Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Another reason I love Boston...
Tobin wants a city poet, if council's not averse
By Matt Viser, Globe Staff January 24, 2007

O Mayor, my Mayor!
Or: To get betimes to Boston town, I avoid the I-90 connector.

Saying it is time to update the extensive but somewhat musty canon of poetry about Boston, a city councilor is proposing that a poet laureate be appointed to record in verse the ins and outs of local life.

In addition to composing works about Boston, according to a proposal by Councilor John Tobin, the city's poet laureate would be charged with educating the public about the ancient art form. He or she would also compose poems for functions such as the State of the City address, swearing in municipal officials, and high school graduations.

"It would bring another special quality to major city events and chronicle the everyday happenings of the city, from a poetry point of view," Tobin said.

According to his measure -- which he has asked a local poet to put into verse for presentation to the City Council next week -- Boston's poets laureate would be selected by a committee of city officials and representatives from arts communities. They would serve terms of one or two years. Tobin said he is unsure yet whether there would be a stipend.

Despite a rich tradition of poetry in New England, neither Boston nor Massachusetts has had a poet laureate. But in recent years, cities across the country increasingly have been designating official bards, possibly a reaction to war and a widespread sense that these are momentous times.

"People are searching for something that has some more meaning to it," said Doris Stengel, president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies.

Thirty-nine states have poets laureate , and in the last year St. Paul, Vancouver, and Santa Fe have all established poet laureate positions. Legislation pending in the Massachusetts House by Representative Paul K. Frost, an Auburn Republican, would create a state post.

The quality and prestige of the positions seem to vary across the country, as does the pay. The poet laureate in Denver gets a $2,000 stipend, while the position in Queens, N.Y., is purely honorary.

There has been controversy. A New Jersey poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, was asked to resign after he wrote a work titled "Somebody Blew Up America" that some considered anti-Semitic. When he refused to resign, the Legislature eliminated the position.

Tobin said he wants Boston's poets to have the authority to write about whatever they want, even if that involves negative imagery or emotions, for instance, violence in Roxbury or resentment in Allston over Harvard's expansion plans.

"They would capture moments in time," Tobin said. "It's kind of a chronicler of events that happen in the city."

Boston has a long history of poets who have used the city as their muse . Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem about the USS Constitution in 1830 that was credited with saving the ship. Walt Whitman wrote "A Boston Ballad," and T.S. Eliot wrote "The Boston Evening Transcript." Robert Lowell's mournful lament "For the Union Dead" features images of digging an underground parking garage at the Common and industrial decay in South Boston.

John B. Hynes, Boston's mayor in the 1950s, wrote a 13-stanza poem titled, "Boston." ("Don't you love this city with its wrinkled brow/ And its streets laid out by the wandering cow?")

Local poets are excited about the idea of creating a poet laureate job, but say the position should be structured to allow the poets to write about what inspires them, not just ceremonial events.
"Very often when a poet writes something on deadline, it doesn't really work out," said Benjamin Paloff, poetry coeditor at Boston Review, a literary magazine.

One challenge, some say, would be in filling the new position . The area is full of poets, but Cambridge is considered the hotbed.

"If you just want to do people who reside in Boston, it may be harder than you think" to find one suitable for the job, said Jeff Robinson, founder of the Lizard Lounge Poetry Jam and host of the biweekly radio show "Poetry Jam" on WMBR-FM (88.1).

Some area residents aren't so sure about the whole idea.

"I don't even know what that is," said Dave Hutchinson, a downtown worker ordering coffee at Starbucks.

"It's nice and makes everybody feel good, but there are telling things that need to be addressed before something fluffy like this," said his friend Kevin Cronan.

"I'm sure there will be opposition to this," Tobin said. "And knowing how smart Boston is, it will probably be in poetry."

Matt Viser can be reached at

Tobin wants a city poet, if council's not averse - The Boston Globe

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