Nobody at the Favorite Poem Project’s Summer Poetry Institute is preaching or arguing about the importance of teaching poetry in school. Nobody has to. Teachers have come from 13 states to spend the week in Boston listening to poems and poets, reading favorite poems aloud, and talking about ways to help kids in grades K-12 develop a fearless love of poetry. “Poetry is a basic human pleasure,” says poet and Boston University professor Robert Pinsky, who began the Favorite Poem Project and the Summer Institute during his term as poet laureate of the United States.
In one room, a group of high school teachers talks frankly about what has and hasn’t worked in the classroom. One describes reading aloud Juliet’s monologue after Romeo kills her cousin, and stopping after each line to ask, “What is she feeling?” and “Now what is she feeling?” as a way of encouraging close reading, and showing how poetry can help us express emotional subtlety and contradiction. Another tells of a flop that turned into a “magic moment”: an assignment to write a ghazal, an ancient Persian form. Students groaned; parents complained. But when one of the groaners read her poem in front of an audience of 2,000 people, she told the teacher afterward that it had been one of the best experiences of her life.
Down the hall, elementary school teachers are sharing favorite poems. One reads aloud “A Butterfly,” from a collection of poems and paintings by children imprisoned by the Nazis in the Terezín concentration camp. Another reads from Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again”:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek –
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
The teachers also participate in seminars led by poets. Gail Mazur takes them through Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” and Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem about standing in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “Facing It.” She talks about how starting with careful description can lead a writer to unexpected places: “Oh, this isn’t just about a chair — it’s about my immigrant ancestors, or my broken heart.”
Pinsky tells me that an early love of poetry is “like body memory in an athlete. You get it and you never lose it.” The Summer Institute and the Favorite Poem Project — a series of documentary videos of Americans of all different ages and cultural backgrounds sharing their favorite poems — embody the fact that poetry is, in Pinsky’s words, “a democratic art that values the individual.”
The Summer Institute is about teaching poetry in school, but the approach is profoundly nonacademic. It’s not about dry or pedantic interpretation, or the deadening jargon most of us were taught in school. It’s about how poets write, and how people feel when they read poems and say them aloud. It’s a reminder that, at its essence, poetry is about language — the sound of it and the rhythm of it. As Pinsky says, “You don’t have to understand everything, if you’re having a good time.”
(To see some of the Favorite Poem Project videos, go to www.favoritepoem.org.)
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.