“If a poem is written well…It was written with the poet’s voice and for a voice. 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,” current U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky said. These words describe the philosophy behind the Favorite Poem Project, an endeavor in which two members of the Williams community will be directly participating on Thursday, October 28.
Pinsky started The Favorite Poem Project in April 1997 as an effort to capture a diverse array of Americans speaking the words of their own favorite poems. The Library of Congress officially adopted the Project as part of its bicentennial celebration, which will take place in the year 2000. The Project has greatly expanded in scope since. Pinsky’s original vision involved recording 100 Americans; the current goal is now to capture 1000 voices. The Project hopes to demonstrate that poetry in America does not exist for the enjoyment of merely the educated elite, but is a vital part of mainstream American lives, breaking down economic and social boundaries.
Tami Thompson ’01, co-founder of the Williams Literary Society, first heard about the Favorite Poem Project in the summer of 1998. “I thought it would be a great thing for the Literary Society to get involved in,” she said. After talking to English department Chair Professor Chris Pye, Thompson organized a Favorite Poem Reading for October 27,. Williams faculty, staff and students, in addition to members of the greater local community, were asked to participate by sending the name of their favorite poem and explaining their connection to that poem. Thomp-son, along with Lia Amakawa ’01, Susan Levin ’02 and Laurel Hickok ’02, chose 25 people to read their favorite poems from a pool of over 50. “We chose readers based on diversity and based on the reason they gave for having a special connection to their poem,” Thompson said.
At the national level, readers for the Favorite Poem Project range in age from four to 98, and include Americans with extremely diverse interests and occupations, including a ballpark beer vendor, a sheep farmer and a trapeze artist. The Literary Society’s reading followed this national model, said Thompson. “We had Williams students, Williamstown elementary school students, professors from a variety of departments, a past professor, a dean, the director of athletics, a chaplain and several community members. The reading was a great success,” she said. After the Literary Society event last year, participants could pick up forms to enter themselves into the selection process of the national Project.
Iris Moon ’02 and Senior Lecturer in English, Emerita Clara Park were each selected to participate in the Project at the national level. Moon will read the poem “The Blessing,” by James Wright, at Boston University on Thursday, October 28, at a reading sponsored by Pinsky. Her connection to this poem is very personal; she says, “The poem was a sort of epiphany for me. The first experience of reading ‘The Blessing’ became in a way what it was entitled, and so, while reading it, I was transformed like the narrator in the poem.”
Park, who retired in 1995 from the English department at Williams, read an excerpt from W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” at last year’s Literary Society event. “I liked it because it was written on the eve of the second World War and it asked for the poet and the poet’s reader to be deeply involved in human life and human hope,” Park says, quoting the lines, “Follow poet, follow right to the bottom of the night…In the deserts of the heart let the healing fountain start; In the prison of his days teach the free man how to praise.”
Park reaffirms Pinsky’s hopes for the Project in her description of last year’s reading. “There was a complete spectrum of people there. One woman read a poem by Longfellow, ‘Village Blacksmith,’ which I didn’t think anyone knew anymore, and said it was her mother’s favorite poem. Two little girls, nine or ten year- olds, read Emily Dickinson. I think it’s a splendid project. If poetry is going to be alive it is not going be because colleges teach English 101. Pinsky is reaffirming that poetry is about human life, not just language.”
The culmination of the national project includes a published anthology of over 200 poems, Americans’ Favorite Poems, along with a videotaped “Millennium Archive,” which will be presented at the Library of Congress in April 2000. Both women’s favorite poems and personal comments were published in the anthology.
Students interested in the Favorite Poem Project may enjoy visiting its website: http://www.favoritepoem.org. The videotape of last year’s Literary Society reading is on file in the Williams Archives as well.