Boston City Council is completely useless,” said mcsteve20 on a Boston.com blog set-up to gauge reactions to the proposal.

Tobin said his job is to represent his constituents. It was his constituents who came to him with the idea. “So I said I’ll put it out there,” said Tobin.

Tobin said he would prefer the laureate be a Boston resident. He also said there is no reason Cambridge or Somerville or any municipality could not name their own poet laureate.

According to Tobin, even if the City Council does not approve the order, there will be a poet laureate somewhere in Boston.

“Whether it’s for the City [of Boston], the City Council or District 6, there will be a poet laureate,” Tobin declared.

“Credit to all the open mics and poetry slams and Carpenter Poets who kept at it after Frost died,” said Thibodeau.

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