By JOHN Y. COLE
Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem project, one of the Library's Bicentennial commemorations, is gaining momentum and national attention.
In April 1998 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded $500,000 to the New England Foundation for the Arts to support production of the project's audio and visual recordings of Americans reciting beloved poems and speaking about the poems' meaning in their lives. This past summer, project staff at Boston University, aided by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and other partners, mailed more than 8,000 "How to Hold a Favorite Poem Event" packets to libraries. In October, the project was featured in a pictorial essay in Life magazine. Since April more than 100 Favorite Poem readings have been held in cities and towns across the country. The popularity of the Favorite Poem idea led to extensions of project deadlines: Favorite Poem events will continue through April 30, 1999, and the deadline for submissions was extended through the end of 1998.
This month Mr. Pinksy will begin making selections of readers for the recorded archives. The goal is to create 1,000 audio and up to 200 video recordings for the Library of Congress's Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. The tapes will be a "gift to the nation" in the Library's Bicentennial year. They will be presented to the Library on April 3-4, 2000, as part of ceremonies marking both the Library's 200th birthday and the beginning of National Poetry Month. A symposium on poetry and the American people, one of the Library's Bicentennial symposia, will be part of the festivities. The Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America will cosponsor the symposium.
Favorite Poem Events, 1998-1999
The project was launched during National Poetry Month in April 1998 with favorite poem readings in five cities. The first, at New York's Town Hall on April 1 and sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, included readings by Ed Bradley, co-host of 60 Minutes, former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, and elementary, high school and adult literacy students. At the Library of Congress on April 2, 25 people from all walks of life presented poems, including Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss), who read from Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," real estate agent Julia Pardoe ("I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth), a cabdriver, a police sergeant and several students (see LC Information Bulletin, May 1998). The event, presented by LC's Poetry and Literature program, was organized by Washington poet David Gewanter.
The favorite poem events in Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles were cosponsored by the Center for the Book. James Kelly of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst represented the Center for the Book at the Boston Public Library event on April 8, concluding his remarks with lines from one of his favorite poems, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," by William Carlos Williams. Other readers included Barnard A. Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library ("Cowboy Poultry Gatherin" by Derrell Arnold), Scott Fruhan, a 16-year old junior at Roxbury Latin School ("Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold) and elementary school teacher Che Hairston ("My People" by Langston Hughes, recited in sign language and aloud).
An unusual Favorite Poem event took place at the White House on April 22, 1998. One of the Executive Mansion's "Millennium Evenings," the program featured a 10-minute film about the role of the Poet Laureate, narrated by Dr. Billington; readings by Mr. Pinky and immediate past Poet Laureates Robert Hass (1995-1997) and Rita Dove (1993-1995); and favorite poems presented by President Clinton ("Concord Hymn" by Ralph Waldo Emerson) and Mrs. Clinton ("The Makers" by former Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov). The evening was enhanced by a display of poetry manuscripts, first editions and other rare books from the Library's collections.
Poet Carl Phillips, the director of the Writing Program at Washington University and a Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellow in 1997-98, organized the favorite poem event in St. Louis on April 25. The Missouri Center for the Book was a cosponsor. After introductory remarks by Mr. Pinky; Prosser Gifford, the Library's director of Scholarly Programs; and this writer, the audience was treated to a varied program that included as readers: high school students Marti Palermo ("Richard Cory" by Edward Arlington Robinson) and Sara Ann Jones ("Lovesong" by Ted Hughes); St. Louis Magazine columnist Joe Pollack ("The King's Breakfast" by A.A. Milne), and St. Louis mayor Clarence Harmon ("Deferred" by Langston Hughes).
The Los Angeles Favorite Poem event on April 26 was organized by poet and University of Southern California professor Carol Muske, who also was an LC Witter Bynner Fellow in 1997-98. Held in cooperation with the Los Angeles Public Library as part of the 1998 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the UCLA campus, the event drew a standing-room-only audience of several hundred people. Former Poet Laureate Robert Hass and this writer presented opening remarks. Poems were presented in several languages by 18 readers. They included: Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (two poems by Shel Silverstein), metal sculptor Tom Hellwarth ("How Things Work" by Gary Soto), the mother of the event's organizer and poetry lover Elsie K. Muske, who recited without notes "Crossing the Bar" by Alfred Lord Tennyson; actor Edward James Olmos (poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca) and publisher and writer Victor Navasky ("Jenny Kissed Me" by Leigh Hunt).
The Center for the Book is cosponsoring four Favorite Poem events in the spring of 1999. On March 16 at the Newberry Library in Chicago, its program partners will be the Poetry Society of America, Poetry Magazine and the Illinois Center for the Book. Poet Heather McHugh, a Witter Bynner Fellow for 1998-1999, is organizing a Favorite Poem event at the Seattle Public Library on March 17. The Washington Center for the Book is a sponsor. 1998-99 Witter Bynner Fellow Campbell McGrath's turn comes on March 24, when he is organizing a reading in Miami in cooperation with the Florida Center for the Book. Finally, at the Library of Congress on April 7, David Gewalter, this time as a Witter Bynner Fellow for 1998-99, is organizing a second LC Favorite Poem event. Earlier the same evening, the Center for the Book and one of its reading promotion partners, the Children's Book Council, in cooperation with the District Lines Poetry Project, will launch Young People's Poetry Week — a new annual celebration of poetry for children and young adults that will encourage more librarians and educators to include the reading and writing of poetry in their libraries and classrooms.
Mr. Cole has been director of the Center for the Book since it was established in 1977.