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Bill would create first official Massachusetts poet laureate

From left: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Emily Dickinson.
From left: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Emily Dickinson.From left: Otto Herschan/Getty images, Associated Press, John M. Hurley/Globe staff, and Amherst Collge archives and special collections

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath. Some of the country’s most admired poets have come from Massachusetts, yet almost four centuries after its founding the Commonwealth remains among just a handful of states that don’t designate a poet laureate.

That could soon change.

A bill finally gaining traction on its third filing in the State House would empower the governor to appoint a poet laureate, responsible for bringing a greater appreciation of poetry to residents across the Commonwealth, especially schoolchildren. After favorable votes from three committees, the bill is under final review before being sent to the full House of Representatives for a vote.

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Its cosponsor, state Representative Denise Provost, traces her support for public poetry back to her childhood, when she heard Robert Frost, then the US poet laureate, reciting “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration.

Provost supports the designation of a poet laureate in part, she said, because she sees how poetry is used to express powerful emotions at ceremonial events such as weddings, funerals, and public vigils.

“Even though we live in a culture that’s fairly dismissive towards the idea of poetry in many ways, it’s still something that people go to for consolation and for inspiration and even for entertainment,” said Provost, a Somerville Democrat. “Let’s bring it back into the public square where it belongs.”

The bill’s lead sponsor, state Representative Sarah K. Peake, said a constituent approached her several years ago at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown to ask why the state had no poet laureate and what she could do about it.

Peake said Massachusetts is one of only six states, and the only New England state, without a poet laureate.

“I think if 44 other states have found a way to do this, certainly we can find a way to do this,” said Peake, a Provincetown Democrat. “I think we have a richness in the arts here where . . . it’s time for this to happen.”

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After being assigned to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development, Peake sought advice on drafting a bill from Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, who had helped run the state poet laureate program in Iowa.

“I said, ‘It’s high time,’ ” Walker recalled of their first meeting. “Massachusetts absolutely should be . . . recognizing the valuable contributions of our amazing literary legacy that we have left, not only for the nation but for the world.”

Under Peake’s bill, the governor would select a new poet laureate every two years from names submitted by a five-person nominating committee that would include the Senate president and speaker of the House, or their designees, and three members appointed by the governor, two of whom must be board members of the Cultural Council.

Many Massachusetts cities and towns have poet laureates, including Boston, Brookline, and New Bedford. Cambridge has a poet populist — elected by city residents rather than appointed — and Somerville is in the process of establishing a poet laureate.

Peake said that at a public hearing on the bill, a woman testified that a long-ago visit to her middle school by New Bedford’s poet laureate had inspired her to pursue a career in literature and the arts.

“That was pretty powerful for me to hear that,” Peake said.

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If the bill passes, local poets said, there will be a rich pool of talent to choose from.

“There are probably more poets per square inch in parts of Massachusetts than anywhere else,” said Lloyd Schwartz, a poet, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, and professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“The whole Boston-Cambridge-Somerville-Medford area is thick with poets and poetry readings — and really distinguished poets,” Schwartz said. “Two national poet laureates live within a block and a half of one another: Robert Pinsky and Louise Glück.”

Local poets declined to name any likely candidates to be the state’s first poet laureate, should the bill pass, but they said there are candidates who would be considered obvious within the local poetry community.

“There’s a handful of poets whose names would automatically come up,” said Charles Coe, a program officer at the Cultural Council and author of two books of poetry, “and Person X might prefer one to another but would acknowledge that all the names mentioned would be very solid, very viable candidates.”

Coe expressed concern, though, that the current bill includes no stipend or expense reimbursements for a position that would entail many hours spent traveling around the state.

“Too often, poets are expected to give their work away,” Coe said. “I think it’s not the message that we want to send to the poetry community. No one expects their plumber to fix their pipes for free.”

Peake said she hopes to eventually find funds to support the position, but her first priority is getting the bill passed. With just a few weeks left in the current legislative session, time is short to bring it to a vote, and Provost said it’s no sure thing — in the past, some legislators have seen it as frivolous.

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“There was a time when it couldn’t get out of an important committee because the committee chairman described it as ‘a fluff bill,’ ” Provost said, “which I think is interesting in a state that has an official state doughnut.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.