Since the invention of the printing press, literature has at times been deployed as an agent of social and political agitation: The Gutenberg Bible helped foment the Protestant Reformation. “Common Sense” challenged the British monarchy. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” exposed the ugliness of American slavery.
None of that is happening in Mandeville.
Nevertheless, a 25-line poem in a box on a wooden pole at the city’s lakefront has stirred at least one of the city’s councilmen, who said he wants to know who authorized the poetry box.
“There was no resolution passed by the council doing anything about this,” said Ernest Burguières, who represents the area along the lake known as Old Mandeville. “Does the city even know about this?”
Burguières sent out an email to his constituents after learning about the box, asking them what they thought. The responses, he said, were almost uniformly negative. Many of the respondents called the box “clutter,” “an eyesore” and worse, he said.
Some claimed that it takes away from the beautiful view of the lake and the area’s many picturesque oaks.
“I don’t think it’s a pretty piece of art,” said Marilyn Osborne, who lives in Mandeville and who said she had seen pictures of the poetry box. “I think it detracts from the natural beauty of the lakefront.”
Mandeville City Councilman Rick Danielson agreed.
“People are not going to the lakefront to read poetry in a box,” Danielson said. The lakefront, with its natural beauty, “does not need any help,” he added.
The box is about the size of a small letter box with one clear plastic side so the laminated sheet inside can be read. It is mounted on a wood post that stands about 6 feet tall. It is dwarfed many times over by the stand of giant oak trees that surround it near Lafayette Street.
The pole has been painted and is decorated with animal designs, and the word “poetry” is stenciled in metal above the box itself. That work was done by Keith Villere, a former Covington mayor and the brother of Mandeville Mayor Donald Villere.
“I think it looks primitive, more like it belongs in a natural park,” Osborne said. “This is not high art.” For contrast, she pointed to the whitewashed color of some of the pergolas on the lakefront.
Donald Villere said he authorized the poetry box on the lakefront.
“I said, ‘Let’s put one up and see what kind of response we get,’ ” he said. “I didn’t think it was such a bad idea.”
Villere said he wasn’t planning on presenting the idea to the council at all because the administration has authority over what goes on the lakefront. And because the box was put there by private citizens, no city funds were involved, he said.
Susan Deano, who is coordinating the Mandeville poetry boxes, said she had discussed the pole’s position with the city’s arts collaborative committee and the cultural arts development director, Alia Casborne.
“Some people just can’t be happy,” Deano said in a written statement. She said several boxes are planned for Mandeville, including in front of City Hall and the library. Others will be put on private property, she said.
Locally, the poetry box effort is the brainchild of Robin Hurston, who spearheaded a similar effort in Coquille, Oregon, where she moved after Hurricane Katrina and from which she recently returned.
Hurston, who lives near Covington, planned to have three boxes up in that city’s downtown over the week and 10 eventually. Another is planned for Abita Springs. When enough boxes are up, Hurston hopes to produce a walking map so that interested folks could go from box to box, reading submitted poetry or other literature.
Hurston said she was caught off guard by the negative comments about the box.
“Absolutely not,” she said when asked if she had thought the box would be controversial. She said she anticipated that the poetry in the box might be controversial, but not the box itself.
The poem in the Mandeville box is a five-stanza work by local writer Richard Boyd called “No Hurricane Waltz.” The poem is a plea, addressed to a wave, for storms to pass by Mandeville.
This time, however, it seems it’s not Boyd’s words, but the poem’s presentation, that has caused the tempest.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.