Poetry Friday: Robert Pinsky and the Favorite Poem Project

December 6, 2013 — 5 Comments

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 11.08.36 PMThe sonorous voice delivering the keynote address at the Conference on English Leadership (CEL) on Sunday, November 24, 2013, belonged to the poet Robert Pinsky. He was there to promote his latest book Singing School, which is promoted as, “A bold new approach to writing (and reading) poetry based on great poetry of the past.” This collection of 80 poems includes selections from  Sappho to Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson. In an interview on NPR,  Pinsky explained that the poems for the book were selected “because of the music of the language, and not from the meaning of the words.” In the interview he explained:

“Even just the cadence of pauses,” he explains. “I stop. I think. I wait. I wait a little longer. Then less. … Something like that generates the poem. And for me, if anything I do is any good, it’s carried by that kind of cadence or melody.”

To prove his point, Pinsky filled his address with reciting lines of poetry, once challenging the crowd of English teachers in attendance to identify the poet; “That was Robert Frost, your New England poet,” he gently chastised when no one responded correctly. (To give you a taste of the experience, you can hear Pinskey read Frost’s poem “Mowing” courtesy of Slate Magazine by clicking here.)

As we listened, I heard someone remark that Pinsky could make a parking ticket sound lyrical.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 2.27.16 PM

Pinsky’s voice was not the only one reciting poems in his keynote. He turned to the presentation screen to show videos from the Favorite Poem Project website. This project  is “dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives.”

Pinsky founded the project when he served as the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, from 1997-2000. The Favorite Poem Project website details how,

“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.

Pinsky purposely selected a video to show as a tribute to the City of Boston, host of the CEL. The selected video featured John Ulrich, a student from South Boston, MA, reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s  “We Real Cool”:

We Real Cool
by Gwendolyn Brooks

THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Each video available on the Favorite Poem Project’s website begins with the reader’s reason for choosing the a particular poem. Ulrich provided a touching admission of how Brooks’s short poem reminds him about several childhood friends he lost to suicide. He read her 1950s tribute to the players in a pool hall in the South Side of Chicago with a heavy South Boston accent twice. The defiance on his face during the second reading is visible in the video.

I have taught this poem in my classes, and inevitably one of the more musical students, usually a drummer, will notice, “Hey, this is written in jazz!” The brevity of Brooks’s verse belies the amount of discussion the poem generates for students, particularly with the ending line, “We/ Die soon.”

Pinsky shared other videos: Nick and the Candlestick by Sylvia Plath read by Seph Rodney and Poem by Frank O’Hara read by Richard Samuel. The production quality of these videos garnered admiration from the crowd.

“Are you still taking entries for this project?” one teacher asked.
“We may be,” replied Pinsky.

His final comment sent a ripple that went through the audience as people considered, “What poem could I read for the project?”

This week’s Poetry Friday round up is on http://www.robynhoodblack.com/blog.htm

 

5 responses to Poetry Friday: Robert Pinsky and the Favorite Poem Project

  1. 

    very engaging writing

  2. 

    Intelligent young man. Great interview. Sad poem for a sad society.

  3. 

    Wow! What a powerful video. This project is similar to the heart books I wrote about today. In fact, I was thinking that kids could record themselves reading the poems in their books.

  4. 

    My daughter has been writing poems nonstop for school requirements – from odeas to sonnets, to free verse, to just plain rhyming. I think she’d be happy with this one. Thank you for sharing the video clip too. 🙂

  5. 

    I love this project! Fingers crossed that it may continue!!

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