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Finding the Power of Poetry

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It's a lovely spring afternoon, and in New York's oh-so-artsy SoHo district, everyone's making the most of it. The narrow streets are jammed with pedestrians pouring in and out of boutiques and galleries, tracking down the latest in fashion or painting.

But on a quiet second floor, a small group of people seems oblivious to the bustle of Spring Street. They are on a quest of a different nature.

These visitors to Poets House are paging through slim volumes of poetry. They're running their fingers over the books of Seamus Heaney, C.K. Williams, Joseph Brodsky, May Sarton, and Anne Sexton. Or they're scanning notices on the bulletin board asking for a poet to write lyrics for an electro-acoustic music project, or announcing a meeting of a Poetry Therapy Group for Pet Loss and Bereavement.

They're seeking what Robert Pinsky, the current poet laureate of the United States, calls "a powerful and time-tested way of learning and taking comfort": poetry.

For some adults, the subject may evoke slightly uncomfortable memories of eighth-grade English classes filled with talk of meter and verse, metaphor and simile, and a vain search for symbolism.

But for those who've loved it since childhood or discovered it later in life, poetry represents beauty, wisdom, intellectual stimulation, comfort, consolation, ongoing learning - something they can't do without.

It's this second group that Mr. Pinsky hopes to focus on this month as he kicks off what's being called The Favorite Poem Project. It formally began on April 1 - also the first day of National Poetry Month - in New York City's Town Hall theatre where participants like Mike Wallace, Geraldine Ferraro, and Garrison Keillor all read aloud their favorite poems.

But Pinsky is less interested in celebrities than in ordinary Americans. By the time the celebrations ringing in 2000 arrive, he hopes to have recordings of 1,200 Americans reciting their favorite poems - not their own poetry, but poems written by others. So far, the verses picked and the reasons for choosing them seem as varied as the readers themselves, and that's the whole idea (see story below).

"Each poet laureate takes a different direction, but [Pinsky's] really trying to make a connection with the common reader of poetry," says Melissa Hammerle, director of the graduate program in creative writing at New York University. "I've never heard of a project like this before. It sort of wakes people up to the possibility of reading poetry."


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