Poetry for Posterity

Hear ordinary Americans and influential figures read the poems that brought them inspiration, comfort, and hope at the Favorite Poem Project’s website: www.favoritepoem.org. Stills courtesy of the Favorite Poem Project

Hear ordinary Americans and influential figures read the poems that brought them inspiration, comfort, and hope at the Favorite Poem Project’s website: www.favoritepoem.org
Stills courtesy of the Favorite Poem Project

As U.S. Poet Laureate in 2000, Pinsky, who teaches in the Arts & Sciences Creative Writing program, undertook a historic project to record people from all walks of life reading their favorite poems. “Poetry is a physical art,” he says. “It’s meant to be said aloud.” The Favorite Poem Project’s enormous popularity has led to the creation of a video series and a website that fosters Favorite Poem readings everywhere.

The project has also evolved to include a summer institute for schoolteachers that furthers Pinsky’s goal of ushering poetry into ordinary lives. “My sense is that the arts, poetry in particular, have become less popular in the typical American classroom,” says Maggie Dietz, a poet and lecturer in Creative Writing, as well as the co-editor with Pinsky of three Favorite Poem anthologies.

In its seventh year, the Poetry Institute for Educators is thriving, thanks in part to generous funding from individual donors who share Pinsky’s vision. A weeklong celebration of verse for elementary and secondary teachers, and even the occasional principal, the institute offers readings by BU faculty and visiting poets, as well as lesson-planning sessions with Co-director Lee Indrisano, a professor of literacy and language, counseling and development in the School of Education, and other teacher-leaders.

Teachers often ask if they should require students to memorize poetry. Pinsky stresses letting students choose the poems they recite. If a poem moves them, they will want to recite it. “A poem is primarily something that is moving or delightful when you read it over,” he says.

The institute brings 50 educators to the BU campus in July for what began as a New England laboratory and now draws participants from across the country and, this year, from two American schools abroad, in London and The Hague.

“Many teachers come to us with the belief that children and adolescents are limited in their capacity to understand and appreciate poetry,” says Indrisano. “They leave us with an understanding that many of the classic and contemporary poets write for a more general readership than they had assumed.”

“Poetry is a physical art. It’s meant to be said aloud.”

“The poets who come are not talking about teaching poetry; they’re talking about poems,” says Dietz. “David Ferry might have a wonderful talk about Robert Frost and the line, for example, and Mark Doty might look at a May Swenson poem and talk about metaphor and image.”

At the end of the week, the groups share lesson plans, which they develop collaboratively at the institute, and read favorite poems, which are then collected and copied for all attendees. Each participant also receives Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry and two Favorite Poem anthologies, An Invitation to Poetry and Poems to Read. “We not only give permission to copy the lesson plans and the anthology,” says Indrisano, “we urge them to copy and distribute these resources to others in their school districts, thus increasing the numbers of teachers and learners who benefit from the institute.”

“It’s inspiring to see how much the teachers appreciate the poets,” says Pinsky. “I love doing it. The teachers play this important role.”