Friday, November 19, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)

 The Red Letter Poem Project


The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”


Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.


Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:


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 #85



Years back, I had the great good fortune of engaging in conversation with Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney for an interview collection I was putting together.  I’d long admired the rich musicality of his writing, and the uncanny way he could make us feel the confluence of history, memory, and the magic of the natural world as undercurrents beneath each compelling line.  “But this isn't peculiar to me,” he said, deflecting my praise.  “This belongs to the language [itself.]  I think everybody, whether or not they're conscious of it, responds to these things. . .  we do have certain associations with certain sounds.  And what a poet is doing is unconsciously working with that.”  Reminding me of T. S. Eliot’s idea of the 'auditory imagination', he added: “Eliot talks about the feeling for syllable and rhythm reaching below the conscious levels, uniting the most ancient and most civilized mentality.  I feel that about the word 'culvert.'  It's got a kind of dark-hole-under-the-ground within it.  And stored in the system, in the big archive of every ear, there is a memory of hearing a very thin trickle of water in a big, echoey under-place. . .The collusion between the verbal thing and the human store in the ear, I mean, that's the mysterious nub of the matter.”


And so it is with Sarah Bennett’s new poem “My New Word”.  Written early on in the pandemic when the news was generally bleak and we were concerned whether ‘essential workers’ would continue putting their health and wellbeing on the line, just so we’d be able to purchase chicken breasts, cheddar cheese, and a supply of toilet paper.  Sarah’s choice of ‘anti-anxiety medication’ was a large supply of mystery novels which she devoured nightly.  It pleased her that a character like Nero Wolfe, the portly detective, was as fond of good food and fanciful language as he was of solving mysteries.  Sarah found herself keeping a running list of his words she wished to investigate: thaumaturge, minatory, casuistry, rodomontade.  Of course, even when we require Webster’s assistance, that does not mean we haven’t grasped, via poetic intuition, something about what freight might be carried within these words, what exploits they’ve had and what nuances of meaning acquired as they’ve passed through thousands of mouths. 

Having read Sarah’s first poetry collection, The Fisher Cat (Dytiscid Press), I understood how language was a sea her mind navigated continually; but in this poem, she allows us to wade in beside her, feeling the riptides tugging at our thought.  She sent me a little essay she wrote about reading these Rex Stout who-dunnits while the dark headlines of the Covid crisis swirled as a backdrop.  I guess detective stories do remind us that we are capable of working through problems, and order may yet be restored (even while fear and the death toll continue to rise.)  It’s a situation that calls for a word like minatory, don’t you think?  Sarah's piece concludes: “We need Nero Wolfe to come down from his orchid rooms and solve this mess. We need a thaumaturge.”  Even before you look it up, tell me you don’t already half-believe in the magic that might be contained there.



My New Word



In desperationfor distraction I have been readingNero Wolfe detective storiesone after anotherfast as I canand came upon a word I did not know: helotwhich sounded something between a hellionand a zealot.


A glance at the newssays Tyson must remain opendespite the plague:the humans shoulder to shoulderat the refrigerated slabdisassembling chickensone after anotherfast as they can.Something between a citizen and a slave.



­­                              –– Sarah Bennett


  1. Frightening poem, especially as I had just read the spikes in Covid in my county this morning... I keep asking: Why is everyone acting like it is over? Are we just slaves to the Corporations? This poem is a good reminder of who we are...