|FAVORITE POEM PROJECT|
April 10, 2000
JOHN DOHERTY, Construction Worker:
My name's John Doherty. I'm from Wrentham, Massachusetts, 34 years old, and I'm a construction worker for the Boston Gas Company. We do outside construction work, providing natural gas for residents or businesses, a lot of digging, laying pipeline, tapping into gas mains-- all outdoor work. The satisfying thing about the job is you're working with a dangerous element, really, so it's important to be exact in everything you do. You certainly don't want to leave any kind of a gas leak behind. So, you know, you have to be careful; you have to pay attention.
Poetry was definitely intimidating initially. It just looked like a lot of words that were out of order and out of place and did not belong together, and that's the challenge of it. It just takes a lot of reading and re-reading to grasp it. But once you do, once you come to understand it, you've achieved something. You feel good. "Song of Myself" is a poem that I probably had a lot of difficulty understanding the first time, and there were certain lines that caught me and that I liked. When I got to the very end of this very long poem, (I found) the last half dozen lines so encouraging. In those last few lines, Whitman tells you that you probably didn't understand what you just read, but stay with it and you will, and you'll love it. I felt like it was speaking directly to me when I first read it. And I keep those lines in mind no matter what I read now.
The connection I feel with Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself"
is not due to the fact that he talks about laborers-- physical labor,
working outside, and the common, working American. That's a nice touch
in it, of course, but I enjoy it for its upliftingness, its ability
to inspire me and see things in life and in everyday existence that
I hadn't noticed before, that I might have taken for granted before.
"Song of Myself," by Walt Whitman.
There is that in me... I do not know what it is... but I know it is
JIM LEHRER: And with me now is Robert Pinsky, the poet laureate of the United States. Robert, that's terrific. How did that happen? How did that man come to do this?
ROBERT PINSKY, Poet Laureate: He wrote one of 18,000 letters that we got in response to not very much publicity asking people to write to me and tell me about a poem they love and why they love the poem.
JIM LEHRER: And what was the criteria for selecting... you put how many on tape?
ROBERT PINSKY: We have shot 50 thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts. They were our main funder, along with Boston University. And those 50 are on the two coasts. I hope we get funding to do some in the Midwest and Texas. I would say the main criterion was the relationship between the person and the poem -- how interesting and intense and instructive the things the person had to say were in relation to the poem.
JIM LEHRER: As to why they chose this poem, how it affected their lives?
ROBERT PINSKY: Yeah. And I think when John Doherty quotes those lines and he says, "I too am untamed, I too am untranslatable," you can feel him understanding it. You can see that he understands them.
JIM LEHRER: Were you surprised by the response, Robert?
ROBERT PINSKY: I was surprised by the volume of the response, a little overwhelmed by it, at first. And I was surprised by the literary quality of many of the responses, like John's. There was a certain amount of each generation's pop poetry. There was Robert Service from one generation and Shel Silverstein from another generation. But we had salesmen who read Wallace Stevens and we had a homeless person with an Emily Dickinson poem and contrary to stereotype, I was surprised and gratified to find that there are a lot of Americans who have very good taste in poetry.
JIM LEHRER: What were you trying to prove? What was the purpose of the project?
ROBERT PINSKY: One purpose was to make a portrait of the United States of America in the year 2000 that I hope will last for a long time. Nothing against sports or popular culture, but it's a portrait not through show business and not through sports, but through Americans' love for a very fundamental, very ancient art. Another purpose was to affect the perception of poetry and to restore the idea that the medium for a poem is a person, that when you or I say words by Emily Dickinson (or William Butler Yates or Countee Cullen), that individual reader's breath and larynx and mouth, that's the instrument for the artist. It's not the poet herself. She's dead, she's far away. She wouldn't like these readings anyway.
JIM LEHRER: Robert, the perception is that there are not going to be that many... if you were to do this 20 years from now, you may not get 18,000 because poetry is dying in the schools. Is that true?
ROBERT PINSKY: I don't think it is true. I think it's a fundamental hunger, first of all.
JIM LEHRER: What's the hunger?
ROBERT PINSKY: It's like the hunger for dancing, as well as walking, singing. That's why we have cuisine as well as food, love as well as copulation. Poetry is something children like intuitively. I hope that kids in school will see John Doherty and some of these others, too. I hope they become teaching tools. But it's too basic an appetite. It's too much at the center of our intelligence. And I do think this matter of it being on a individual scale, it's too important. I mean, I don't know if you saw the story about the Lycos Web search. The eighth most frequently entered word in the search engine was poetry.
JIM LEHRER: There are very few people of my generation who don't have a poem that they remember from childhood-- that they had to memorize in school. I bet kids aren't being forced to memorize poems the way we were.
ROBERT PINSKY: One of the things I love is different letters about the same poem. I have a 12-year-old girl writing about a Shakespeare sonnet and she says, "I'd love to picture some handsome guy writing this to me some day." And then we have a woman in her 80's writing about the same poem. I have very young kids who wrote about poems by Wallace Stevens and Robert Browning and Elizabeth Bishop. It's on the Web site. I have the letters to prove that it isn't true.
JIM LEHRER: And what happens to these poems now and to your... And to the 50 you have on tape? What happens.
ROBERT PINSKY: The official repository is the Library of Congress. The poet laureate's office is at the Library of Congress. But thanks to the NEA and my university, we're going to get these out to schools and universities, and we'll see some more of them on the NewsHour.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. We're going to run several of them over the course of the next several weeks. And well, Robert, congratulations. This is something you should be proud of, and I'm sure you are.
ROBERT PINSKY: I am, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Great. Thank you.
ROBERT PINSKY: Thanks.