The 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.
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
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?”