MLA: speaking out and spreading the word

December 15, 2000

"If", The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , The Ballad of Reading Gaol , a Shakespeare sonnet - could you name your favourite poem? In the United States, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" tops the poll, according to the Favorite Poem Project, set up a couple of years ago by the 39th US poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, to celebrate a rising interest in poetry.

For academics attending the Modern Languages Association convention, the choice is more international, ranging from Keats's "Ode to Autumn" and W. H. Auden's "Lay your sleeping head, my love" to "L'invitation au voyage" by Baudelaire and Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note by African-American poet and playwright Amiri Baraka. A group of members will read their favourite work at the convention.

Pinsky says he set up the Favorite Poem Project because, unlike his two predecessors as poet laureate - Rita Dove and Robert Hass - he did not have any specific projects in which he was interested. He says: "Dove worked with children in the cities, Hass with nature writing and ecology. I decided to encourage on a national scale the kind of reading aloud of poems that my friends, students and I had been doing for years."

The project started in Boston and moved to Washington, where residents and visitors were recorded reading their favourite work. Gradually it spread nationwide and some 20,000 people have written in with their nominations.

Several editions of an anthology of the letters and poems have been published, Pinsky has been involved in a reading at the White House, and the project has produced 50 video documentaries with people talking about their favourite poem and reading it aloud. Readings have been held around the country.

The aim is to promote the teaching of poetry, but the approach is less analytical and more centred on gut feeling.

Rosemarie Ellis who works for the project, which is based at Boston University where Pinsky is professor of English and creative writing, says:

"It is about just loving poems and saying them. It is about physical and emotional feeling."

As well as being author of the nation's favourite poem, Frost is also the most nominated poet. But Ellis says the variety of submissions is wide and people clearly interpret poems in different ways, according to their own experiences. Some see "The Road Not Taken" as an inspiring poem, others as a sad one.

Many people nominate poems by authors they appear to have nothing in common with. A Jamaican photographer spoke of his surprise at nominating Sylvia Plath, a wealthy New England woman who had a completely different life from his own. "When you read a poem, something happens. He said the poem spoke to him in a way no one ever had," Ellis says.

The project, which has had money from several private foundations and Congress, is seeking funding for a teaching pack for schools, including videos of children reading their favourite poems. Pinsky says the project "affirms the vitality of a poetry audience outside any professional microcosm".

He adds: "The project confirms one's confidence in the appeal of poetry. The readers who give voice to poems by Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and so on have refreshed my sense of poetry's endurance."

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