When someone brings up Merrimack Valley poets, the first thing that comes to mind, for many at least, are the names of authors who lived decades, even centuries, ago: Robert Frost, Anne Bradstreet, Jack Kerouac and John Greenleaf Whittier among them. Many of us enjoy reading novels and short stories, but poetry is often elusive. When asked, many well-read people struggle to name even one living poet.
Not too long ago, poems were a regular part of a school’s curriculum — I fondly remember reading poems aloud in class on a regular basis as a first-grader in the late 1970s — but over the last 40 years, a lot has changed.
Late in the 20th century, according to a March 2017 article in the Huffington Post by Michigan State University associate professor of teacher education Laura Apol, schools “began to value the sciences over literary expression … and technology over art.” The study of poetry, she says, became marginalized, seldom occurring except in Advanced Placement classes that were preparing students for college literature courses.
As a result, we have nearly lost a vital form of artistic expression, one that had long served as a pillar of American literary tradition and popular culture. In fact, poetry has come to be regarded by many as superfluous and snobbish.
But it has never disappeared. In the Merrimack Valley (a region once called “the Valley of the Poets” by Tufts University professor Philip Starks), the modern poetry scene is alive and well, and by all accounts seems to be growing.
Events like the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which takes place annually in Salem on the first weekend of May, have helped shed new light on the art form and on the work of local authors. Free verse, a form of poetry popular among teens and young adults that’s meant to be read aloud in front of an audience, is thriving in cities like Lowell and Lawrence (read the article by Will Courtney in mvm’s Nov./Dec. 2013 issue or online at mvmag.net). Regular poetry readings are held at local libraries and community centers, and several local poets are actively publishing new work.
Lowell author Paul Marion’s newest book, “Union River: Poems and Sketches” (Bootstrap Press, 2017), has enjoyed great popularity since its release (read my review in mvm’s Sept./Oct. 2017 issue). Joining Marion with new work are Merrimack Valley poets Kathleen Aponick, Tim Cremin and Tara Masih of Andover; Helena Minton of North Andover; and Matt W. Miller of Exeter, N.H., to name a few.
“Bright Realm” (Turning Point, 2013), Aponick’s latest poetry collection, is stocked with tales of love, loss and the communal pathways we travel in pursuit of a sense of permanence in an ever-changing world. A former teacher and the author of two previous poetry chapbooks, Aponick writes in “Foster’s Pond”: “Here iron rings bolted into trees/held swings of summer residents,/dreamers who swung up over/fir, spruce, and the pond stirred/by sudden wind.”
In “The Way You Run in Dreams” (Finishing Line Press, 2017), Cremin, a Lowell native and former chemical engineer, offers up poems about the natural world and the joys and challenges of domestic life. “Early March” provides a good example of both: “The dog and I on an early morning walk:/the trail pulls us — the way words on a page/pull eyes — to water pouring over rock, … /The dog looks up and wags her eager tail —/she knows my schedule has no time to spare./But something keeps me for a look around:/change in the air, a sense that what’s ahead/has already started stirring the ground.”
Masih’s latest book of poetry, “Pulling Eagles From the Sky” (New Feral Press, 2017), offers readers a more global sensibility with poems such as “Scent of Qahwa,” which tells the story of a young African refugee, and the lovely “When Mimosas Dance For those who can predict earthquakes by feeling.” In the poem, Masih, also a novelist and editor, writes: “When the world begins to shudder,/in the early stages of release,/she feels the vibrations run through her,/waves in fast forward,/building momentum,/the same warning sent to the mimosas,/which begin their quaking dance.”
“The Rainbow Colors” (Finishing Line Press, 2017), Minton’s newest chapbook, is a meditation on the passage of time and our attempts to cope with the changes it brings. Many of the book’s poems are set in Paris, where Minton, a former librarian and teacher, and the author of three other books of poetry, lived as a child. A few poems tell stories from Minton’s life as inspired by works of art, such as “Luxembourg VIII,” inspired by a Harold Altman lithograph: “A block from the jardins, we lived in a small hotel/my mother tells me smelled of scalded milk./A walk-up, the electricity kept going out/and the concierge shouted Attention!/I rode my red scooter in the courtyard.”
Matt W. Miller, also a Lowell native, is an English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and the author of three books of poetry. His newest, “The Wounded for the Water” (Salmon Poetry, 2018), explores the idea of drowning both literally and metaphorically and the ways we struggle to escape it — finding success either by triumphing over the forces that conspire to drag us down, or at times just by being lucky. There are also moments when we can’t escape and are faced with the task of reinventing ourselves, such as in “Oceanography,” a poem about a failed marriage:
“Old roads, crawling dusty through cracks,/between toes, between fingers, become/the sea that was us and what has become/our presence in a soft asphalt August.”
Reading poems requires concentration and presence of mind, abilities many of us have a difficult time conjuring these days. But they are worth the effort. Poems are a lot like prayers: If we allow them, they can act as both anchors securing us to our moorings and as magic carpets capable of taking us anywhere, from the Andover woods to the streets of Paris, to the deepest chambers of the human heart.
Massachusetts Poetry Festival
May 4 -6, 2018