Friday, October 08, 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 #79



when they strike the bell
these gingko leaves are falling –
Temple Kencho-ji


– Soseki Natsume


Do you, too, wait for them each year: a thousand yellowy fans fluttering from wide branches?  But the gingko biloba tree is more than just a treat for the eye; it’s referred to as a ‘living fossil’ and its history runs back 270 million years.  One of the most honored trees in art and poetry – especially throughout Asia where it had its origins – it’s praised for its elegance and strength as well as its medicinal qualities.  Every autumn, for example, tourists flock to Xi’an in China – not only to view the Terracotta Warriors, but to visit a 1,400-year-old ginkgo tree at the Gu Guanyin Buddhist temple as it bathes the courtyard in gold.  Now Lawrence Kessenich is adding his poem to a long and honorable tradition: viewing the beauty – and brevity – of our human existence beside this timekeeper of eternity.


Lawrence certainly deserves to be called a man of letters; a prize-winning poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, and one of the managing editors of the journal Ibbetson Street – he has devoted much of his adult life toward helping nourish our literary endowment.  To my mind, what he’s offering with this new poem is really a praise-song to that beleaguered emotional territory we each must contend with: our fragile sense of hope.  It portrays, in microcosm, an aspect of the continuity that’s sustained our species, our planet – even through the darkest of eras when survival seemed most threatened.  I’m reminded of the great poets from Song Dynasty China like Ouyang Xiu (who, incidentally, also wrote a series of poems about the gingko tree); they championed the idea that our most commonplace moments were worthy of poetry – a literary concept we normally attribute to modernity.  When we practice deepening our attention, we find instances of beauty that are plentiful and close-at-hand.  And likely that feeling is accompanied by the thought – the hope – that such beauty will remain available for our grandchildren’s eyes, and for their grandchildren as well.


Emily Dickinson wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul.”  Then again, it may be a yellow fan-shaped leaf that falls lightly onto the path we’re walking.  Or the urgency of any moment that holds us still, compelled to truly register one vivid impression of a day that might otherwise go unnoticed.  This is not the province of poets and painters alone, but of all of us aging children who are capable of – dare I say it – wide-eyed joy.  Yes, even in these bleak times – at least I hope so.




Ginkgo in Fall




It hemorrhages glowing yellow leaves,
which pool at its base like preternatural
honey, a circle of surrealist sunlight
on still green grass under a cloudy sky.

If I were a painter, I’d break out
the cadmium yellow, then raise a black stalk
of tree and dab bits of color on its branches,
a filigree of falling leaves beneath them.

The tree is Michael the angel, from the movie,
releasing feathers like snowfall as his life
begins to ebb. It’s hard to look at trees
losing their leaves and not think of death,

but I’ve learned that it’s the buds—new life—
that push the leaves into their fatal fall, buds
that will endure the frigid blasts of winter,
produce the next generation of tiny suns.



                        –– Lawrence Kessenich

New Somerville poetry anthology announced by Somerville Poet Laureate Lloyd Schwartz.


 New Somerville poet anthology announced by Somerville Poet Lloyd Schwartz.

I received this letter from Somerville Poet Laureate Lloyd Schwartz.   It is a fine opportunity for young Somerville poets to be published.  Please check it out! 

As a poet myself, who has lived in Somerville for many years, I was honored to be named Somerville’s Poet Laureate, the person who’s in charge of spreading the word about the importance of poetry in all our lives. I’ve been discovering that some really good poems are being written by our younger citizens—high school students and even students younger than that.

This year I was one of 23 American poets from around the entire country to be awarded a “Poets Laureate Fellowship” from the Academy of American Poets, which provided me with some money to fund a variety of programs related to poetry.

The one I’m most excited about is the creation of an anthology of poem by younger Somerville poets, 6th through 12 grades. I’ve met some of you and I’m very impressed with how good your poems are. So I’d like to invite all Somerville students, from grade 6 through high school seniors to write poems about some aspect or quality of Somerville. It could be about your experience of living in or moving to Somerville, your room, your house, your neighborhood, your friends and neighbors, what you see from your window, where you like to hang out or eat, Somerville’s diversity, or even something about Somerville’s fascinating history (like the Nunnery Grounds, Paul Revere’s ride, or even how Somerville got its name). Your poems could be about what you like about Somerville, what you don’t like about Somerville, or how you think Somerville could be better.

What interests you about Somerville that you could write a poem about?

Could you please send me one, two , or three poems to A committee will help me select up to three of your submitted poems to be published in a book called The View from Somerville: Somerville Poems by Somerville Students. Contributors would each receive 20 copies of the book, which you could sell for whatever price you chose (say $15 or $20) or give as gifts. You’d be a published poet!

Please submit your poems by November 18, and I will get back to you as soon as possible after that date. I know you will have some great poems and I look forward to seeing them!


Lloyd Schwartz

Somerville Poet Laureate

This publication is made possible by the Academy of American Poets with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.