Red Letter Poem #57

A note: Since April, 2020 Arlington’s Poet Laureate has been sharing a poem with the community each week via the library’s blog and This project nears 52 poems in April, and after April, The Red Letter Poems Project will continue as a newsletter email from Steven. Receive these poems directly – and receive notices about future poetry events – by sending an e-mail to: with the subject line ‘mailing list.’

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

“A strange art – music” wrote the 19th century short story master Guy de Maupassant; “— the most poetic and precise of all the arts, vague as dream and precise as algebra.”  This won’t come as news to Rita Dove – writer, educator and, more importantly, one of America’s most celebrated poets.  She began studying the cello at age 10 and added the viola da gamba in her twenties – but gradually her musical allegiance shifted from the bow to the pen; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Her 1986 breakthrough collection, Thomas and Beulah, was inspired by the lives of her maternal grandparents and the ‘Great Migration’ that resulted in so many Black families resettling in the North.  The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making her only the second African American at the time to be so honored.  Since then, a stream of impressive books has followed – and a thorough accounting of the accolades from her lifetime in letters would require much more space than I have at my disposal, but let me mention just two: in 1993, she was appointed as the United States Poet Laureate; and in 2011, President Barack Obama hung the prestigious National Medal of Arts around her neck.

But reading through the poetry, it’s clear that her musical training still holds sway.  The rhythmical structure, for example, is never merely a support for the language of her poems; it is, in and of itself, a meaning-making instrument by which the poet sounds the reader’s emotional depths and helps them navigate uncharted waters.  This is especially true in “Testimony: 1968”, the poem I selected for this week’s Red Letter.  It will appear in Rita’s forthcoming Playlist for the Apocalypse, her eleventh collection, to be released this summer from W. W. Norton (and used with the kind permission of the poet.)  Here, she steps away from the improvisational riffs of free verse to return to the villanelle, a centuries-old ballad-like verse form from the French.  Like music, such poems are mechanisms for measuring time: progressions and delays; repetitions and sudden shifts; perfections and (painfully) the all-too-human imperfections within our lives.  When I read Rita’s poem, my first reaction was: still?!  How can such a dirge still be au courant, a half-century from the events she’s calling to mind?  How can it be that we’ve learned nothing from our troubled history?  As the poet seems to both speed up and slow down time’s passage, the poem does indeed take on the vague malaise of bad dreams but also the exacting algebra of our recent racial reckoning: who and what resides on either side of the American equal sign?  Rita Dove offers no easy assurances.  We readers are left to solve for X.  

Red Letter Poem #57: 

Red Letter 57

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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