Americans' Favorite Poems
offers keen proof that poetry does
make something happen, that it can give strength and perspective, inspire and alter lives, and comfort and surprise. How did this grassroots golden anthology come about? When Robert Pinsky was named U.S. poet laureate in 1997, he hoped to persuade 100 Americans to recite and discuss their favorite works. Even he may have been surprised when thousands were moved to contribute and commune. From the wave of responses, Pinsky has selected 200 poems, each preceded by one or more testimonials. Make no mistake: this collection, ranging in alphabetical order from Ammons to Zagajewski, would be a keeper without any commentary whatsoever. But Pinsky's volume again and again makes clear that for real readers Matthew Arnold is far from outmoded, that people still thrill to Robert Browning, and that Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" is--at least for one Hollywood type--a reflection of reality rather than sublime whimsy. And how about John Donne's "The Flea"? A precocious Arizona 17-year-old deems it not a thorny metaphysical work but "the best argument for sex I've ever heard."
Fans will encounter their favorites, from Anna Akhmatova to Langston Hughes to W.B. Yeats, and read them anew in the light of people's passionate comments. But there are also discoveries to be made. A New Mexican treasures "Who Says Words with My Mouth" by the 13th-century Persian poet Jalal Al-Din Rumi: "I can't live without it and I can die with it." And this reader is grateful to one New Yorker for offering up Nazim Hikmet's "Things I Didn't Know I Loved." Twenty-four-year-old Chad Menville writes: "I identify with this poem about imprisonment, censorship, longing, and belief in oneself more than with any other poem I have read. This poem needs to be heard! Please."
Americans' Favorite Poems really is a national portrait: those who took up Pinsky's challenge range from teachers to prisoners, teenagers to nonagenarians. There are even a few artists. Violinist and conundrum merchant Laurie Anderson sent a long, complex paragraph detailing how George Herbert inspired her to create a talking table: "It compressed the sound and drove it up steel rods so that when you sat with your elbows on the table and your hands to your ears, it was like wearing a pair of powerful headphones." And when it comes to A.E. Housman, the writer William Maxwell opted for simplicity with the sentence fragment: "Because I cannot read it without shuddering with pleasure." That same phrase can be applied to the entire volume. Robert Pinsky's vision is inspiring on every level, proof of his belief in poetry--and people. --Kerry Fried
Poet laureate Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project was a stroke of genius. Americans were invited to share by letter a poem they treasured; then many were recorded reading their chosen poems for inclusion in a national video and audio archive. The response was tremendous, and as Pinsky notes, many of the matches between reader and poem defy stereotypes, and all attest to the vital role that poetry plays in more lives than seems possible in a country that appears to pay scant attention to this quiet art form. Here each poem is introduced in extraordinarily moving personal disclosures by the reader who chose it. Teenagers and octogenarians, a social worker, a farmer, a nurse, a truck driver, a commodities trader, a librarian, a judge, and an alcoholic who memorizes poetry to test her sobriety selected poems by Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Haki R. Madhubuti, W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, and Dylan Thomas. No one person, however well read, could have created this resounding collection, which may well become a favorite in its own right. Donna Seaman