Red Letter Poem #40

Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s Poet Laureate, is today’s guest blogger.

The new, for better or worse, is perhaps the most prized quality in art-making: the cutting-edge creative style, voice, or subject matter.  But in truth all creation, even the most radical, has a bond with all that came before.  What else could we fashion new work from – or rebel against – but the world we’ve inherited?  Our lives, our efforts are links in a chain – in a tangled multiplicity of chains – that join us to sources often obscured in time’s vast seas.

Red Letter #37 was Lloyd Schwartz’s lovely poem “Song.”  Of course, we can never know where a poem finds its genesis, but I was fascinated by this early memory Lloyd recounted: his mother reciting Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” aloud to him when he was too young to read.  I believe there is always a sound-signature that great poems leave on us.  And though they might not have been consciously in mind, Lloyd mentioned Frost’s “Fire and Ice” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” as part of his poem’s musical ancestry.  Deborah Melone (the author of Farmers’ Market and The Wheel of the Year from Every Other Thursday Press) read Lloyd’s poem and was enthralled by its music – so much so that, after a few days, a new poem began taking shape in her notebook, one trying to recapture how that music had catalyzed something inside her.  I love how the sound of her poem chimes along with a certain regularity – even as the imagery in each stanza twists and tugs to retain its freedom.  And now, reading Deborah’s poem, who knows: maybe some of you, dear readers, will fall under Deborah’s melodic spell and be surprised by a new voice rising up in your own mind. 

Ch’eng T’ang, the first king of the Shang Dynasty, seeking a formula for happiness, had these words inscribed on his washbasin (nearly four millennia before Ezra Pound turned the Chinese phrase into a Modernist manifesto): Make it new, and again make it new.  So as 2021 makes its debut, and we attempt to put the old awful year behind us, I’ll offer this wish: may we wash ourselves each morning in that ancient aspiration and rejuvenate possibility.  But in doing so, may we also be mindful of all those hands that came before us, and all those yet to come: how every individual cups the same cool waters, dreaming of renewal.

Red Letter Poem #40: 

Red Letter 40

The Red Letter Poems Project was created 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 Robbins Library, the Arlington International Film Festival, and Arlington Community Education.  See the full archive of the project at  We’ll send out a poem from a new poet every week. 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 hashtags: #RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate. 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 COVID-19 crisis itself – serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

– Steven Ratiner

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