What place does reading poetry hold in people's lives? How and where do people experience verse, and what does it reflect about American cultural history?
A symposium organized by a University of Rochester faculty member will examine different facets of poetry reading by the American public. The April 4 event is part of the two-day "Poetry in America: A Library of Congress Bicentennial Celebration" in Washington, D.C., and has been spearheaded by Joan Shelley Rubin, professor of history.
In the works for almost two years, the symposium brings together academics and poets from around the country for panel presentations and even a reading from Dante's Divine Comedy featuring the Italian ambassador. It has been planned in conjunction with Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's presentation of his "Favorite Poem" archive to the Library of Congress. Pinsky will also discuss contemporary American poetry with fellow award-winning poets Rita Dove, Louise Glück, and W.S. Merwin.
"The Favorite Poem Project" is a video and audio archive of thousands of Americans reciting the poems they love and speaking briefly about the poems' meaning in their lives. Pinsky was in Rochester in spring 1999 to present a "Favorite Poem" event at Writers & Books.
Rubin's own contact with Pinsky began even earlier. The previous year, she recalls, fellow history faculty member Celia Applegate had alerted her to Pinsky's project after hearing about it on public radio, and encouraged her to contact the Poet Laureate about her own work as a cultural historian.
In her research Rubin is looking at the status and uses of poetry reading in America between 1880 and 1950. She has been examining the settings where poetry was read-in the home, at school, even around the campfire-and how the site affected its interpretation and the emotions of the reader or listener.
Rubin asked James Longenbach, Joseph H. Gilmore Professor of English, who knows Pinsky through his own work as a poet and literary critic, to pave the way for contacting the Poet Laureate. When she spoke to Pinsky she found him "very open. He's the perfect Poet Laureate because he is so democratic," she recalls. "He was just very interested in what I was doing and very enthusiastic about the idea of the symposium. He encouraged me to organize it." Having previously worked with the director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, Rubin contacted him about hosting the symposium and got a positive response.
The goal of the symposium, Rubin explains, is to examine poetry reading historically and to underscore the importance of assembling archives such as the one Pinsky has created. The event begins with a panel on "Recovering the Experiences of American Readers," in which Rubin will discuss her research. The other panelists will discuss women readers of poetry and how poetry reading is part of the social history of culture.
Additional symposium highlights on April 4 include panels on poetry and voice, poets and publishers, and poetry in America today. In the final event of the day, Pinsky will read from his translation of Inferno, and will be introduced by Ambassador Ferdinando Salleo of Italy.
The previous evening, Pinsky, Dove, Glück, and Merwin will read their favorite poems. All the events over the two days are free and open to the public.
Co-sponsors of the symposium and celebration are the Library of Congress, the Academy of American Poets, and the Poetry Society of America, with additional support from Borders Books.
Rubin is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a co-editor of the series, A History of the Book in America. She is a member of the American Antiquarian Society and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of American History and the University of Massachusetts Press' Studies in Print Culture and The History of the Book.
Note to Editors: Rubin is a resident of Brighton.