About the Project
At its inception, the Favorite Poem Project put out an open call for people across the country to share their favorite poems. Eighteen thousand Americans—from ages 5 to 97, from every state, representing a range of occupations, kinds of education, and backgrounds—wrote to the project. From those thousands of letters and emails, the Favorite Poem Project created a series of short documentaries and anthologies. The project continues to create short films and educational resources, and to host readings, in order to document and encourage the sharing of poetry across the world.
Founding Principles: Giving Voice to the American Audience for Poetry
Poetry is a vocal art, an art meant to be heard in the reader’s voice—whether actually read aloud or in the inner voice of the imagination. The experience, in both ways, is bodily. As with conversation and song and many other uses of language, understanding is rooted in sound.
That principle is rooted in Robert Pinsky’s experience as a poet and a teacher, working with the melodies of meaning. He long ago found that if you ask students to read aloud and talk about a poem they love, something remarkable happens—a discernible 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 crafted with a certain sound, in a certain order,” says Pinsky. “It’s as though saying the words of a poem aloud make one feel more able, more capable than in ordinary life. Concentrating on the physical sounds of the words, in your own voice, can fulfill the meanings. When you say a poem aloud by William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, or even imagine saying it aloud, your voice becomes the artist’s medium. It is a form of collaboration, or mutual possession.”
The Favorite Poem Project is also founded upon a second, more social belief: that, contrary to stereotype, many 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. The FPP began with a hunch that poetry has a vigorous presence in American life. The project seeks to document and encourage that presence, giving voice to the American audience for poetry.
Favorite Poem Project Videos
The collection of short video documentaries showcases individual Americans reading and speaking personally about poems they love. The videos have been regular features on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and are a permanent part of the Library of Congress archive of recorded poetry and literature. They have also proven valuable as teaching and learning tools for a range of classrooms and ages. The videos may be viewed on this website.
The selections in this anthology, the first of the series, cross oceans and eras, placing ancient poems alongside contemporary poems and offering many poems in translation. Moving, amusing and insightful letters from readers accompany each poem.
This second anthology emphasizes the pleasure of reading poems. The poems are arranged into chapters that represent some aspect of a life—such as youth, darkness, passion and art. Many of the poems are accompanied by comments from participants in the Favorite Poem Project.
The third of the project’s anthologies. The people in the videos, along with the letters and poems in the book, extend a welcoming invitation to rediscover the joy of reading poems. There is also a paperback textbook edition of the book/DVD, created especially for introduction to poetry classes at high school and college levels, with a comprehensive classroom guide provided free to teachers who adopt the book for a course.
The response to the Favorite Poem Project demonstrates the significance of poetry to contemporary Americans; this book, based on Robert Pinsky’s Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, reflects on the project as evidence of the relation between democratic culture and the art of poetry.
Favorite Poem Project Original Archives
The Favorite Poem Project’s original archives— including the original letters, email printouts, and both raw and edited versions of audio and video recordings—are housed at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. These materials, along with the project’s database of nearly 25,000 letters written by American readers, have already proven useful to scholars and researchers, as we hope they will in the future. In addition, final versions of the 50 original Favorite Poem Project videos are also kept at the Library of Congress Archive of Recorded Poetry & Literature.
In addition to creating these collections, the Favorite Poem Project has been dedicated to strengthening communities through the art of poetry and has developed successful programs for libraries, communities and schools.
The project has inspired hundreds of Favorite Poem Project readings in cities and towns across the country. These readings gather individuals from different corners of a single community to share their favorite poems with each other, revealing personal ties to specific poems. One of the pleasant surprises of the project has been how beneficial these readings seem to be for the communities that host them. If you are interested in organizing an event in your community, check out our Host a Reading page.
The First Events
In April 1998, the Favorite Poem Project saw its official launch with a series of public poetry readings introduced by Robert Pinsky. The five-city launch tour included New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Saint Louis, and Los Angeles.
Braving a torrential storm, more than 1,200 people packed New York City’s Town Hall for the official launch of the Favorite Poem Project. The April 1 event featured readings by well-known artists, television and radio personalities and civic, religious and community leaders, as well as schoolchildren and an adult literacy student. The event was hosted by the Academy of the American Poets and sponsored by the New York Times advertising department.
The day after the New York event, Robert Pinsky headed to D.C. for an event hosted by the Library of Congress, his Laureate home. Local poet David Gewanter gathered a wide range of Washingtonians to read favorite poems. When Gewanter walked into a police station and asked, “Does anyone here like poetry?” Sgt. Harry Hayes stepped forward. When he jumped in a cab inquiring, “Do you know any poems?” Mack McCoy said, “Sure I do.” The event reflected the diversity of dwellers in our nation’s capital and included students, teachers, a neurologist, an engineer and a United States Senator.
The Road Not Taken
Read by: Senator Thad Cochran
Transcript: The Road Not Taken
Those Winter Sundays
Read by: John Clarke
Transcript: Those Winter Sundays
The World Is a Beautiful Place
Read by: Campbell Kennedy
Transcript: The World Is a Beautiful Place
Twenty-five Bostonians—including the President of the Massachusetts State Senate, a homeless Boston resident and a third-grader—read favorite poems to a full house at the Boston Public Library on April 8. The Library President dressed in Western attire, complete with bolo tie and hat, to read a cowboy poem. Boston revealed some readers with special connection to poets, including Sylvia Plath’s former teacher and the caretaker of the William Cullen Bryant Homestead. Readers recited poems in Spanish, Vietnamese and American Sign Language. The event was sponsored by the Boston Public Library, The Library of Congress and Boston University.
On April 22, 1998, President and Mrs. Clinton hosted US poet laureate Robert Pinsky and former poets laureate Robert Hass and Rita Dove at the White House to celebrate America’s rich heritage of poetry. “We are here on this Millennial Evening to celebrate the timeless power of poetry and poets as our American memory, our purveyor of insight, our eyes and ears who silence the white noise around us and express the very heart of what connects, plagues and makes us fully human,” said First Lady Hillary Clinton in her welcome to the poets gathered in the White House East Room. Pinsky, Hass, and Dove read works from great American poets, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edward Arlington Robinson, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Stevens. “We are here to honor our ancestors in poetry,” said Pinsky, “and to imagine ways that we can give the gift they gave to us to our children.” President Clinton read works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Octavio Paz. Four Americans—a minister, a war veteran, a teacher, and a junior-high school student—also read favorite beloved poems. Earlier that day the First Lady accompanied Pinsky, Hass, and Dove to a poetry slam at E. Hayden Johnson Junior High School in southeast D.C. Students faced off with original poems that were judged by their teachers and peers.
Late in the month, Robert Pinsky visited middle America for the fourth Favorite Poem launch event. On April 25, St. Louis residents spent a Saturday afternoon at Washington University listening to their city’s favorite poems. Local poet Carl Phillips succeeded in recruiting a variety of readers, including St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, a cellist, and a local storyteller. The event was sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Missouri Center for the Book.
from The People Yes ("Hope is a tattered flag...")
Read by: Jason Carter-Solomon
Read by: Kay Bonetti Callison
Transcript: Next Day
On a balmy California Sunday, hundreds of people gathered outdoors for the final Favorite Poem event during National Poetry Month. Many readers stepped up to the mike and shared their connections to specific poems—poems by Auden and Frost, Lorca and Langston Hughes. Local poet Carol Muske discovered a poetry lover in Mayor Richard Riordan, in actor Edward James Olmos, in a sitcom writer, a metal sculptor and a computer engineer. The reading, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, The Library of Congress, and the Los Angeles Public Library was among the most popular venues at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
This Is Just to Say
William Carlos Williams
Read by: Lawrence Broch
Transcript: This Is Just to Say
Puedo Escribir Los Versos (Tonight I Can Write)
Pablo Neruda (translated by W.S. Merwin)
Read by: Cynthia Rios
Transcript: Puedo Escribir Los Versos (Tonight I Can Write)
Untitled Tanka ["The lower leaves of the trees"]
Sone No Yoshitada (translated by Kenneth Rexroth)
Read by: Kiyoshi Houston
Transcript: Untitled Tanka ["The lower leaves of the trees"]
After those first FPP events, Pinsky toured the country and participated in more than twenty Favorite Poem readings in places like Provincetown, Massachusetts; Oxford, Mississippi; Salina, Kansas; Hartford, Connecticut; and in Des Moines, Chicago, Miami, and Seattle.
These events, which were open to the public, announced the project and invited Americans to participate. Each event has reflected the larger project: Americans from all walks of life—including school children and prominent civic figures—read aloud favorite poems, offering brief personal reflections about the poems.
In New York, 60 Minutes co-host Ed Bradley, Geraldine Ferraro, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., musician Suzanne Vega and TV-anchor Mike Wallace read poems alongside an adult-literacy student and high school kids from the Bronx. In Boston, a state senator read Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” a homeless man read Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and a teacher recited Langston Hughes’ “My People” in American Sign Language.
From these experiences, the project compiled suggestions to help organizations plan their own Favorite Poem Project readings. Since then, the project has facilitated nearly 1,000 community reading events across the country—from Glendale, California, to Bettendorf, Iowa, from Anchorage to Albuquerque, in small-town libraries, big-city bookstores, elementary and high schools, and even birthday and anniversary parties. We hope you will consider hosting a Favorite Poem Project reading in your community.