With nothing but support being offered at a Boston City Council hearing on March 27—including an enthusiastic endorsement from Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration—it looks like Boston will have a poet laureate soon. Local City Councilor John Tobin chaired the hearing about a resolution he proposed in January that was then sponsored by most councilors to establish a poet laureate for Boston. Tobin said his idea was inspired by his constituents: by the interest in poetry and the actual laureate idea he heard about in Jamaica Plain.
JP residents Joseph Bergin and Robert Shortsleeve, as well as three other poetry activists and fans, also testified in favor. Although press reports quoted some local literati as opposed to having a laureate, no one testified against the measure. The next step discussed at the hearing is the appointment of a committee to select the poet laureate.
Cultural Identity, Homage to History
The following statement was delivered as testimony at the March 27 City Council hearing by Julie Burns, director of the City of Boston Office of Arts, Tourism, & Special Events:
The Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism & Special Events supports the appointment of a Poet Laureate for the City of Boston. This position would contribute to Boston’s vibrant cultural identity, while paying homage to Boston’s illustrious literary history.
A growing number of cities and towns, as well as 39 states, have the position of poet laureate. Few of them, however, can match Boston’s poetical tradition.
Many famous poets have written odes to Boston, starting with John Winthrop’s “City On A Hill.”
In 1830, Oliver Wendell Holmes penned “Old Ironsides,” a poem credited with helping to save the USS Constitution.
Ralph Waldo Emerson lived on Beacon Hill and walked to Boston Latin School on School Street. As an adult he was a frequent visitor to Brook Farm in Roxbury along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He recited his poem “Boston Hymn” at the Music Hall in 1863 on the day the Emancipation Proclamation
Walt Whitman celebrated our city in “A Boston Ballad” in 1854.
In 1950 then-Mayor John B. Hynes wrote a 13-stanza poem titled, “Boston.”
Bostonian David McCord read a poem in Queen Elizabeth’s honor at the Old State House in July of 1976 during her visit to Boston.
At present, Mayor Thomas Menino incorporates poetry in many public events. His 2005 inaugural program included a poem written by two teenage girls, Monique Symes and Shalaya West, of Girlz Radio.
For the past three years the halls in this building have been adorned with poetry submitted by Boston poets as part of the “Mayor’s Prose and Poetry” program.
The Women’s Memorial on Commonwealth Avenue, dedicated in 2003, honors one of Boston’s women poets, Phyllis Wheatley, a freed slave who was a member of the Old South Meeting House on Washington Street when she wrote her famous ode to George Washington.
During the month of April, Boston traditionally marks National Poetry Month with programs in the schools and at the libraries.
Robert Pinsky, former National Poet Laureate, now teaching at Boston University, celebrated National Poetry Month with the Favorite Poem Project in 2000 where people read their favorite poems at libraries throughout the city. Those poems are at the Library of Congress where they will be enjoyed by people throughout the ages.
For the past 18 years an Intergenerational Poetry contest attracting between 350 and 500 entries annually has been a popular program at the West Roxbury Branch Library. The theme for the 2007 contest is “Listening to Many Voices.” The winners will read their poetry at the library on April 26.
Every year the Boston Public Library Foundation sponsors a collaborative creative writing program for every school in the city and publishes the winning entries. The theme for 2007 is “Learning Connects Boston,” and the awards will be given on Sun., May 6 in the Students’ Center at UMass Boston.
This heritage is alive and well throughout the neighborhoods, too. From Roxbury’s O’Bryant School participation in the Poetry Out Loud program to poetry slams in Hyde Park to spoken word programs in Dorchester, poetry remains an integral thread in Boston’s cultural quilt.
Shaun O’Connell, a retired professor from UMass, writes in “Imagining Boston, a Literary Landscape,” 1990, “The city has been a poem, regularly revised and amplified by its citizens: an urban ‘Leaves of Grass.’”
Boston has a long history of talented poets celebrating the city. The appointment of a poet laureate could do for the city as the national “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” is charged with doing for the nation, “serve as the city’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Bostonians.” Mayor Menino looks forward to working with you on this exciting project.