The Red Letter Poems Project

About the Project

When I was first appointed as Poet Laureate for Arlington, MA one of my goals was to help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings.  The Red Letter Poems Project was intended to share some of Arlington’s poetic voices in bright red envelopes, sent in a mass mailing to randomly-selected households – a small surprise amid the advertisements and bills.  Before our team could make this happen, Corona struck.  But I feel now such an outreach is more important than ever during this time of anxiety and isolation.

So I’ve created this e-version of the Red Letter mailings in grateful partnership with many of our town’s cultural resources: The Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, The Arlington Center for the Arts, The Arlington Public Library, The Arlington International Film Festival – and our newest partner Arlington Community Education.  We’ll send out a poem from a new poet every week, reaching many thousands of potential readers.  Each installment will also be available on the websites from these organizations; and, if you enjoy them, we encourage you to forward them to friends –  in Arlington and beyond –  or to post them on your social media platforms with the hash tags: #RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona – and hopefully we will reach an ever-widening circle of readers who can appreciate a momentary respite from these challenging times.  If you want to make sure you receive these poems directly – or to receive notices about future poetry events – send an e-mail to: with the subject line ‘mailing list’.

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art – and, in truth, even the Corona crisis itself – serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

– Steven Ratiner


Enjoy Steven Ratiner’s RED LETTER POEMS by checking in regularly on his blog on the Robbins Library site. We hope you savor these beautiful literary jewels in the midst of the storm! Read the latest here.

Red Letter Poem #6

The ties that bind.  As we all know, there’s a bit of the double-edged blade contained in the phrase – and Jean Flanagan has spent much of her writing life exploring the ways ancestry and cultural history both bind us to past circumstances and offer meaning and cohesion in our present days.  Focusing on Ireland and the Irish diaspora, her books Ibbetson Street and Black Lightning, portray a variety of familial relationships, from the utterly tragic to the joyous.  A poem like “Clap Your Hands…” feels to me like the sort of benediction you might have heard from your Irish grandmother (had you been blessed with one.)  Jean teaches in a variety of educational settings including an alternative sentencing program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  She is also one of the founders of the Arlington Center for the Arts – a linchpin of our cultural community and a physical manifestation of the ways our lives are inextricably bound. ” – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #5

“To Seamus Heaney’s way of thinking, poetry was about providing that “extra voltage in the language, the intensity, the self-consciousness” that raises thought to another level. Often, we experience that intensity through its sounds, its musicality – and this is true even in contemporary poems that sometimes pose as normal speech. So it didn’t surprise me to learn that, when Thomas DeFreitas was 15 and he heard the great Irish poet read at Boston College, the event became a catalyst for him and helped make his love for poetry “all-consuming and irreversible.” An emerging talent at work on his first full-length manuscript, Thomas’ writing has appeared in a number of journals like Dappled Things, Ibbetson Street, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Plainsongs. His desire for the richness and complexity of experience that words can bring to us is abundantly on display in this boisterous fanfare of a poem – the lingua franca, perhaps, with which all our roving hearts converse.” -Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #4

“Let’s admit it: some mornings, the walls of our own homes seem to be closing in and it’s hard to draw a deep breath.  We feel the urge to take a sledge to the locked door and dash for the open road.  Fear not, I can help: Teresa Cader’s poems do not tolerate hard boundaries; they seem to slip past restrictions with the ease (and sly exuberance) of an April breeze.  No need for the sledge, though – Teresa’s language is equipped with the delicate picklocks and pliers to set us loose.  Even if you didn’t already know that ‘boneshaker’ was a term applied to the early bicycle, the poet has us mounted up and peddling, gusts whipping our hair, as we glimpse the sorts of moments we might have missed in our old fast-paced existence.  Teresa’s career was launched when History of Hurricanes won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America; and the two collections that followed were equally acclaimed, bringing her a slew of prestigious honors.  But what is most relevant here is that the poems themselves have the ability to transfer that gorgeous momentum to us as readers, powering dreams of our own beautiful escapes.” -Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #3

“What I find most remarkable in Susan Donnelly’s poems is how rarely the situations she portrays seem so.  She writes about the ordinary days every one of us inhabits; but somehow, burnished by her subtle music and modulated tone of voice, she elevates our shared moments into something worthy of quiet astonishment.  In “Chanson…”, she depicts the sort of isolation most of us assume as a given – even when in the midst of crowds.  The piece makes me wonder whether, once “social distancing” becomes a thing of the past, we will have learned to relish even our casual interactions — with or without the intercession of music or poetry.  Susan’s first book, Eve Names the Animals was awarded the Morse Poetry Prize; two other full-length collections followed as well as six chapbooks, the most recent of which is The Finding Day.  Perhaps, right now, there is singing close by that will transform our beleaguered day.” – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #2

“Back in the ’60’s, as a young poet learning his craft, I was drawn to visionaries with a flare for seeing beyond: Hart Crane whose “Stars scribble on our eyes…”; and Jimi Hendrix, guitar chords shooting off like rockets as he sang “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”  But I learned that even poems focused on the transcendent need to be grounded in the here-and-now of our shared world: a sip of coffee, mourning doves piping in the dogwood tree, the ones we love within arm’s reach.  Before our enforced isolation, our grandson George had become my daily guru, teaching me how to appreciate the little mysteries erupting, well, everywhere.  Perhaps right now you’re thinking of a young face in your life who has re-shaped your view of the world.  I think this crisis challenges our understanding about what is really within our grasp.  And so I thought this poem might be worth sharing now.” – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #1

“Our area is blessed with many extraordinary poets, but I return to the work of Fred Marchant most often, especially when I’m needing a clear and deeply humane voice, one that both comforts and surprises.   From his first book — Tipping Point  (which won the 1993 Washington Prize) – to his most recent, Said Not Said (Greywolf Press) which was an “Honors Book” in the 2017 Massachusetts Book Awards, Fred’s work demonstrates how language connects us to all that’s brought us to this point, even as it awakes us to what’s coming next.” – Steven Ratiner