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Robert Pinsky's Poetry Strikes a Chord

Former US Poet Laureate uses a common touch to celebrate and explore our inner worlds



Poet Robert Pinsky
Poet Robert Pinsky

Despite the often raw intensity of his poetry, Robert Pinsky, a lanky, handsome man in his seventies, has the relaxed air of a jazz musician as he prepares to read an excerpt from his long poem “History of My Heart.”

The poet explains that the work re-imagines a moment in the early 20th century when his mother worked as a young sales clerk in a department store. Legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller appeared with two beautiful young women and began tapping out an improvised tune on a tiny toy piano.  

…. In Toys, where my mother worked

Over her school vacation, the crowd swelled and stood
Filling the aisles, whispered at the fringes, listening
To the sounds of the large, gorgeously dressed man,

His smile bemused and exalted, lips boom-booming a bold
Bass line as he improvised on an expensive, tinkly
Piano the size of a lady’s jewel box or a wedding cake.    

(Click here to read the complete poem)

When asked to sum up the poem’s underlying message, Pinsky pauses a moment. “It’s the idea that the artist takes joy in giving art," he answers. "And I guess it’s an image of happiness.”  

Pinsky himself found happiness playing jazz in a high school band in Long Branch, New Jersey, the working class seaside town where he was born in 1940. That experience led him to poetry.  

“When I was a teenager, just about the only thing I could do right was play music,” he says with a chuckle. “In my graduating class, I was certainly not voted ‘Most Literary Boy.’ I can assure you I was not voted ‘Mostly Likely to Succeed.’ I was voted ‘Most Musical Boy.’ And the music led to the poetry.”

For Pinsky, the joys and challenges of jazz and poetry mirror each other. “Jazz and poetry both involve a structure that may be familiar and to some extent predictable. And then, you try to create as much surprise and spontaneity and feeling and variation while respecting that structure.”

For Pinsky, poetry continues to be a physical experience as well as an emotional one. He rocks and sways while reading “The Want Bone,” a poem of longing that centers on a bleached shark jaw he found splayed wide open on a beach.   

[…]The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.

Ossified cords held the corners together
In groined spirals pleated like a summer dress.
But where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?
Infinitesimal mouths bore it away,

The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.
But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
my flower my fin my life my lightness my O.

(Click here to read the complete poem)

Pinsky says he writes “in his voice for your voice,” and that the breath is key. In that sense, he adds, poetry, like dance, is an art form where the medium is the human body itself. This makes it both very intimate and very human.

“It’s my advice for people who have, alas, learned that poetry is difficult, or think they’ve learned that they don’t have a taste for it, to say it aloud, to feel what it’s like to say it with your tongue, your breath, and your voice.”

Poems are social phenomena. Pinsky relishes the fact that he creates his art with words, which we use every day: like dollar bills, quarters and credit cards.

"'Is that your car? I think it’s blocking mine.' 'I love you but not that way.' You’re using words,” says Pinsky.     

Pinsky, who holds a Ph.D from Stanford University and has taught writing at universities for decades, is also a highly regarded translator of other’s poets’ words. His masterful translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” for example, garnered him several prizes including, in 1994, the Academy of American Poets Translation Award.  

But it was Pinksy’s unprecedented three-year tenure as Poet Laureate of the United States, between 1997 and 2000, that may have had the greatest impact on his literary career - and on the rest of us. Pinsky is proud that the Favorite Poem Project, which he launched as Laureate, flourishes to this day.  It invites everyday people to introduce a poem that is meaningful to them, and then recite it on video for others.         

He resists the idea that he was an ambassador for poetry as many characterize the Poet Laureate’s role. “I was not an ambassador for poetry,” as if he were a salesman for a brand of soap.

“I hope I wasn’t even an advocate for poetry," he says. "I hope I was like that ape that has a good tasting piece of fruit in its hand and say to another ape, ‘Mmm. Tastes good.’” And a lot of the time I was not doing it at all, I was asking other people to do it and listening to what they had to say.”

Indeed, the variety of voices on is encyclopedic in its scope.  One can, for example, watch a Jamaican immigrant read a Sylvia Plath poem, or listen to a construction worker recite Walt Whitman, or a US marine giving a reading of W.B. Yeats “Politics.”  

“And these people are not poets,” says Pinsky, not without a certain pride. “They are not professors. They are certainly not actors. They are readers. And they do something that an actor could not do which I think is worth paying attention to.”

In his own work as a poet, Pinsky shows no sign of slowing down. A new anthology of his selected poems is due to be published in April 2011.

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