Taking its cue from the wonderful Lifelines anthology series, which gathers "famous people's favorite poems," Americans' Favorite Poems contains several hundred poems selected not by editors Pinsky and Dietz, but by ordinary Americans who responded to Pinsky's oft-repeated plea for people to send him their favorite poems. Each poem is introduced by one or more explanatory notes from the person who submitted it, and here is where this book, like Lifelines, becomes much more than another poetry anthology: the notes themselves are worth the cover price. Each offers a unique, always passionate and sometimes heartbreaking perspective on a great poem. Taken together, they speak volumes about our country, and about the solitary, revelatory moment of discovering a poem that will never leave you.
Editors Pinsky and Dietz want to prove that poetry in America is alive and well beyond the walled towers of academia. After reading notes from actors, military men, schoolteachers, handymen, social workers, retirees, priests, doctors, prisoners, students, lawyers, homemakers, fundraising consultants, docents, aging high school football stars, truckers, and dozens more, it is hard to argue that poetry no longer speaks to ordinary people.
Every note offers a personal explanation of the unique link a poem formed with a single reader. Again and again, we witness that moment of bonding, often in the face of a willful determination not to like poetry. A student from New York City introduces Coleridge's hallucinatory "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which creates an ominous and surreal atmosphere that no special effects technology can match, with these words: "I never liked poetry; as a matter of fact, I hated it. In ninth grade, my teacher gave me this long poem to read for homework. I was mad. First of all, I didn't like poetry and second of all, this poem is very long." But, like the wedding guest who encounters the mariner, he is transfixed, and by the end of his note, he declares, "Every time I read this poem I just get a special feeling in my gut and I just want to keep on reading it again and again."
Running through these notes is the theme of renewal: a single poem can be something different each time it is read. Introducing Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," a California retiree says, "this poem comforts me and surprises me every time I read it." A nurse in Michigan says of Rita Dove's "Daystar," "This poem has haunted me ever since I read it the first time."
Then of course there are the poems themselves, small alchemical wonders which mirror the passions of our disparate population. There have been dozens of anthologies of American poets, but this volume, which collects poetry from the world over, seems more accurately American than any that preceded it. Many of the poems concern exile and emigration; many of those who wrote offer a favorite poem from their homeland that has comforted them in the strange environment of the New World. All of the American greats -- Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, and others -- are included here. But their grouping, which can seem forced in a geographically specific collection, is as natural as can be alongside poems from Russia, Iran, China, and dozens more countries. Together, these poems present America as it really is, has been, and will be.
Any lover of poetry will find several favorites here, and will get a chance to read how strangers, miles away, found them. Anyone who has yet to discover poetry's force will find it here, and be guided by the straightforward, unpretentious instructions of others who have found it before. And there isn't a reader who won't find at least one poem in this collection that produces that singular sensation, the "special feeling in your gut," which signals that your world has been enriched, permanently.