By DONNA URSCHEL
Robert Pinsky shared his "theory of poetry" with librarians during the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference and also asked for their assistance in carrying out his Favorite Poem Project by staging poetry readings at their libraries.
Mr. Pinsky, the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library, spoke at the "LIVE at the Library: Poets and Librarians Panel" on June 27 at the Washington Convention Center, where much of the ALA conference activity occurred.
"Poetry is a physical art. I'll go further to say it's a bodily art. It is an art of the human body," Mr. Pinsky told the capacity crowd, in explaining the appeal of poetry and its rise in popularity.
"When you say aloud to yourself a poem by Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson or Shakespeare, your body is the medium of that artist.
"Therefore, to further define my view, poetry is a vocal art. At the very core of poetry, the center of poetry is that physical and emotional electric sensation I get when I say aloud words I love," he said.
The advantage of this perspective, according to Mr. Pinsky, is it explains why there is an upsurge of interest in poetry in the United States.
"My theory of that upsurge is that we live in a time of increasingly beautiful, splendid, impressive, magnificent mass art," he said. "Consider a digital videodisk or a music CD. I love my electronic equipment. It is beautiful."
As wonderful as mass art is, according to Mr. Pinsky, it doesn't satisfy the need for a more personal connection.
"Poetry, inherently, by the nature of its medium, is on an individual scale, a human scale. So, as much as we love the movie, the CD, the rest, there's also a craving we have that's on the scale of one person," he explained.
Mr. Pinsky is trying to capture that craving and appreciation for poetry through his Favorite Poem Project. He is choosing 1,200 people to recite their favorite poem -- "a poem that person loves," said Mr. Pinsky -- aloud on audio and video tape.
The 1,000 audio recordings will commemorate the millennium; the 200 videotapes will symbolize the Library's Bicentennial in the year 2000. As one of the Library's cultural "Gifts to the Nation" on its 200th birthday, the tapes will come to rest in the Library's Archive of Recorded Literature on Tape, which has some 2,000 poets and authors reading their work.
"The project that I've devised is the one I want to ask your help with," he told the librarians and other ALA attendees.
Mr. Pinsky said he received a starter grant of $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to help carry out his Favorite Poem Project.
"I hope to represent all 50 states; every possible kind of education," he said. "At the Boston Public Library, we had a homeless person reading Emily Dickinson; at the public library in St. Louis, we had the mayor reading Langston Hughes."
"The most successful readings so far have been held in public libraries," he said. "These readings must not take place in universities; people are intimidated by universities. The ideal setting for these readings is the public library."
"I invite you and I plead with you to hold poetry readings at your library," he said. "I can tell you from experience these are lively and encouraging and wonderful events."
Ms. Urschel is a Washington free-lance writer.