needed: public pressure to create the office of mass poet laureate!

by Jacquelyn Malone

The state of Massachusetts has a state insect, a state snake, a state bean, a state fossil, a state dog, and even a state donut – the Boston creme, of course. But no state poet laureate. How did the state with more poets per square yard than any other state in the union end up being one of only six states with this deficient?

The lack is not the fault of two valiant state representatives – Sarah K. Peake of the 4th Barnstable (Provincetown) and Denise Provost of the 27th Middlesex (Somerville). Rep. Provost says, “Sarah has been fighting this battle for perhaps a decade. Last year I asked to join her.” The bill has been introduced several times. It can be introduced in a session – which lasts two years – and if it isn’t acted upon in that period of time, it has to be introduced again in the next session. This year the bill is closer to passing than ever before.

I asked Rep. Provost why the bill has been introduced many times without passing. She said, “Well, some lawmakers just consider it fluff. The bills that get attention are appropriation bills or bills that have a big public focus, such as the opioid epidemic. If a bill is important to the press, it would be hard for the state legislature not to act on it.”  

Rep. Provost certainly doesn’t consider the laureate bill to be fluff.  “Poetry has been important to our civic life and to our history. Longfellow was the rock star of his generation. Oliver Wendell Homes wrote the poem “Old Ironsides” when The USS Constitution seemed ready for the scrap heap. His poem rallied school children across the country to donate their pennies.” That children’s crusade, initiated by a poem, led to the renovation of Boston Harbor’s famous floating museum.

Massachusetts poets have always invigorated national history, their influence going all the way back to the 1600s and Anne Bradstreet and stretching to the present day with poets with Massachusetts ties who have been national poet laureates: Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Louise Gluck, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell. In a story about what laureates do for nations, states, and communities weeks ago, we mentioned many of the activities and public programs those poet laureates have initiated.

As Rep. Provost says, the bill has never been this close to passing. It has passed the House and is now waiting for the Senate to pass it before it goes to the governor for his signature.

Once the bill is passed and the governor signs it, a committee, consisting of five members including two from the board of directors of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, will select the nominee and send their recommendation to the governor for approval. The new laureate will serve a term of two years.

What’s holding the bill back? It needs what the opioid bill needed – public pressure! And how can we provide that pressure? Get in touch with your local state senator! Not sure who that is? Here’s where you can find out:

In the Search field:

  1. Enter your town or zip code.
  2. From the drop-down box select Senate.
  3. Click the Search by Location button.
  4. When the right name comes up, click on that name. You’ll see the senator’s phone number and the email address.
  5. Contact your senator!

When you contact your state senator, let us know at After the festival, we’ll publish the names of those who have taken this step for poetry in the state.

Make your plea urgent.  We have a real chance to change this cultural oversight! And if you live in the Barnstable 4th distract or the Middlesex 27th express your thanks to Sarah K. Peake and Denise Provost for taking the lead on this important cultural issue.