A poet for Brookline

With illustrious verse-writers in its past and present, the town is looking for its first official laureate

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / March 1, 2012
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Although many poets have sprung from Brookline over the years - perhaps most famously Amy Lowell, the cigar-smoking Pulitzer Prize winner - the town does not have an official poet.

But in January, selectmen unanimously approved creating the position for a poet laureate, who would take the written word into the community. The pay is low - $1,000 a year - but already writers have started turning in applications to the Brookline Commission for the Arts to be the town’s official proliferator of poetry. The deadline for applications is March 16.

Brookline is following the path of Cambridge and Boston, which have chosen poet laureates over the last few years. The idea started with Zvi Sesling, a poet in town who began his quest to create the local position in 2008.

“I think poetry is just so important that a poet laureate in Brookline could go into the school systems and encourage kids to write, and go into the senior centers,’’ he said. “I think poetry adds a lot to culture, and to life, and to the well-being of people.’’

Sesling, who belongs to the Bagel Bards, a writing group that gathers Saturday mornings at the Au Bon Pain in Somerville’s Davis Square, was unsuccessful at first. The Board of Selectmen never discussed his idea.

Last year on election day, he ran into Selectman Kenneth Goldstein, who joined the board in 2009, and once again talked about his dream of an official town poet. Goldstein, a lawyer who harbors a love for Robert Frost poems, was taken with the idea.

Last month, Goldstein departed from the usual order of business at the selectmen’s meeting to read from a poem called “A Gleam of Sunshine,’’ hoping to inspire support for creating the position.

“I went looking for a poem that would be especially meaningful for Brookline, and for the program that we were planning,’’ he said. “I came across a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was great because it was written on the occasion that he was making a trip to Brookline.’’

Goldstein read the first three verses, ending with:

“Here runs the highway to the town,/ There the green land descends,/ Through which I walked to church with thee,/ O gentlest of my friends!’’

After Goldstein’s recitation, the board voted 5-0 in favor of his proposal, and Gillian Jackson, administrator for Commission for the Arts, said the town wants to have a poet in place by April, national poetry month.

“Since the ancient Greeks, poet laureates have been appointed by governments large and small,’’ according to the town’s official job description for the poet laureate.

The mission of the chosen poet is broad: to take poetry into the community, finding innovative ways to expose Brookline residents to both poetry and prose through visits to schools, libraries, the senior center, and the coming teen center.

Candidates must live in Brookline, have a substantial body of work, including some published pieces, and have enthusiasm for the job. The initial appointment will last two years, and can be renewed.

The first year’s stipend was donated by the Bay State Federal Savings Charitable Foundation and by Century Bank.

The poet laureate is to be chosen by a selection committee that will include representatives from the library, schools, and the arts commission, as well as a local poet.

Brookline has had its share of renowned writers. The town’s most famous poet, Lowell published more than 650 pieces in 15 years.

“I know no writer of English whose command of the rich vocabulary of sensuous impressions approaches Amy Lowell’s,’’ stated an article in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1921. “The almost physical impact of it startles one each time one turns her pages.’’

The year after she died, a posthumously published collection of her poetry called “What’s O’Clock’’ won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Brookline resident Julia Ward Howe was a poet and abolitionist who wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’’ after she and her husband met Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

Other poets with local ties include Amanda M. Edmond, born on a Brookline farm in 1824, who published several books of poems. Helene Johnson, who would become a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, grew up in Brookline, took classes at Boston University, and moved to New York with her cousin, the writer Dorothy West.

David Ferry, who lives in Brookline and taught at Wellesley College for more than three decades, has won a host of literary honors, including the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize last year.

Sesling, whose second book of poetry is due out later this year, would like to see Brookline’s poet laureate encouraging people to write.

Will he throw his hat into the ring for the position?

“No, no, no, no,’’ Sesling said. “I figure since it’s my idea it would be inappropriate.’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

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Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) A poet and abolitionist who wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’’ after she and her husband traveled to see the Union troops in 1861.
From “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’’
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Amanda M. Edmond (1824-1862) Born on a Brookline farm and went on to publish several books of poems.
From “Freedom’s Champions’’
Children of a Southern soil,
Holders of unlawful spoil,
Ye, whose groaning thousands toil
In their hopeless misery, -
Hear ye not the battle cry
That proclaims the warfare nigh,
When the oppressor’s rank shall lie
Slain by Freedom’s champions?
Amy Lowell (1874-1925)
Posthumously won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for a collection of her poems, “What’s O’Clock.’’
You are ice and fire,
The touch of you burns my hands like snow.
You are cold and flame.
You are the crimson of amaryllis,
The silver of moon-touched magnolias.
When I am with you,
My heart is a frozen pond
Gleaming with agitated torches.
Helene Johnson (1906-1995) Moved to New York with her cousin, the writer Dorothy West, and became a poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
“My Race’’
Ah my race,
Hungry race,
Throbbing and young -
Ah, my race,
Wonder race,
Sobbing with song -
Ah, my race,
Careless in mirth -
Ah, my veiled race,
Fumbling in birth.
David Ferry (1924- ) The retired Wellesley College professor received last year’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
From “That Evening at Dinner’’
By the last few times we saw her it was clear
That things were different. When you tried to help her
Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator
There was a new sense of heaviness
Or of inertia in the body. It wasn’t
That she was less willing to be helped to walk
But that the walking itself had become less willing.
Reaching back for inspiration
Brookline Selectman Kenneth Goldstein read these three verses from “A Gleam of Sunshine,’’ written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (inset) in honor of a trip to the town, to help persuade his fellow board members to create the position of poet laureate:
This is the place. Stand still, my steed,
Let me review the scene,
And summon from the shadowy Past
The forms that once have been.
The Past and Present here unite
Beneath Time’s flowing tide,
Like footprints hidden by a brook,
But seen on either side.
Here runs the highway to the town;
There the green lane descends,
Through which I walked to church with thee,
O gentlest of my friends!

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