When the poet laureate of Arlington decided to send unsolicited poems each week to the mailboxes of 1,000 randomly selected homes in Arlington, he imagined it would make a very modest splash.
“A small surprise amid the advertisements and bills,” said Steven Ratiner, a poet and teacher whose title is perhaps undercelebrated in this town of about 45,000.
He hoped his “Red Letter Poem Project” would “help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings.”
But something unexpected happened: It turned out people were crazy for poems. Ratiner’s small mailbox surprise moved online and exploded into a robust forum of readers and voices, many of them grateful for a break, however fleeting, from the pandemic and other grim world affairs.
Ratiner estimates the poems are being read and shared by tens of thousands of people across New England, and as far afield as Michigan, Georgia, and California. A woman in a Cambridge retirement center shares the poems with a blind resident who used to write poems. A Philadelphia account manager for a financial services firm said the Red Letter poems relieve him from the oppressive stay-at-home order. Michael Milano in Arlington, Va., confessed poetry was “a great leap into the great unknown” for him, but thinks Ratiner’s project is an important public service.
“At this particular time we need a sense of balance, not to take us away from the bad news, but to remind us there is good and bad going on,” Milano, a retired organizational development coach, said in an interview.
Ratiner is not alone in championing poetry as an antidote to life’s woes in general, and to this unsettled time in particular.
“As we face the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are turning to poetry for comfort and courage,” said Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, which in 2019 started a fellowship program for local poets laureate to lead civic poetry programs. This year it awarded $1.1 million to 23 poets laureate, including Porsha Olayiwola of Boston.
Benka said the number of poet laureate positions in towns, cities, and states across America has increased in each of the past five years. Yet despite Massachusetts’ rich literary history, only a handful of its towns and cities have community poets laureate, including Boston, Somerville, Northampton, Amesbury, and Worcester. And Massachusetts is one of only seven states in the country without a state poet laureate.
Poetry, long the domain of little children and specialized enthusiasts, seems to have made a quiet comeback of late.
In 2018, the National Endowment for the Arts found that the number of poetry readers almost doubled in the prior five years, to 28 million adults. Poetry, Benka noted, is accessible and portable, easy to read on devices, and unlike other art forms, costs little or nothing to enjoy.
“There continues to be a myth out there that poetry is not a popular art form, but it actually is,” said Benka. “What we’ve seen is that when we encounter moments of concern, poetry is uniquely adept at the healing process, at helping people process and make meaning of things.”
Had it not been for the pandemic, the Red Letter Poem Project might well have remained the modest mass mailing Ratiner originally envisioned. The project’s name was inspired by a random factoid he’d once stumbled across: In ancient Rome, feast days were marked on the calendar by red letters.
Believing that “every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day,” Ratiner readied his plan to assemble volunteers to address bright red envelopes and mail out weekly poems by local career poets, amateurs, and students.
Then the coronavirus seemed to foil his plans. No more groups of volunteers. No more meetings with prospective funders.
But after a week of isolation and angst, it hit him: “This is exactly the time you wish someone would surprise you with a poem.”
He modified the project to a weekly e-mail sporting a fire-engine red banner — a tip of the hat to the original red envelopes. He partnered with seven Arlington arts organizations, which blasted them to their mailing lists.
Early offerings included “Pinckney Street,” Fred Marchant’s homage to Beacon Hill, and Susan Donnelly’s “Chanson on the Red Line” which finds beauty in the mundane familiarity of a subway platform. But as the pandemic became a “triple pandemic,” Ratiner said, with the economic aftershocks and acts of racist violence across the country, it struck Ratiner that poetry had more to offer at this time than surprise and delight: It could bridge isolation, promote healing, and provide “a momentary stay against confusion,” he said, borrowing a phrase from Robert Frost.
So he re-imagined it once more, introducing Red Letters 2.0. He broadened the call for poems to include poets across Boston, and posted poems offering perspective on current times, such as Miriam Levine’s take on self-isolation, “Staying In.”
I’ve done enough chores to last a lifetime.
My scrubbed blouse hangs dripping from the rack,
my soaked socks slung over the rail.
One week he posted a new poem he wrote, “Waking,” which is his recollection of being a small boy watching horrifying news “on the basement Philco/those fierce black-and-white clips:/police dogs, fire hoses, the crack of gun shots and,/in Mississippi, flames devouring a tiny white-/clapboard church with — Walter Cronkite’s quiet eyes —/some parishioners trapped inside.”
Someone shared it on the listserv of the Warwick town library, which led to a dialogue among readers about racism and church arson in the South, which broadened to a conversation about the 1963 bombing by white supremacists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four young girls died.
Ratiner has been writing poetry as long as he can remember. He grew up in New York in a nonliterary family but found solace in writing when he was 8 and his father died. No one had told him how sick his father was, “and all of a sudden there was a big flurry and he was gone. It propelled me into a type of inwardness where I could use my notebook and really have the conversations I couldn’t have with people outside.”
He kept his writing a secret until middle school, when a typing teacher caught him typing his poems in class. She asked to see more, then exempted him from touch-typing practice to let him type his poems. “She’d smile at me and hand them back, and . . . I began to see myself as a public poet.”
He moved to the Boston area in 1975, and has had a fruitful career as an “itinerant poet,” having taught more than 300 poetry residencies in schools throughout New England as part of a Massachusetts artists-in-residence program. He’s published three collections of poetry and his work has appeared in dozens of journals.
Ratiner said he’s thrilled his project has been helpful during this hard time, especially since many of the readers reading the Red Letter poems “are not the ones browsing the poetry aisles.”
He corrected himself. “Back when we could browse the poetry aisles.”
Poems in the Red Letter Poem Project can be found at yourarlington.com
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org