Americans dislike poetry. At least, that’s the popular sentiment. Maybe it’s those memories of reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven in front of a sea of critical peers. Or memorizing line after line of Tennyson Alfred’s Charge of the Light Brigade. In an effort to strengthen the relationship between Americans and poetry, former poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, launched the Favorite Poem Project (FPP) in 1998. In celebration of National Poetry Month, Failure magazine takes a look back at the progress made by this ambitious nationwide effort, one that has helped to advance the place of poetry in American culture.
The Favorite Poem Project began with a simple idea—to get citizens to submit their favorite poem, along with an explanation of why it was so important to them. To date, more than 18,000 submissions—from people ages 4 to 99 and from every state in the union—have been received, many of which are included in “Americans’ Favorite Poems” (W.W. Norton), an anthology that highlights some of the most compelling entries.
According to the FPP’s director, Maggie Dietz, “The main criteria when choosing people for this project was the relationship between the person and the poem,” something that immediately sets it apart from other poetry series. As a result, the book is a poignant compilation of famous and not-so-famous poems, submitted by people from all walks of life. “This wasn’t designed to generate the top poem or the top poets in America,” says Dietz, although she admits that Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken was the most popular submission. “In terms of this project, what makes a good poem is something that can last in a person’s heart and mind.”
The strong initial response to Pinsky’s initiative allowed him to expand the scope of the project, spawning a video series in which selected contributors were recorded, either at work or at home, reading their favorite poem. “Robert deeply believes that poetry is a vocal art and meant to be read aloud, and the videos are at the heart of what we’ve created,” says Dietz. Yet, she is quick to note that the clips are unlike the stereotypical poetry videos. “There have been a lot of other poetry series’ where if it was a poem about a flower, there would be a rose [in the frame],” she says.
The FPP has even inspired more than 800 Favorite Poem readings, which have a reputation of bringing together disparate people from the same community. “Go to a poetry reading in the U.S. and there’s one of two responses after a poem—silence or this sound . . . ‘Hmmmmm,’ notes Dietz. “At Favorite Poem readings there is this buzz, in contrast to the subdued behavior you’d normally find.”
In the future, the Favorite Poem project hopes to expand, with an additional set of videos, as well as a major event at the Salt Lake City Olympics in February, 2002. But the top priority is to reach out to the young people of America, as poetry has quietly been slipping out of schools in recent years. “Poetry is being squished out of curriculums because of standardized testing,” says Dietz. At the moment, Pinsky and Dietz are working on a second anthology, this collection aimed squarely at young adults.
Meanwhile, poetry fans can continue to comb through “Americans’ Favorite Poems,” looking for their favorite vignettes. Dietz claims that her favorite submissions to the FPP tend to be simple but powerful statements: “One woman wrote about Pabol Neruda’s Ode to my Socks. All she wrote was, ‘I have knitted socks,’” laughs Dietz. “And we got so many beautiful letters about the Robert Haydn poem, Those Winter Sundays. My favorite one was six words; ‘Broke my heart. And restored it.’”