This week's features guest blogger is Phillip Chamberlin, professor at Hillsborough Community College
“I lost six friends and neighbors—all under 25 years old—to suicide. And since then, I’ve lost about five friends to heroin overdoses and suicide. It’s just like this cluster of death that surrounds me, surrounds my neighborhood. It’s kind of a desperate thing.” –John Ulrich, college student from Boston
The young man quoted above stands on his apartment building as he gazes into the lens of the camera. He’s about to recite his favorite poem, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. His personal connection to the poem is obvious, as is his passion. The rhythm of his performance varies greatly from that of the author’s, but no matter—it’s a valid reading, and he’s moved by the poem, and so are we.
This video and many others like it are featured in the Favorite Poem Project, a project founded by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, that features compelling videos of ordinary people introducing and then reciting their favorite poems. The website describes the participants as being “Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, representing a range of occupations, kinds of education, and backgrounds.” Most of the people on camera are quite ordinary—they may have interesting stories, but rarely are they overtly eccentric. Because the participants are not famous poets or academics, they could perhaps be called outsiders. But that would be missing the point: In the world of poetry, there are no outsiders.
I teach at a community college that serves a population almost as diverse. Some of my students are younger than sixteen (as participants in high school dual enrollment programs) and some are older than sixty. Some have never had a day of employment, and others are changing careers. Some have disabilities. Some are multilingual. Some are already avid readers, and some avoid reading as much as possible. Some even write their own poetry. Others think they hate it.
In my experience, these Favorite Poem Project videos have had a welcome role in many of my courses, at least the ones that discuss literature (whether in depth or as part of a brief overview). In elective literature classes, which tend to be full of students already passionate about reading, they work. In prerequisite composition classes, which tend to include a population of students with a much wider range of skills and academic preferences, they also work. Whether I teach in traditional classrooms or in online environments, they work. Students invariably find something intriguing and relevant in these ordinary people, their favorite poems, and their interpretations.
Sometimes I assign specific videos, like the Jamaican-American photographer who finds himself surprised by his connection to New England poet Sylvia Plath, or the construction worker who finds inspiration and comfort in the words of Walt Whitman, or the law student who responds enthusiastically to the world view of Wallace Stevens. Sometimes I encourage students to select videos on their own. Either way, assignments involve viewing, ruminating, responding, writing, and discussing.
In face-to-face classes, sometimes I assign groups of students to present a video to the class—that is, they respond to a response and continue the conversation. In online courses, these videos serve as the basis for at least one of our weekly discussions. Even when students don’t respond favorably to a video, something interesting happens: They begin to see poetry in a new light. And to be honest, sometimes I do, too.
Imagine where instructors could take these activities to make them even deeper, more involved, more challenging. Instructors could even ask students to create their own videos. (They would need to be brief enough to be digestible for contemporary audiences yet deep and meaningful enough to be worthwhile—a worthy challenge.) Or, instructors could ask students to base an extended essay project about these poetry fans and their responses. The essay project itself could have a multimedia component. The possibilities are exciting, and resources like the Favorite Poem Project will continue to keep poetry relevant for students from many different walks of life.