...in 1998, 25 Bostonians, including the president of the Massachusetts Senate, a homeless man, and a fifth grade student, recited their favorite poems to a packed auditorium at the Boston Public Library. The president of the library came dressed in western attire, complete with bolo tie and hat, and read a cowboy poem. Others presented poems in Spanish, Vietnamese, and American Sign Language. The event helped launch the Favorite Poem Project, the brainchild of Boston-based poet Robert Pinsky, the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States. Over the next year, 18,000 Americans responded to Pinsky's call to share their favorite poems. Three anthologies, 50 video documentaries, and an award-winning website are the result.
Soon after being appointed to the position of Poet Laureate in 1997, Robert Pinsky created the Favorite Poem Project to celebrate, document, and promote poetry in American life. His original plan was a modest one: one of his former students would wander around the nation's capital with a tape recorder, asking anyone who was willing to recite his or her favorite poem. But when Pinsky issued a call for people everywhere to send him their favorite poems, the project took on a life of its own.
At a White House kick-off event in April 1998, First Lady Hilary Clinton told poets gathered in the East Room "We are here . . . to celebrate the timeless power of poetry and poets as our American memory, our purveyor of insight, our eyes and ears who silence the white noise around us and express the very heart of what connects, plagues and makes us fully human."
Over the next year, the project received letters from people of all ages and walks of life a taxi driver, glass blower, construction worker, Marine, police officer, homemaker, judge, minister were eager to share their favorite poems. Many have been collected in anthologies published by the project.
Because Robert Pinsky believes deeply that "reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem is like the difference between staring at sheet music and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument," the project has also produced short video documentaries and a DVD. In 1999 a website was launched. People from across the country can be seen and heard introducing themselves, reciting their favorite poem, and explaining the role of that poem in their lives. The audio and videotapes have been added to the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress.
In addition, the project has sponsored more than 1,000 Favorite Poem readings in communities across the country and has offered summer institutes for New England teachers at the Boston University School of Education.
Robert Pinsky was selected Poet Laureate in part because of his commitment to making poetry accessible to a wider audience. He is the only person to have served as Poet Laureate for three consecutive terms. Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1940, into what he describes as a lower-middle-class family, he was the first in his family to attend college. After graduating from Rutgers University, he earned his doctorate at Stanford.
He has taught in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University since 1989. He is the author of six books of poetry. He has also published four books of criticism and a translation of The Inferno of Dante, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, one of many awards he has received. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Interview with Robert Pinsky, originally in Meridian, Spring 1998.
Boston Globe, April 7, 1998 "Poetry's Preacher," by Mark Feeney
Favorite Poem Project website.
The Library of Congress' history of the Poet Laureate.