Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Favorite Poem Project

April is National Poetry Month. In past years I've promoted both it and the wonderful Favorite Poem Project, but as with Banned Books Week and the Big Read, it would be neat to get more bloggers involved. (Next year, I might even be more organized about it.) I'm not an official representative or anything - I just participated in the project several years ago, attended the related Summer Poetry Institute, and occasionally receive updates. It was an amazing experience I'd like to pass on. The official site has far more information, including resources for teachers and information on how to host a Favorite Poem Project event in your community. If you're interested, I'd encourage you to go to the official site, learn more and get involved. Meanwhile, I wanted to invite any and all bloggers to celebrate National Poetry Month, and the project provides a great model for that. This is all very informal, but if you decide to participate, just provide me the link to your post in an e-mail or in the comments below, and I'll compile them.

The Project

From the site:

The Favorite Poem Project is dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives. Robert Pinsky, the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, founded the Favorite Poem Project shortly after the Library of Congress appointed him to the post in 1997.

During the one-year open call for submissions, 18,000 Americans wrote to the project volunteering to share their favorite poems — Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, of diverse occupations, kinds of education and backgrounds. From those thousands of letters and emails, we've culled several enduring collections…

The Favorite Poem Project currently has three books in the series and a number of "mini-documentaries" on individual participants and the poems they selected. You can see the videos and read the accompanying poems at the project's site. There's also a YouTube channel now and a Facebook group.

I have several poetry links in my sidebar near the bottom, but I'd particularly recommend Poetry Daily. It features a new poem and background on the poet each day. Slate also features a weekly poem and podcasts of the authors reading them (here's the latest one). Every few weeks, Robert Pinksy selects a poem and discusses it with readers.

The Favorite Poem Project suggests several guidelines, but has only one rule:

The Only Rule

The only rule for an event affiliated with the Favorite Poem Project is that poems recited are NOT poems the readers or their friends or relatives have written, but ones they have read, perhaps many times, and to which they feel a personal attachment. Poems, for example, from the great history of American poetry, perhaps by Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks, Wallace Stevens or Robert Frost. A reader might also choose Robert Browning or William Shakespeare—or a poem written in another language, along with an English translation. At various readings, we've heard poems in Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Yiddish, Vietnamese and other languages.

In the Favorite Poem Project books, each poem has a short blurb written by the person who submitted it about the poem's personal significance. At community events, people speak extemporaneously instead. Most blog posts will probably follow the written model, but the guidelines for the live, community events are useful for conveying the spirit of all this:

Important Suggestions

The readings Robert Pinsky has hosted have been unique and wonderful. Audiences really like this kind of evening, and the readers themselves are inspired by it. People always leave the events thinking, often audibly, about what poems they would choose. Having had successful readings we've learned a few things. Here they are:

● The readers should be personal, not general, in answering the question, "Why have I chosen this poem from among my favorites?" This is the big, important point to emphasize: not a term paper, but an account of the reader's experience.

● Tell everyone, emphatically, that they are limited to five minutes. That way, even the most long-winded readers won't go on too long. Five minutes is a long time, and should be enough for the poem and for explaining their connection to it. If a poem takes longer than five minutes to read, an excerpt will do.

● Absolutely nothing in writing should be allowed, except for the poem. There should be no reading of prose; participants who speak informally, from the heart, are far more effective. This prevents homework assignment or book report style digressions away from why readers are reading a particular poem. People who are lively and interesting as themselves can become dull and monotonous when reading from prepared text.

● Also, there are advantages to having the readers sit on a stage or in the front of the room in a crescent of chairs: the audience can watch their responses to each other and can also mark the progress of the reading.

I've found that even if you know someone pretty well, hearing his or her favorite poem and its personal significance may show you something quite new. It also starts conversations. Back during my brief teaching stint, I had a student who read part of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, which happened to be a favorite of one of the parents listening. They struck up an enthusiastic discussion afterwards.


From the mini-docs, here are three of my favorites, covering a wide range of tone. Long-time NewsHour viewers may have seen some of these. Feel free to skip around, or browse through the others here or here.

by Frank O'Hara

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

The Sentence
by Anna Akhmatova

And the stone word fell
On my still-living breast.
Never mind, I was ready.
I will manage somehow.

Today I have so much to do:
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again—

Unless . . . Summer's ardent rustling
Is like a festival outside my window.
For a long time I've foreseen this
Brilliant day, deserted house.

Translated from the Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer

I'm Nobody! Who are you? (288)

by Emily Dickinson

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!


In the future, the Favorite Poem Project may provide a more formal way for bloggers to participate (and I may suggest that). But one doesn't preclude the other, and Banned Books Week, the Big Read and the Blog Against Theocracy may provide a better model - more official, organized community events alongside more informal blogswarms. I'll be more organized next year, but once again, if you wind up participating this time around, just provide me the link to your post in an e-mail (batocchio9 AT yahoo DOT com) or in the comments below, and I'll compile them. Or support poetry and the arts in your own way. Thanks.

(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)

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