By YVONNE FRENCH
President and Mrs. Clinton helped Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Robert Pinsky kick off his Favorite Poem project, one of the Library's bicentennial commemorations, with a reading at the White House April 22.
President Clinton read two poems to an audience of 200, including Dr. Billington and his wife, Marjorie.
The White House event, "American Poetry" was the third "Millennium Evening" hosted by the president and first lady. Other millennium evenings at the White House featured Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn and Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking.
The poetry evening included a 10-minute video about the role of the Poet Laureate and the last three Laureates, narrated by Dr. Billington. "The Poet Laureate Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress celebrate the richness and variety of American poetry here at the Library and share it as far as possible with the American people," Dr. Billington said.
Immediate past Laureates Robert Hass (1995-1997) and Rita Dove (1993-1995) read during the program and two other consultants in poetry were in the audience: William Meredith (1978-1980) and Anthony Hecht (1982-1984). Other poets in attendance included: John Ashbery, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Jorie Graham, Carolyn Forche, W.S. Merwin, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Frank Bidart, Louise Gluck, Carl Phillips and Carol Muske. The director of the American Academy of Poets, William Wadsworth, also attended.
Mrs. Clinton said to the gathering: "I hope you will also get a chance to visit the foyer and see some of the extraordinary works that capture American's role in poetry and poetry's role in America. For that exhibit and so much more, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. James Billington, the Center for the Book, the curators and the entire Library of Congress
The first lady read "The Makers" by former Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov:
Who can remember back to the first poets
The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus ...
They were the ones that in whatever tongue
Worded the world ... and sang the towers
Of the city into the astonished sky.
Mr. Pinsky introduced the Laureates' readings as: representative of the great heritage of American poetry; poems of the past for future generations of children; and poems that display "the crazy mixes and improvisations that are behind our American works such as jazz, feature films, poetry and country music."
"Americans," he said, "should be most patriotic about this impurity."
Then the poets took turns reading Robert Frost's "Directive": "Back out of all this now too much for us ... There is a house that is no more a house ..." The poem goes on to describe the route to the house and how nature has overtaken the dwelling: "And if you're lost enough to find yourself/By now, pull in your ladder road behind you/and put a sign up CLOSED to all but me."
Frost describes "a brook that was the water of the house" and a goblet he kept "hidden in the instep arch/Of an old cedar ... Here are your waters and your watering place./Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."
Said President Clinton: "In this crazy world we're living in, [where] every- thing's running around so fast, [poetry] gives us a sense of who we are and who we are becoming as individuals."
He then read "Ars Poetica" by the late Octavio Paz:
Between what I see and what I say
Between what I say and what I keep silent
Between what I keep silent and what I dream
Between what I dream and what I forget:
As the program continued, members of the audience, including a veteran, students, a minister and an English teacher recited several poems and Mr. Pinsky took questions from around the country through an interactive Internet hookup. The audience also watched a videotape of a visit by the first lady and the three Laureates to J. Hayden Johnson Junior High School in Washington, where students were practicing for a "poetry slam," or poetry-reading competition.
President Clinton then read "Concord Hymn," by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which uses the phrase "the shot heard 'round the world" to commemorate the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord, Mass.
Guests viewed a temporary display of original manuscripts, first editions and rare books from the Library, including one of Walt Whitman's notebooks open to early versions of "Song of Myself"; a signed presentation copy of Langston Hughes's first published poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"; and a working copy of Robert Frost's "Dedication," the poem he composed but could not read because of the glare at President Kennedy's inauguration, Jan. 20, 1961.
A video downlink to the Mumford Room at the Library allowed staff to watch the 45-minute program while it occurred across town at the White House. In the spirit of the Favorite Poem project, before the downlink began, eight staff members took the podium in the Mumford Room to recite their favorite poems.
The reading in the Mumford Room was not unlike the Washington Favorite Poem event held at the Library on April 2, when 25 people, including Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a cabdriver, a police sergeant, a school principal, several students, a neurologist and a real estate agent read their favorite poems.
Favorite Poem readings were also held in New York on April 1 and Boston on April 8, and in St. Louis on April 25 and Los Angeles on April 26. The Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles readings were sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book.
"Creativity is one of the themes of the Library's bicentennial in 2000," said John Y. Cole, the center's director. "We were pleased that the close cooperation between the Library's Bicentennial Project and the White House Millennium Council resulted in the furthering of the renaissance of poetry in the United States through the country's three latest Laureates."
The Washington Favorite Poem reading was organized by poet David Gewanter, a poet who read in the fall literary series and one of Mr. Pinsky's former students. During his introduction, Mr. Pinsky called poetry an individual art "that goes very far back." Its locus, he said, is the human body, because people "used rhyme to engrave things in memory."
"The medium is not the author or an expert actor, but the feeling I get when I say a poem," he said, then went on to read "Incantation" by Czeslaw Milosz, which begins, "Human reason is beautiful and invincible," and "The Pleasures of Merely Circulating" by Wallace Stevens. It ends:
Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby
Might well have been German or Spanish
Yet that things go round and again go round
Has rather a classical sound.
Mr. Pinsky introduced Sen. Cochran by noting "the South has been a great source of American eloquence." Said Sen. Cochran: "This poem helped heal some of the wounds of the Civil War. I wouldn't normally choose to read a Yankee poem," the senator joked, "but his is one of my favorites." He read from Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood ... I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference."
Victor Hugo Godoy, a 9-year-old in third grade in Parklawn Elementary School in Fairfax County, Va., read "The Long-Haired Boy," by Shel Silverstein, about a boy who has such long hair that everyone laughs at him, so he sat down and cried
Till his whole body shook
And pretty soon his hair shook too,
And it flapped --
And flapped --
And he lifted --
Straight up in the air like a helicopter.
"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," by William Wordsworth was read by real estate agent Julia Pardoe. Ending as it does, "And then my heart with pleasure fills/And dances with the daffodils," it was apropos as daffodils were at that moment in bloom on Capitol Hill.
The Favorite Poem project will record people on audio and video tape saying their favorite poems aloud. The readings selected by Mr. Pinsky will become part of the Library's Archive of Recorded Literature on Tape as one of the Library's cultural "Gifts to the Nation" on its 200th birthday.
"The project is rooted in two convictions: that poetry is above all a vocal art, and that American poetry, from the time of Whitman and Dickinson, has been one of our great glories and national treasures," said Mr. Pinsky.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.
To apply to be chosen by Mr. Pinsky to read a favorite poem for the archives, write the title of the poem, the poet and a sentence or two about why the poem is meaningful to you and send it, along with your name, phone number, address, and e-mail address, if available, to Robert Pinsky, The Favorite Poem Project, Creative Writing Program, Boston University, 236 Bay State Road, Boston, Mass., 02215. E-mail submissions will be accepted at [email protected] A Favorite Poem Web site is available.