Happy Birthday Henry and a Night for Poetry in Maine

By Steve Bromage, MHS Executive Director

Last week I had the chance to attend the reading by inaugural poet Richard Blanco at the Merrill Auditorium. Wow—it was an incredible evening.

Photo: Derek Davis, Staff Photographer, Portland Press Herald
Photo: Derek Davis, Staff Photographer, Portland Press Herald
Photo: Derek Davis, Staff Photographer, Portland Press Herald
Photo: Derek Davis, Staff Photographer, Portland Press Herald

It’s been quite something the past several weeks to hear from colleagues, friends, and other folks hustling to find a ticket to a poetry reading. (Or, more often, lamenting the fact that they had struck out.) Tickets were free but limited to the 1,800 person capacity of the Merrill. A big thanks goes out to Creative Portland and the Quimby Family Foundation for their generosity in conceiving and supporting this special event.

Prior to the reading there was a reception for the poet at City Hall during which Mayor Brennan gave Mr. Blanco a key to the city. Thanks to the generosity of State Historian Earle Shettleworth, Jr., I had the opportunity to present Mr. Blanco with a print of Longfellow in his Cambridge study—a gift to him from Earle’s personal collection. (Read more about the reception and reading in this Portland Press Herald article.)

How appropriate to welcome Richard Blanco to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Portland.

Longfellow—whose birthday was the day after the reading at Merrill—was deeply committed to the public role that poetry can play. Maine honors this tradition by appointing a Poet Laureate—the wonderful Wes McNair currently serves in that role, and he introduced last week’s reading. The tradition of asking a poet to commemorate the inauguration of the President by writing and reading a new poem for the occasion is actually relatively new. (Robert Frost, who recited “The Gift Outright” at JFK’s inauguration, was the first.)

Richard Blanco’s reading of his poem, One Today, at the inauguration in January has captivated many across the country. As Longfellow did in so much of his poetry, Mr. Blanco reminded us, as Americans, of our roots, and what we have in common. That seems to be something that many of us are hungry for these days.

It strikes me that one of the things that Richard Blanco has done is to spark new audiences to the pleasures of poetry. We are very lucky in in Maine: we’ve got incredible poets all around us. Go read one!

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