Giving Voice to
the American Audience for Poetry

Robert Pinsky believes that poetry is a vocal art, an art meant to be read aloud. "If a poem is written well, it was written with a poet's voice and for a voice," he says. "Reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem is like the difference between staring at sheet music or actually humming or playing the music on an instrument."

In more than thirty years of teaching poetry, Pinsky has emphasized the bodily, vocal experience of poetry. He long ago found that when he asks students to read aloud and talk about a poem they love something remarkable happens a discernable change in their faces and voices that demonstrates their connection to the poem. The Favorite Poem Project grew out of that discovery.

"There is a special comfort and excitement people get from saying aloud words with a certain sound, in a certain order," says Pinsky. "By reading poems we love aloud, we can learn how much pleasure there can be in the sounds of words. It's as though saying the words of a poem aloud make one feel more able, more capable than in ordinary life. You can concentrate on the physical sounds of the words to a point where they give you an emotional or an intellectual relief. You enter a different state."

The reader of a poem, too, need not be the poet or a skilled performer. "One of the beautiful things about poetry," says Pinsky, "is that the medium is the human body and its voice, but not necessarily the artist's body. When you say a poem aloud by William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, your voice is the artist's medium."

The project is also founded upon Pinsky's belief that, contrary to stereotype, Americans do read poetry; that the audience for poetry is not limited to professors and college students; and that there are many people for whom particular poems have profound, personal meaning. When he began the project, Pinsky had a hunch that poetry already had a vigorous presence in American life. The project has sought to document that presence, giving voice to the American audience for poetry.