Op-Eds

In(n) Gloucester

by John J. Ronan

Gloucester Daily Times, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017

 

There are now two hotels in downtown Gloucester: the spanking new Beauport, dating back to 2016 [www.beauporthotel.com], and the venerable Crow’s Nest, dating from 1972 [www.crowsnestgloucester.com]. I want to compare the two on a couple of points, and because this is a poetry column I’ll start with the bars.

At Beauport, the 1606 opens at 11:00. I was there on a weekday at about 11:30 and was the first customer. I talked to the bartender, Brian, about business and prices. A Johnny Walker Red is $11 and a bottle of Budweiser is $5. Because of the early hour, I ordered a soda water. Really.

The hotel’s bar is circular and seats 42. There is a side rail with 7 stools; there are two sofas and a few additional chairs near the fireplace, with large screen televisions at either end of the room. The décor is dignified, tasteful. Part of the chic comes from the black and white portraits of ancient fishermen and fishing scenes along the walls, presumably from Gloucester, though they are not identified. Closer to noon, other customers arrived and I was able to strike up brief, polite conversations with tourists.

In the bar’s window there is a sweeping view of the outer harbor. The view and architecture create a restful, resort-like mood that is up to elegant, if generic, national standards. Swank enough to be in Bar Harbor, Hatteras, Santa Barbara – a fishing community or at least a community with a fishing past.

.8 miles down the road, Gregg Sousa opens the Crow’s Nest every morning at 8:00. He is the owner. This bar is also circular, seating 22. There are 8 two-seat tables. And a pool table, a juke box, a large screen TV. There is no fireplace, but Johnny Walker Red is $4.50   A bottle of Budweiser $3. Full disclosure: I visited on a different day, at a later hour – and had Johnny Walker Red. This in no way influenced my attitude, though conversations did go very smoothly. The clientele was mostly local, as it is all year, with Perfect Storm tourists visiting summers.

Gregg is the husband of Mary Anne Shatford, a Gloucester teacher, whose brother Bobby was lost on the Andrea Gail and portrayed in the movie by Mark Wahlberg. She is the daughter of Ethel Shatford, the late, famous bartender, who was portrayed by Janet Wright. Sebastian Junger, the source-book’s author, stayed at the Crow’s Nest while he worked on the book, as did Wahlberg during the shoot. Stills of Wahlberg, George Clooney, Ms. Wright, the Andrea Gail crew and others line the walls. There are no texts, but Gregg can fill in the names.

The view from the Crow’s Nest is of the inner harbor, via Main Street and Rose Marine Supplies. I include the store because it was co-opted into Manchester-by-the-Sea, the new Gloucester movie, strangely misnamed (The stairs next to the bar are also featured in the final fireworks scene between Lee and Randi.) Beyond Main St. is the State Fish Pier where the trawlers Challenger and Endeavor often tie up. They are skippered by the McCallig brothers, Danny and Gerrard, respectively. If you stop at the right time you might meet them and talk fishing.

Hotels offer rooms, of course. Beauport has 94 and they range in price from a low of$179 in the winter, to a high of $465 at peak season. Both establishments are well cared for and clean. The rooms at Beauport have, like the bar, a newly minted aroma and ocean motifs, such as clamshell door knockers. The beds follow the contemporary pillow fetish; I counted seven on a double. The Crow’s Nest has 15 rooms at two prices: $65 in winter, $75 in summer. The rooms are smaller, less ornate, but crisp and friendly, with fridges and microwaves. Another perk is pillow sanity. You won’t have to stack five of them in a corner to get under the covers.

At Trip Advisor the Crow’s Nest has four and a half bullets out of five; 85% of the reviews are excellent or very good. Beauport’s Trip Advisor page also features four and a half bullets out of five; 86% of their reviews are excellent or very good.

Beauport and the Crow’s Nest are both healthy for Gloucester. I’m glad we have them. And we can support both because they are not in competition, the choice usually obvious, dictated by specific requirements. If you want a function room and thirty beds for wedding guests, Beauport can provide that. If you are a budget-minded worker on the waterfront, if you fish – or if you’re an actor portraying a fisherman, the Crow’s Nest wins. For me, when details don’t dictate, the choice comes down to something deeper, mystical, even poetic: place, the temper of presence. At the Crow’s Nest I know where I am, sense where I am. I am here. Could be nowhere else. I am in Gloucester.

 

The Lessons of Inaugural Poetry

by John J. Ronan

Gloucester Daily Times, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016

 

Love and language create community. Poetry, exalted language, has been key to that creation in all ages, all cultures. In our own, it’s often a part of dedications, openings, church services, wedding toasts, and importantly, though less often, presidential inaugurations. An appropriate enough civic event, since “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” per Percy Shelley. In no other setting does poetry demonstrate its power to bind and elevate this glorious, motley republic.

During a term as poet laureate in Gloucester, MA, my commitment to civic poetry, a poetry of place and witness, grew stronger. By civic poetry, I mean poems written for the public on community topics. I mean poetry accessible to an attentive, general audience. And since it is often meant to be read in public, I mean poetry that relies heavily on sound and familiar forms: rhyming tricks, assonance, consonance, regular rhythms, refrains, the workhorse sonnet… And of course, civic poetry, like all poetry, is insightful and fresh, never talks down.

Civic poetry is often generated by news: Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” at the start of World War II, or the legion of poems written and still being written on Sandy Hook or Pulse night club atrocities. Another type includes bespoke, occasional poems. Like the inaugural poems of Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco at the Obama ceremonies. Their poetry added perspective and scope, solemnity to the events.. But these were only the fourth and fifth poets to read at a presidential inauguration.   The first was Robert Frost (Kennedy), then Maya Angelou (Clinton), and Miller Williams (Clinton). A sixth poet, Jimmy Carter’s fellow Georgian James Dickey, read at a gala the evening of the inauguration.

Besides accessibility and fresh form, there is one other necessary ingredient in civic poetry: hope. Not innocent, immature hope, nothing naive. It may be a battered hope, even diminished, but is not cowed or faint, remains brassy, unabashed. Civic poetry makes no apologies for believing in our stressed, wonderful experiment. As Miller Williams said, on January 20, 1997, in “Of History and Hope,”

We mean to be the people we meant to be,

to keep on going where we meant to go.

Hope can indeed sound naïve in times of political turmoil and violence, when hate threatens to outstrip our ability, even our desire, to build community.  But that is precisely when bonding is most needed. We hunger for love and the language of union, of peace for all, an end to cynicism. And in the words of Maya Angelou in “On the Pulse of Morning,” delivered January 20, 1993:

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,

The African and Native American, the Sioux,

The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,

The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,

The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,

The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.

This is the kind of poetry that gets through to and creates community. It is inclusive. It is necessary. James Dickey, on January 20, 1977, in “Strength of Fields,” closed:

Wild hope can always spring

from tended strength.  Everything is in that.

That and nothing but kindness.  More kindness, dear Lord

of the renewing green.  That is where it all has to start:

with the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less

than save every sleeping one

and night-walking one

of us.

My life belongs to the world, I will do what I can.

 

 

Gloucester Icon a Winner

By John J. Ronan

Boston Herald, Saturday, May 2, 2009

 

The Man at the Wheel

He’s looking toward the

harbor, and past

The harbor to the ocean,

past the ocean,

Vision fixed in another

dimension

That two bits tell you is time.

 

The schooner’s easterly out

of Gloucester,

America aft, the waking

states,

As the seaman leans into

dirty sea,

Tomorrow’s tack, at the

helm of everything.

On Feb. 9, Governor Duval Patrick opened an online, three-week voting period to allow the commonwealth’s citizens to choose the image that would decorate Massachusetts’ new quarter.

One hundred sites were on the ballot, culled from an original list of more than 4,000. By the time the election closed on Feb. 26, Gloucester’s The Man at the Wheel had won in a landslide. The new round of coins, from all the states, will begin appearing in 2010.

The Gloucester statue collected 109,817 votes, with Lowell’s National Historic Park a distant second at 26,582. Salem’s House of Seven Gables logged only 10,028 votes and the USS Constitution in Boston, 8,890.

Why Gloucester? Lowell and Salem are worthy cities. And Boston’s Old Ironsides is a revered heirloom. With a population of just 30,000, Gloucester is not large enough to stuff the ballot box. Neither was there any Us vs. Them factor, as when David Ortiz rolled over Hideki Matsui in last year’s All-Star balloting.

No, the landslide vote was a confirmation that The Man at the Wheel is bigger than Gloucester, bigger even than Massachusetts.

As the Gateway Arch in St. Louis opens America’s West, as the Sears Tower in Chicago defines the big shoulders of the Heartland and as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia recalls the Revolution, The Man at the Wheel looks far beyond his own city. He sums part of the American spirit, and so reaches across the state, the region, to become finally a symbol of and for the country.

The Man at the Wheel has gone national.

Leonard Craske’s sculpture, cast in 1925, started and remains a monument to Gloucester fishing and the men lost at sea. The pilot bends forward over the wheel of a schooner, in rain gear, staring into rough weather.

Like the Gateway Arch, the Sears Tower and the Liberty Bell, The Man at the Wheel perfectly sums up his city. It is Gloucester, capturing in one icon the courage and stamina of a community nearing its 400th birthday.

But just as Gloucester leads the nation east every morning, The Man at the Wheel has become the country’s pilot. America follows in his wake. Gloucester even led the way into recession, plunging into harsh downturn months before the rest of the country, reminding some of the noir tragedy that overtook Manuel in “Captains Courageous.” Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for that 1937 performance, but Spencer doesn’t live here any more.

This dynamic and hardworking city will continue to lead through heavy seas, fashioning the economies and hopes of a new day.

 

John J. Ronan

Gloucester Poet Laureate

 

In Gloucester, poetic license or media lies?

Media’s coverage fishy in Gloucester

By John J. Ronan

Boston Herald Sunday, July 13, 2008

Winslow Homer’s Gloucester is dynamic, hardworking and beautiful. In “Shipbuilding: Gloucester Harbor” and “Sailing Out of Gloucester,” he captured heritage and beauty at once. “Gloucester Houses” and “Prospect Street,” under the hammer of Edward Hopper’s light, portray a strong, stable Gloucester. In 2008, the city is still dynamic, hardworking, stable – and beautiful.

For those who know this, and love Gloucester because of it, the coverage of teen pregnancies here dismays. Not the factual coverage. It is tragic that so many girls, for the bleakest reasons, chose to become pregnant. The city is saddened by this and working to stop what has to be termed an epidemic. The message is not the problem. Embarrassment is not a problem, either; no one I know is afraid of confronting a flawed civic self in the mirror. It’s the lie that’s a problem.

 

The problem began in Time, in a June 18 piece stuffed with dated clichés. Gloucester is a “fiercely Catholic enclave,” a phrase inaccurate on several counts that conjures villagers gathering with torches. The city is “mostly blue-collar,” though the median market price of homes is about $400,000. Time also referred to the decrease in fishing in Gloucester’s economy. True enough, but decades late. I expected the piece to announce Spencer Tracy’s Oscar for Captains Courageous, the 1937 movie that seemed the source of the article’s tone.

 

Uninformed piety ran through most print outlets; television was worse. Descriptions of Gloucester as a “hard luck” community were common.   It is a “poor town” where “fishing has tanked.” Skewed clichés marked most broadcast and cable coverage, topped by the usual whoppers on Fox.   And some announcers didn’t bother to look up the pronunciation; I heard ‘glow-chester’ at least once.

 

The lie? The false image of Gloucester. The drawing of a shabby, Depression-drab landscape that is neither accurate or honest: a fat, lazy lie. But a noir backdrop is necessary to the melodrama of blame. Blame the folk and blame the benighted place that created them. The essential fiction is that a dark anomaly has been discovered, a distortion that lets the world feel better about its own aloof and undistorted self.   It’s an ancient tradition, of course, kept alive today by television’s many blame-and-bounce entertainment franchises. Sadly, the format also disguises itself as news.

 

When a city is in the national spotlight, those who know the city well get a clear, x-ray vision of media integrity, from the inside out. Dismay comes from not finding it. Some balk at the word “lie,” preferring euphemisms like “misstatement” or “inaccuracy.” In Gloucester, on Main St., at the library, in city hall, on the wharves, at the Crow’s Nest, we are more frank. Our officials are doing their best to combat the false image of Gloucester with fact, so often now an ironic enemy of news.

 

Gloucester certainly has problems. But they are not anomalous. It has, on average, about the same frequency of teen pregnancy as other cities. It has poverty, of course. But because Gloucester is, politically and demographically, a city, rather than a suburban slice of the middle class, it includes all strata, rags to riches. And recently, more poverty than money, reflecting a growing disparity in the country. Gloucester is America.

 

The spotlight will soon pan to new marketable scandals. Gloucester, the real Gloucester, will survive, at once dynamic, hardworking, stable. And still beautiful, still the city of Homer and Hopper. Its people are beautiful, too. As Gloucester nears its 400th birthday, they are working on problems, meeting challenges, making progress. No surprise here. Gloucester will endure:

 

Waves break on outcrop rock: granite,

fire-formed and hard, headland granite –

no coddled cape, no sandbar,

and nothing soft in its city, no knickknack,

Gloucester-by-God, attitude granite.

 

John J. Ronan

Gloucester Poet Laureate