Palo Alto native Barbara Allen has loved poetry since childhood. Raised by an aunt who lived on Coleridge Avenue, she played along streets named for some of the world's most celebrated poets: Tennyson, Melville, Coleridge and Emerson.
As a teen, Allen often read poetry to her Aunt Dickie, who lived down the street, as the elder woman's sight failed, she said.
Decades later and now retired, Allen still lives among the famed poets in a home on Melville Avenue. To share her love of verse with her neighbors, in August she created Palo Alto's first "poetry post," a wooden box with a clear plastic window that is mounted outside her gate. Each week Allen posts a different poem inside: works by Billy Collins, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, William Martin, Kaylin Haught and California native Dana Gioia and others. Poetry is a way to connect with universal human experiences and make them personally relevant, she said.
"Poems give you the lives of others and then circle in on your own inner world," she said, quoting the author Frances Mayes.
"Poems are so spare. It's just the right words in the right order. It just goes right into my heart," she added.
Allen encountered her first poetry box while visiting her daughter in Portland, Oregon, where such posts are commonplace.
"When I was up there, I thought, 'I have to do that.' Then I had a health alert, and I said, 'Stop procrastinating,' and that's when I had the box built," she said.
The idea reflects the spirit of neighborliness she saw there, she said.
"People in Portland care a lot about each other and they care about community. When people say, 'How are you?' they really want to know the answer," she said.
But in Palo Alto, "There is not as much connection in neighborhoods. I think Palo Alto has become pretty busy it's a busy, busy place. ... I hope people will stop just for a moment and slow down," she said.
The poetry box is starting to make an impact, according to Allen. A Channing Avenue neighbor walks by every day to visit the box. Friends suggest poems, and people stop to chat. They often take home copies of poems Allen leaves in the box.
Allen keeps a file of the poems she loves. She posts ones that are noncontroversial, accessible, somewhat short and often uplifting, she said.
One day when she felt like a particularly "bad mother," Allen chose Collins' "The Lanyard," a poem about motherhood and the gift of a lanyard from a son. The post struck a nerve with mothers strolling on Melville Avenue, she said.
Allen often enjoys peeking out her back door to see who has stopped by.
"I noticed a 13-year-old boy the other day," she said, clearly pleased.
Just as reading to Aunt Dickie instilled in her a love of poetry, Allen has initiated a love for the written word in many of her former students. A retired teacher, she worked for eight years of her career with students in the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto. There, her pupils memorized a simple poem each week.
Many have come back and said, "I still have my poetry book," she said.
For Allen, poems have become a kind of daily practice since her husband's death 14 years ago. She took part in an adult-education poetry group at Cubberley Community Center, and she has gone to week-long poetry retreats.
Allen does write poetry "for my own amusement and healing and journey," but she has never tried to publish, she said. She rarely posts her own verse. But on the anniversary of her husband's death, she posted her favorite poem about him, which came to her in the garden. She kept it there for just one day.
On a recent morning, Allen admired the poetry box's craftsmanship, which she had custom-made. She looked forward to having her daughter, an artist, decorate it when she comes to Palo Alto for the holidays, she said.
Reflecting on the gift of poetry, she quoted from a children's poem by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, a 20th-century American writer of children's picture books:
"Keep a poem in your pocket
And a picture in your head
And you'll never feel lonely
At night when you're in bed."