Friday, April 30, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project

 The Red Letter Poem Project


The Red Letters 2.0:  When I was first appointed as Poet Laureate for Arlington, MA one of my goals was to help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings.  The Red Letter Poems Project was going to be a novel way of sharing Arlington’s poetic voices, sent off in bright red envelopes, a one-off mass mailing intended to surprise and delight.  But when the Corona crisis struck, and families everywhere were suffering a fearful uncertainty in enforced isolation, I converted the idea into an e-version which has gone out weekly ever since.  Because of the partnership I forged with seven organizations, mainstays of our community, the poems have been able to reach tens of thousands of readers, throughout Arlington and far beyond its borders.  I hope you too are grateful that these groups stepped up and reached out: The Arlington Commission for Arts and CultureThe Arlington Center for the ArtsThe Arlington Public LibraryThe Arlington International Film Festival, Arlington Community Education, The Council on Aging, and – each of which distributes or posts the new Red Letter installments and, in many cases, provide a space where all the poems of this evolving anthology continue to be available.  And I’m delighted to add our newest RLP partner: Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene – a blog that is a marvelous poetry resource.


But now we are experiencing a triple pandemic: the rapid spread of the Covid virus, which then created an economic catastrophe, and served to further expose our long-standing crises around race and social justice.  My hope is to have the Red Letters continue as a forum for poetic voices – from Arlington and all of the Commonwealth – that will help us gain perspective on where we are at this crucial moment and how we envision a healing will emerge.  So please: pass the word, submit new poems, continue sharing the installments with your own e-lists and social media sites (#RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona), and help further the conversation.  Art-making has always been the way we human beings reflect on what is around us, work to alter our circumstances, and dream of what may still be possible.  In its own small way, the Red Letters intends to draw upon our deepest voices to promote just such a healing and share our enduring hope for something better.    


If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your in-box plus notices about future poetry events, send an e-mail to: with the subject line ‘mailing list’.


In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                              – Steven Ratiner



Red Letter Poem #57



A strange art – music” wrote the 19th century short story master Guy de Maupassant; “— the most poetic and precise of all the arts, vague as dream and precise as algebra.”  This won’t come as news to Rita Dove – writer, educator and, more importantly, one of America’s most celebrated poets.  She began studying the cello at age 10 and added the viola da gamba in her twenties – but gradually her musical allegiance shifted from the bow to the pen; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Her 1986 breakthrough collection, Thomas and Beulah, was inspired by the lives of her maternal grandparents and the ‘Great Migration’ that resulted in so many Black families resettling in the North.  The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making her only the second African American at the time to be so honored.  Since then, a stream of impressive books has followed – and a thorough accounting of the accolades from her lifetime in letters would require much more space than I have at my disposal, but let me mention just two: in 1993, she was appointed as the United States Poet Laureate; and in 2011, President Barack Obama hung the prestigious National Medal of Arts around her neck.

But reading through the poetry, it’s clear that her musical training still holds sway.  The rhythmical structure, for example, is never merely a support for the language of her poems; it is, in and of itself, a meaning-making instrument by which the poet sounds the reader's emotional depth and helps them navigate uncharted waters.  This is especially true in “Testimony: 1968”, the poem I selected for this week’s Red Letter.  It will appear in Rita’s forthcoming Playlist for the Apocalypse, her eleventh collection, to be released this summer from W. W. Norton (and used with the kind permission of the poet.)  Here, she steps away from the improvisational riffs of free verse to return to the villanelle, a centuries-old ballad-like verse form from the French.  Like music, such poems are mechanisms for measuring time: progressions and delays; repetitions and sudden shifts; perfections and (painfully) the all-too-human imperfections within our lives.  When I read Rita’s poem, my first reaction was: still?!  How can such a dirge still be au courant, a half-century from the events she’s calling to mind?  How can it be that we’ve learned nothing from our troubled history?  As the poet seems to both speed up and slow down time’s passage, the poem does indeed take on the vague malaise of bad dreams but also the exacting algebra of our recent racial reckoning: who and what resides on either side of the American equal sign?  Rita Dove offers no easy assurances.  We readers are left to solve for X.     



Testimony: 1968



Who comforts you now that the wheel has broken?

No more princes for the poor. Loss whittling you thin.

Grief is the constant now, hope the last word spoken.


In a dance of two elegies, which circles the drain? A token

year with its daisies and carbines is where we begin.              

Who comforts you now? That the wheel has broken


is Mechanics 101; to keep dreaming when the joke’s on

you? Well, crazier legends have been written.                          

Grief is the constant now; hope, the last word spoken


on a motel balcony, shouted in a hotel kitchen. No kin

can make this journey for you. The route’s locked in.              

Who comforts you now that the wheel has broken


the bodies of its makers? Beyond the smoke and                    

ashes, what you hear rising is nothing but the wind. 

Who comforts you? Now that the wheel has broken,


grief is the constant. Hope: the last word spoken.



                                                –– Rita Dove


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