John Dougherty, a 34-year-old construction worker from Braintree, Mass. , sat on a backhoe. He wore an orange road-crew vest and a turtleneck with his union number on it. In his hands was a book, from which he read aloud in that distinctive Massachusetts accent,
“…But I shall be good health to you nevertheless
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged…”
As he read the excerpt from “Song of Myself” by the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, Dougherty’s f’s crackled like fire.
Watching him read the poem and listening to him is part of the experience of poetry that modern American poet Robert Pinsky is revitalizing with his Favorite Poem Project.
“I hope that new media are restoring the poem as a vocal art,” Pinsky said.
Pinsky visited UAA last week to participate in a gamut of events including the new library’s grand opening, a craft talk and a reading in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium Oct. 8. Pinsky read from his work to auditorium more than half full.
Pinsky’s project started in 2000 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“For the Favorite Poem Project, I invited Americans to write to me and give me the title and author of a poem they loved and would be willing to read for the National Archives and a few sentences about why they chose that particular poem,” Pinsky said.
He received 18,000 letters.
The first volume, ” America ‘s Favorite Poems,” is currently in its 19th printing. Since then, two more volumes have been compiled. The latest, “An Invitation to Poetry” comes with a DVD that features respondent readings, including Dougherty’s.
“I’m hoping it will affect the teaching of poetry,” Pinsky said. “Instead of showing the kids a video of a professor talking about the poem or of an actor reading it in a beautiful voice, show kids the mailman or a woman who started her own business. To me this is what poetry is. You see the relationship between the person and the poem.”
Tina Post, a graduate student in the creative writing program, understands this relationship.
“The DVD was really great,” Post said. “It’s nice to see poetry really being a democratic endeavor rather than an academic-intellectual one… I’d hate for anything to be relegated solely to that arena.”
Pinsky, a former U.S. poet laureate, hosted a craft talk session in the Consortium Library Oct. 8.
“It covered so much territory, from fundamental questions on writing to more advanced particular craft-oriented questions,” Post said.
Pinsky emphasized the importance of the sound and rhythm of poetry.
” Reading and writing both should be more like playing a sport or an instrument,” Pinsky said. “There’s a component of the body and there’s a component of the mind.”
Inspired by Pinsky’s efforts, UAA is hosting its own Favorite Poem Project. Submissions are periodically posted at the UAA Web site and some participants will be asked to perform their favorite poem at a reading Oct. 21.
To see and hear poems in the Favorite Poem Project visit www.favoritepoem.org .