Published on Academy of American Poets (

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,
          foregoing decoration
                    for conversation.

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
                    and prayed

for revolution. 
          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.

About this Poem

"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 


January Gill O'Neil

January Gill O’Neil is the author of Misery Islands (CavanKerry Press, 2014), winner of a 2015 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence, and Underlife (CavanKerry Press, 2009). She lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Date Published: 2016-10-20

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