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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 29, 2010

Find harmony in your universe, listen to poetry

Illustration by Forest Byrd

My elder daughter has a tiny studio apartment on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. The place is dominated by the view from her window of the New York City skyline.  Anyone would find it beautiful, riveting.

I look at it differently because of Robert Pinsky. He taught me about poetry when I was a student at Wellesley College in the early 1970s. He pointed out that a city’s skyline is not random. The skyscrapers are built on a grid of streets.

Pinsky likened this grid to the meter of a poem. The poem’s rhythm could play against the meter, just as the buildings rose to different heights from the grid of the underlying streets.

Pinsky, who likes jazz, had us master different traditional forms of writing poetry so that we came to understand the interplay between meter and rhythm.

He became the nation’s Poet Laureate in 1997 and stayed on in that post for three years. He wasn’t concerned just with writing his own poetry but with inspiring Americans to embrace poetry.

What Pinsky did in those three years was remarkable. He started The Favorite Poem Project. Everyday Americans were asked to name their favorite poems, and some read them for a permanent archive at the Library of Congress.

In much the same vein, Pinsky, some thirty years before, had asked his Wellesley students to put together a collection of twenty favorite poems. Some of those I first selected, with much deliberation to winnow the field, were poems I had heard my father read at the dinner table; others I had found through my own reading or through late-into-the-night talks with friends. I’ve added to my initial stash over the years, but some of those first twenty have become a part of who I am and how I see the world.

The point of The Favorite Poem Project, Pinsky has frequently explained, was to ask people about poetry, not tell them. And Americans responded in far greater numbers than the Poet Laureate had imagined. They were of all different ages, and they came from all backgrounds, all parts of the country.

Three anthologies of the Favorite Poems followed. The last, An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, includes a DVD of people reading and talking about their favorite poems. A Cambodian-American immigrant reads poetry by Langston Hughes and a construction worker reads poetry by Walt Whitman.

Words written by poets long dead are alive and well in the hearts of many Americans.

We were reminded of this last week when we watched a play rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and talked to some of the young actors. “The language is strange,” said Kevin Thomas, who graduated from Guilderland High School last year, and is playing the part of Lysander. “But, once you get into it, it’s a lot of fun.”

Getting into the language of an Elizabethan poet is not unlike stepping into the period costumes the players were wearing.

Brittni Switser, a Guilderland student playing the part of Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen, was wearing a tightly laced corset with her long black gown. It was uncomfortable on a hot summer day, yet she managed a fluid grace on stage.

“The language is so rigid, yet the atmosphere is lax,” she said of the play.

Eva Sarachan, who is directing the play, graduated from Guilderland a year ago and is now studying theater in college. She epitomizes the commitment of her cast; the score of them are acting without monetary pay or academic credit — purely for the love of Shakespeare.

Sarachan has paid for the costumes and props out of her own pocket.


“We want people not to think that Shakespeare is dull,” she said. “We want everyone to see how it’s still relevant today.”

You can take in the show this Friday or Saturday at the high school. The curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. and admission is free. “I think it would appeal to everyone,” says Sarachan. “The show has a bit of everything. It has magic, romance, jealousy, a full range of emotions.”

Our readers have another chance to hear some poetry this weekend — from the mouth of the man who created it. Galway Kinnell will be reading his poems on Saturday, July 31, at 4 p.m. at the Rensselaerville Library.

Kinnell, who is in his eighties now, began studying poetry as a teenager.

“I gravitated towards poetry because I didn’t find many things in school that interested me,” he told our reporter, Zach Simeone. “Then, we studied poetry at quite a young age, and most of the poems were awful,” he laughed. “But it was the poems of Edgar Allen Poe that got me. I liked the inwardness of them, and the feeling of love and loss in them. But even more than that, I loved the transformation of the English language into a kind of music.”

After graduating from Princeton, Kinnell taught poetry in places around the globe — in various colleges in the United States as well as in France, Spain, Iran, and Australia.

Kinnell won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for his Selected Poems.

In his review of the book, Robert Haas wrote that Kinnell is “widely read by the young who read poetry. If this were a different culture, he would simply be widely read.”

But this can be a culture that values poetry. We’d be the richer for it.

“Poetry,” as Pinsky said when he was Poet Laureate, “is a vital part of our intelligence, our ability to learn, our ability to remember, the relationship between our bodies and minds. Poetry’s highest purpose is to provide a unique sensation of coordination between the intelligence, emotions, and the body. It’s one of the most fundamental pleasures a person can experience.”

Poetry is good for the soul. Go and hear some this weekend.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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