Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Poetry for Boston

April is National poetry month and Massachusetts has a number of famous poets who were born, raised, educated or lived their lives in our cities and towns. Robert Frost, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickenson and Stanly Kunitz could all call Massachusetts home and many wrote poems and stories inspired by the people they knew, places they lived and scenes they saw. The State Library of Massachusetts has a number of these poets’ works in our collection as well as biographies and compilations.

In honor of National Poetry Month, I went looking through our catalog for poets or specific poems to highlight. While searching, I came across a number of poetry books with a focus on the city of Boston. I was struck by the broad range of the subjects, authors and tones of these poems, each celebrating (and at times even lamenting) the same city. The three books I chose to further concentrate on for this blog where picked for their drastically different styles and years that they were written or published.

Poems of the "Old South" is a volume of poems published in 1877 by William F. Gill to help raise funds for the preservation of the Old South Church, also known as The Old South Meeting House. “Old South” was originally built in 1729 as a Puritan meeting house where people assembled up through the American Revolution. In 1877, the church was nearly demolished but was saved when it was established as a museum and Poems of the Old South was put together so raise money for preservation work needed at the time.

Most of the poems in the collection praise the church and its historical significance to Boston. Many of the poets regard it as a symbol of liberty due its connection with early colonizers who came to the new world. James Freeman Clarke’s poem boasts in his personified work The "Old South" Speaks that:
Though prouder domes are elsewhere swelling, 
And loftier spires salute the morn, 
Let Boston save the plain old dwelling
Where Freedom for mankind was born”

Boston in My Blood was written by Elizabeth F. Leach, a local school teacher and poet. Born in Brookline, a Boston University graduate and a teacher in the Somerville school system for 40 years, Leach was a Massachusetts native through and through.  In 1963, Leach privately printed and published the book of poetry, Boston in my Blood.

Leach’s poems have short lines that fall into simple rhyme schemes. Her poems offer witty remarks that at times may only be understood by a Bostonian. Her poems fall into distinct categories such as “Of Boston Bachelors” or “Spinsters of the Hub”.  Colleges get their own section with titles like BU? BC? BC? BU? B-Musing and The Man From MIT.  Other poems take us on a ride geographically, from Balloon Man at the Garden’s Gate to March Winds Along Boylston Street, winds that can still be felt as you walk through Copley Square.  Although published in 1963, many of the poems continue to ring true today including Subway Sputtering’s which describes subway woes at peak commuting house even 50 years ago:
When it’s Five o’clock at Park Street
As commuters mill about,  
One can hear the starters shouting,
“Let’em  out, please let ‘em out!” 
Once that last Lechmere survivor 
(We must hope that he is thin)
Has descended, comes the struggle, 
“Let’em in, please, let’em in!”

After the Boston Marathon Bombing in April of 2013, Deborah Finkelstein, a poet, playwright and professor, wanted to help. Like One: Poems for Boston is an anthology of poetry created to raise money for The One Fund, a charity for Boston Marathon victims. Finkelstein chose works from many well-known poets such as William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman, but also has a large selection of modern writers as well.

What is incredible about Like One is that while a few pieces mention Boston, it is not a book focused on the city or the bombings per say. Instead, it brings together a series of poems that inspire unity and healing, like what happens to communities after a tragedy. Part of the reason for this feeling is that Finkelstein encouraged poets and people to send in poems that have lifted their spirits in their own lives. At the end of Jill McDonough’s poem Accident, Mass Ave., a piece describing a minor accident between herself and a woman, she writes after the two have yelled and swore at each other:
Well, there’s nothing wrong with my car, nothing wrong
with your car…are you Ok? She nodded, and started
to cry, so I put my arms around her, and I held her, middle
of the street, Mass. Ave., Boston, a couple blocks from the bridge.
I hugged her, and I said We were scared, weren’t we?
And she nodded and we laughed.”

McDonough finds a perfect way to describe the fear that was felt in the city at the time of the bombings and how we found ways to heal, whether it was with poetry or each other.

Check out more information for National Poetry month here. For events in Massachusetts see the Boston National Poetry month Festival and Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

Stephanie Turnbull
Reference Librarian