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Robert Pinsky Poet Laureate
Robert Pinsky, 39th U.S Poet Laureate. Photo credit: Sigrid Estrada.
Robert Pinsky Poet Laureate
Robert Pinsky, 39th U.S Poet Laureate. Photo credit: Sigrid Estrada.

American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky Asks

“What’s Your Favorite Poem?”

Over the past three years, third-time American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky traveled across the nation asking governors, teachers, children, retirees, the homeless and Hollywood stars alike, what is their favorite poem and why. He got an enormous response. Americans everywhere gathered for poetry events to read aloud their favorite poem. And thousands of people flooded Pinsky’s Boston office with letters about their favorite poem, sharing with him childhood memories, stories of loss, passion and love.

A poet when asked, “When and how did you become a poet?” responded, “When and how did you stop being a poet?”

The host of Jazz in the A.M reads Creation
In St. Louis, the host of Jazz in the A.M reads Creation, by James Weldon Johnson.

Pinsky says that reading a poem, as opposed to saying a poem is like looking at the notes of sheet music without hearing the song. “When you say a poem aloud, to hear them, in your own voice and your own ears, it’s not acting, or performing, exactly — it’s letting your self, your very body, become the instrument or medium for that work of art. When you say Dickinson aloud, you are her instrument, your voice is her medium.”

He also noticed that when people share why they love a certain poem, whether it’s Shakespeare, Maya Angelou or haiku, something extraordinary happens. People light up, and passion becomes abundantly clear. “Simply by asking that each person express a personal attachment to a poem, the Favorite Poem Project has dramatized a profound personal connection with poetry.”

And unlike other forms of art such as television, film or music, the ownership of poetry is unlimited. “Poetry is a bodily art,” Pinsky says, “and the body isn’t the poet’s body, it’s the audience’s body, it’s your body. Because the poem is spoken with your voice.”

Kiyoshi Houston
In Los Angeles, Kiyoshi Houston reads Untitled Tanka in both Japanese and in English. “The poem is almost a meditation for me,” he says.
Geraldine Ferraro
In New York, Geraldine Ferraro reads Rudyard Kipling’s If. Photo courtesy of the Academy of American Poets.

Refreshingly, Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project isn’t only for published poets, professional critics or “the artiste,” but for poem lovers of all ages, backgrounds and professions. Pinsky says that poetry provides a shared ownership. He recalls, “Some poet when asked ‘When and how did you become a poet?’ responded to the interviewer, ‘when and how did you stop being a poet?’ The implication is that children engage in art very naturally — like moving the body in rhythm to music. There may be something in that. Certainly, I believe that the heritage of Mozart or Charlie Parker, of George Herbert or Emily Dickinson, are those who love their art.”

To celebrate National Poetry Month this April, Pinsky will present an audio and video millennium archive of Americans’ favorite poems to the Library of Congress as a Bicentennial Gift to the Nation. The poems, Pinsky says, “will present something like a snapshot of the United States at the turn of the millennium year, through the lens of poetry.”

But how will poetry survive in this age of special effects, interactive DVDs and the Internet? It may be held that Americans are too distracted to cherish the more simple, ancient art of poetry. Certainly, the massive response to the Favorite Poem Project rejects that stereotype, illustrating that poetry does have a strong presence in this country. And for people who hunger for interactive media, perhaps the art of poetry and reading a poem aloud is as interactive as you can get.

To hear people saying their favorite poem, or to find out how you can host a Favorite Poem reading, log on to http://www.favoritepoem.org.

For a calendar of events celebrating National Poetry Month, log on to http://www.poets.org.

Additional Sources:

Pinsky, Robert and Maggie Dietz, eds. American’s Favorite Poems. (W.W Norton and Company, 1999).

The Sound of Poetry, Robert Pinsky.

Sadness and Happiness, Robert Pinsky.

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