Preview performance of the Huntington Theatre Company's James Joyce's The Dead, September 7, 8, and 9, at the BU Theatre

Vol. V No. 3   ·   31 August 2001 


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Pinsky's summer poetry institute promotes poetry for a sound education

By Jennifer Gormanous Burke

"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes," said Joseph Roux, a 19th-century French priest and writer. People turn to poetry for solace, reassurance, and companionship, to rejoice in love or mourn its loss. But poetry can also be intimidating. At first glance, a poem can seem like a perplexing jumble of words -- very unlike the tidy sentences of prose.

  Robert Pinsky at the summer poetry institute. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

This summer, nearly 50 elementary, middle, and high school teachers and administrators gathered at Boston University for a five-day poetry institute to discuss ways to dispel this fear and invigorate poetry's place in the classroom. Led by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, a CAS professor of English and creative writing, the institute featured talks by Pinsky as well as renowned poets Louise Glück, Mark Doty, David Ferry, a lecturer in the GRS writing program, and Rosanna Warren, UNI professor.

The institute was an offshoot of Pinsky's highly successful Favorite Poem Project, undertaken during his unprecedented three consecutive terms as poet laureate, from 1997 to 2000. The project illustrated poetry's enduring presence by documenting 50 everyday Americans reading their best-loved poems on videos, which are now a permanent part of the Library of Congress Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Pinsky and project director Maggie Dietz (GRS'97) also published a selection of poems and the letters from those who submitted them -- whittled down from 18,000 submissions -- in Americans' Favorite Poems, currently in its sixth printing.

Having both proven and chronicled poetry's relevance to everyday Americans, Pinsky and Dietz turned their attention to a dismaying trend: poetry's dwindling presence in American classrooms. "Poetry has been at the center of language skills for thousands of years," says Pinsky. "We abandon this ancient, fundamental link at our great risk." He and Dietz consulted two SED professors, Roselmina Indrisano and Stephen Ellenwood, along with four local schoolteachers, to organize the poetry institute, which was funded by BU and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

"Our purpose," says Indrisano, "was to give teachers and administrators the opportunity to learn directly from the masters of the art of poetry in order to accomplish three goals: to inspire them to return poetry to a central place in the curriculum and in the community, to create model lessons to use in their classrooms and to share with other teachers in their schools, and to create plans to involve their communities in the gift of poetry."

"Language is so rich that I just don't accept a kid stating, 'I don't like poetry.' It's like saying you don't like rock and roll," says Karen Harris (SED'92), one of the teachers who helped plan the institute. Harris, who teaches English methods at SED and English and humanities at Watertown High School, has found that students often approach poetry "feeling like there is one right answer" rather than appreciating "the sheer enjoyment of the sounds."

Pinsky emphasizes that poetry is essential to a sound education. "Our primate ancestors achieved culture, technology, and so on by evolving sophisticated means of communicating across space and time -- means of passing information on across the generations," he says. "Those means of communication cannot be separated from art. That is why successful education has always had arts such as music and poetry at its core -- at the center, as essential, not as fringe ornaments."

Dietz agrees. "To me, poetry seems evidently crucial to the survival of language and to critical thinking and communication skills. Poetry is language at its most concise, its most refined, its most considered. And we live in a time where we are inundated with jargon. Our conversations are punctuated by 'yadda, yadda' and 'blah, blah, blah.' And so to take some time to look at a poem, which is language at its most beautiful, can only be good."

A principle concern

But even while recognizing the value of poetry, teachers still must grapple with the problem that their students might not be as smitten with it. The Favorite Poem Project's founding principles of physicality and autonomy, the institute's participants learned, can make poetry more accessible to students. Physicality refers to poetry as a vocal art. "If a poem is written well, it was written with the poet's voice and for a voice," Pinsky has said. "Reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem is like . . . staring at sheet music [without] actually humming or playing the music on an instrument." Poetry, adds Dietz, "is an art whose instrument is the human body."

Teachers at the institute were also encouraged to incorporate autonomy, or choice, into their lesson plans. "The teacher should teach poems he or she loves," says Pinsky. "And each student should be encouraged to choose the poems he or she memorizes, says aloud, imitates, writes about, includes in a personal anthology, and so on." This approach switches the student's role from passive listener to active participant. When memorizing a poem, students should "choose a poem that means something to them, that they want to know by heart," says Dietz.

The Favorite Poem videos, which the teachers watched and discussed during the institute's first two days, are an effective way to make, as Pinsky advises, "a physical encounter with the poem primary. Interpretation, analysis, and information should come after the actual experience of the poem as something one says." Because the videos feature a variety of people talking about the poetry they love, they put poetry in an approachable, contemporary context -- something students appreciate.

One institute participant plans to ask her students, "What kind of people like poetry?" before showing them a few video segments. The answer, of course, is all kinds -- even kids their age. In one segment, a young baseball fan from Atlanta reads from "Casey at the Bat," and explains the enjoyment it gives him. In another, a Vietnam War vet gives an emotional reading of Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "Facing It" in front of the Vietnam Memorial.

"A feast of ideas"

Throughout the week, teachers, administrators, and poets discussed ways to ignite students' interest in poetry. Pulitzer Prize winner Glück, for example, described an exercise she uses with her students at Williams College: they write out a poem in a format different from its original, showing the significance of syntax, punctuation, and form.

Harris has used song lyrics to ease her high school students into the genre. "I think it resonates with them," she says. "I don't think song lyrics are interchangeable with poetry -- maybe Bob Dylan's are an exception -- but for kids who are resistant and feel like, 'Oh, this is something I've tried to decode and can't,' it can be a good starting point."

The institute's last day had teachers and administrators presenting lesson plans based on the Favorite Poem Project principles and inspired by the videos, talks by guest faculty, and group discussions -- what Harris describes as "a feast of wonderful ideas." She adds, "It was an extraordinary exchange between the poets and the teachers. The infusion of the poets' passion plus discussing the craft was an amazing combination. I think all the teachers were really fueled up."

The lesson plans of the participating teachers will be posted on the Favorite Poem Project's Web site,


31 August 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations