Video Archive Shows Poetry is Alive and Well in America U.S. Poet Laureate Kicks Off National Poetry Month by Presenting Favorite Poem Project to Library of Congress
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(Boston, Mass.) — As Robert Pinsky steps down after an unprecedented three terms as U.S. Poet Laureate, he will leave the nation with a remarkable legacy: an audiovisual archive that proves that the love of poetry — from classic to modern — thrives in America.
Pinsky, professor of English and creative writing at Boston University, launched the Favorite Poem Project (FPP) to size up the nation’s relationship with poetry at the turn of the millennium.
[ watch the video ]On April 3rd, during National Poetry Month, he will premiere the FPP video archive in honor of the Library of Congress’ bicentennial anniversary. The archive includes a diverse cross-section of Americans from all walks of life saying aloud their favorite poems and explaining why they love them.
The FPP archive shows that contrary to popular belief, poetry has not retreated to the refuge of academia or trendy public poetry “slams.” Rather, it lives in the hearts and minds of everyday American citizens: ditchdiggers and UPS drivers, police officers and pipefitters, lobbyists and florists, farmers and fashion designers, homeless people, schoolchildren, teenagers and retired people.
“The video archive is dramatic and gripping beyond my hopes and expectations,” says Pinsky, who considers this event the most important of his laureateship. “My dearest hope is that this will affect the way poetry is taught in school. If our generation decides the young can do without great works of art, we will be cursed.”
In April 1998, Pinsky put out a call to the nation asking Americans to send him their favorite poems. By April 1999, he had received letters from nearly 18,000 people—from ages 4 to 99 and from every state in the union—who wanted to volunteer for the archive.
While some may find poetry intimidating or irrelevant, the people who wrote Pinsky consider it downright dazzling. They say a poem can: “tear at the gut of any thinking person,” “be felt through every pore and cell of the human body,” “explode in one’s head like a starburst,” “bring one into the realm of fatal desire.” They say it can even save a life.
One of the great things the project has culled, says Pinsky, is a vast array of timely and timeless American stories. He has received letters from: persons who served or who lost loved ones in almost every war of this century, those who’ve lost family and friends to AIDS, people who are survivors of cancer, people struggling with drug use and recovery, and a woman whose sister died in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.
U.S. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton are included in the archive but the vast majority of participants are ordinary folks, including:John Doherty, 33, from Braintree, Mass., who says: “I guess a ditchdigger who reads Shakespeare is still just a ditchdigger. But the invaluable lesson, which I have learned, is that poetry is a universal celebration that exists in everything and everybody.”
Seph Rodney, 27, a photographer/proofreader from the Bronx, who wrote of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus”: “There I was, a seventeen-year-old boy from Jamaica, opening a book written by a white woman so far away from me and yet she spoke of my own life. I love that she did that for me. I love that poetry still does that.”
Pov Chin, 19, from Stockton, Calif., says that Langston Hughes’ “Minstrel Man” is a description of herself. Her parents fled Cambodia for a new life in America after the Khmer Rouge killed their two sons. She says, “I may be living in ‘the land of the free’ but I am raised in the old-fashioned Cambodian ways. I walk around school with a smile on my face but inside I am caged bird just waiting to be free.”
The Favorite Poem presentation, open to the public, begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street, S.E. Prior to the 45-minute video premiere, Pinsky will be joined by Rita Dove, Louise Gluck and W.S. Merwin, who are serving as bicentennial consultant poets, and Bill Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, to read aloud their favorite poems.
“The Arts Endowment is proud to be the lead funder of the Favorite Poem Project, which highlights poetry as a vibrant part of America’s living cultural heritage,” says Ivey, who will introduce the Favorite Poem Project presentation. The event kicks off “Poetry in America: A Library of Congress Bicentennial Celebration,” a two-day conference, April 3-4.
The Favorite Poem Project is a collaborative partnership among Boston University, the Library of Congress, and the New England Foundation for the Arts. The project is supported by NEA, Boston University, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight foundation. It is an official project of the White House Millennium Council.
For more information, visit the Favorite Poem Project website at www.favoritepoem.org.