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Previously in Web Citations:

Something for Everyone

As more and more live video comes to the Web, there's always something on -- but is there anything to watch?

The Law and Spirit of the Letter

The digital age may (or may not) spell the death of print, but it has breathed new life into the art of type.

Be-In Digital

In some quarters, the spirit of Haight-Ashbury is still kicking. Should we care?

Guiding Light

Outside the Islamic world, the Net can serve as eyes and ears to the faithful.

What Side Are You On?

Order and chaos, right and wrong, good and evil. True believers know what the U.S. v. Microsoft case is really about.

Head for the Hills

Are you prepared for Y2K and impending global chaos? Find help on the Web (while you still can).

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.

Related features in Atlantic Unbound:

Soundings: Ben Jonson, "My Picture Left in Scotland" (November 25, 1998)
Robert Pinsky, Gail Mazur, and David Ferry read aloud this great poem of unrequited love. With an introduction by Robert Pinsky, excerpted from his new book The Sounds of Poetry.

Dante & Co. (November 1995)
Dante Alighieri, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Robert Pinsky -- together in cyberspace. Hear Pinsky read excerpts from his translation of Dante's Inferno.

Poetry, Computers, and Dante's Inferno (April 1995)
The transcript of an online conference with Robert Pinsky.

The Matter of Poetry (April 1996)
As Atlantic Unbound launched its Poetry Pages, the question "Can Poetry Matter?" was as provocative as it was in May, 1991, when Dana Gioia asked it in The Atlantic Monthly.

Democratic Vistas
February 17, 1999

In his recent book The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (reviewed in the March issue of The Atlantic), Robert Pinsky, the current U.S. poet laureate, writes:
The theory of this guide is that poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art. The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth.... Moreover, there is a special intimacy to poetry because, in this idea of the art, the medium is not an expert's body, as when one goes to the ballet: in poetry, the medium is the audience's body. When I say to myself a poem by Emily Dickinson or George Herbert, the artist's medium is my breath. The reader's breath and hearing embody the poet's words.
Young reader The clarity and economy of this statement (imagine how any number of academic literary theorists would express the same ideas), not to mention its good common sense, make it easy to overlook the fact that Pinsky is taking a profoundly democratic position on the art of poetry. To say that the medium of poetry is "the audience's body," "the reader's breath," is to give new meaning to the idea of interactive art. What could be more inherently democratic than this notion that the poet and the speaker of a poem collaborate in bringing the art into being?

Pinsky's major initiative as poet laureate is something called the Favorite Poem Project, and it embodies this democratic spirit. Announced last April and launched with a series of high-profile public readings in cities across the country, the project aims to create for the Library of Congress a multimedia archive of 1,000 Americans -- of all ages and from all walks of life -- reading aloud a favorite poem. This past weekend, on Valentine's Day, the project launched its official Web site, which ultimately will hold the entire archive and will offer easy access to the public.

Poetry is all over the Internet, of course. Nevertheless, poetry readings remain rare on the Web, even as audio technology improves by leaps and bounds. A few poetry sites and online publications -- for example Atlantic Unbound (see our Poetry Pages) and Slate (where Pinsky is poetry editor) -- regularly use streaming audio to present recordings of poetry read aloud. What you'll hear on these sites, for the most part, are the voices of poets -- the "experts" reading their own poems (and, sometimes, the poems of others). What makes Pinsky's project so strikingly populist, and such a natural fit with the Internet's democratic ethos, is that it takes seriously the idea of the audience's body -- the body politic, as it were -- being the true medium of poetry, putting that idea into practice on the broadest possible scale. Not everyone reads a poem equally well, it's true, but that misses the point. The Favorite Poem Project -- which has already received more than 10,000 submissions (from accountants and lawyers, zookeepers and teachers, pipefitters and ballpark vendors) and will undoubtedly receive many thousands more -- demonstrates that poetry does indeed have a life outside the professional literary and academic realms, despite incessant and exaggerated claims to the contrary.

Robert Pinsky
In its current incarnation the Favorite Poem site tells the story of the project, presents numerous readings and comments by "ordinary citizens" and celebrities alike (who cover poetic ground from Chaucer to haiku, from Longfellow to Langston Hughes), and, most important, allows people to get involved by submitting a favorite poem to read, along with a brief personal statement about it. (The grass-roots effort is not limited to the Internet: submissions are also being taken by regular mail, and are being solicited at live community events hosted by volunteers around the country. A calendar of these events is provided on the site, in case you're curious about whether the Favorite Poem Project is coming to your neighborhood.) Next year, in April of 2000, Pinsky plans to deliver the initial installment of the Millennium Archive to the Library of Congress. In the meantime the Web site will continue to grow, with the addition of more readings, interactive features (such as message boards and live chat), and an entire section designed to help teachers improve the way poetry is taught in schools.

Rarely does a poet get to see his or her theory of poetry put into practice on the national stage, by literally thousands of compatriots from all corners of the republic. Yet this is the happy situation in which Robert Pinsky now finds himself. Sure, the emergence of "spoken word" or "performance poetry," and the spread of the "poetry slam" phenomenon during the 1990s, represent real instances of poetry (such as it is) coming out of its shell and into the open as a public, vocal art form. What Pinsky has set in motion, however -- by promoting the use of the Web's multimedia technology in the service of poetry and education -- may help make the Internet as central to the way we interact with our literary heritage as the printing press or the public library.

--Wen Stephenson

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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