Old South Meeting House
We draw breath from brick
step on stones, weather-worn,
cobbled and carved
with the story of this church,
this meeting house,
where Ben Franklin was baptized
and Phillis Wheatley prayed—a mouth-house
where colonists gathered
to plot against the crown.
This structure, with elegant curves
and round-topped windows, was the heart
of Boston, the body of the people,
survived occupation for preservation,
Let us gather in the box pews
once numbered and rented
by generations of families
held together like ribs
in the body politic. Let us gaze upon
the upper galleries to the free seats
where the poor and the town slaves
listened and waited and pondered
Let us testify to the plight
of the well-meaning at the pulpit
with its sounding board high above,
congregations raising heads and hands to the sky.
We, the people—the tourists
and townies—one nation under
this vaulted roof, exalted voices
speaking poetry out loud,
in praise and dissent.
We draw breath from brick. Ignite the fire in us.
Speak to us:
the language is hope.
Copyright © 2016 by January Gill O’Neil. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.
“I wanted to write a poem for Boston’s Old South Meeting House, one of the oldest churches in North America and one of the many sites in Boston National Historical Park. In revolutionary times, this was the place to discuss the issues of the day. Boston Tea Party meetings were held here. Phyllis Wheatley worshipped here. Abolitionists, writers, and thought leaders worked together to save it from the wrecking ball. It is iconic and emblematic of the city’s complicated history. Today, this space inspires a new generation as a museum, and as space for a variety of events, including poetry. And in this time of political divides, I wanted to end on a note of hope.”
—January Gill O'Neil