A small smile brightened Robert Pinsky’s face as he pondered the weekend’s entertainment offerings. Listed in the newspaper--along with club happenings, flower shows, dinner theaters and the movie guide--were 16 separate poetry events.
Readings. Discussion groups. Open-mike poetry performances. Poetry slams, sort of like sports contests, but where 100 meters is not likely to induce a sweat.
“It’s a truly popular art, an art everybody can enjoy,” declared Pinsky, champion of odes on the Internet, advocate of everyday lyricism, believer in the simple certainty that a sonnet may dwell anywhere--for example, on the label of a catsup bottle. In Pinsky’s view, poetry is the people’s art form, and Pinsky, in turn, clearly is content to bear the mantle of the people’s poet.
Which makes his official title, poet laureate of the United States, seem . . . “Kind of a paradox, isn’t it?” he volunteered.
Raised in Long Branch, N.J., the 56-year-old professor of graduate writing at Boston University hardly seems the type to sport a crown of laurel leaves. He has a delicious sense of humor and an e-mail addiction issue. He haunts Fenway Park and cheers for the Red Sox, anyone’s definition of a non-noble cause.
His father was an optician and amateur baseball player (for a team called the Jewish Aces); his grandfather was a tavern owner, bootlegger and small-time prizefighter. When he went off to Rutgers, Pinsky became the first member of his family ever to go to college. Even at graduate school at Stanford, his mother would call every week and beg him to take the optician’s licensing exam, “something to fall back on.” Pinsky would remind her he intended to become a university professor, a prospect from which his mother drew only scant comfort.
As the father of three grown daughters, Pinsky knows that “it’s hard to say what makes a kid go a certain direction.” But as a youth, even while playing sandlot baseball, he knew his own direction would be toward the arts. “Even my daydreams about being an athlete were rather theatrical,” Pinsky remembered. He played the saxophone, moved by the rhythm as much as the sound. At Rutgers, he hand-wrote Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and taped it to his dormitory wall. It remains his favorite poem.
His mother’s fears notwithstanding, he found gainful academic employment. After Stanford, he taught at Wellesley before moving to the English department at UC Berkeley. But a feeling of intellectual smugness there made him uncomfortable, Pinsky said. His friends at Berkeley thought he was crazy when he uprooted his children and his wife, Ellen, a clinical psychologist, and headed for BU, a lesser-ranked school in a far colder place.
For Pinsky, it was a warm return to an active and prolific community of poets he had befriended during his Wellesley years, headed by his old friend Frank Bidart. “His literary ties, intellectual ties, spiritual ties, ties of affection were all here,” poet Lloyd Schwartz, head of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said of Pinsky. “The center of Robert’s writing life was here.”
Like many in what Schwartz called “this strong circle of serious poets,” Bidart and Pinsky were disciples of the late Robert Lowell and followers also of the late Elizabeth Bishop. From his earliest days in this loose, but loyal group, Pinsky stood out as a speculative, abstract thinker. He took risks. He wrote a poetic essay about psychiatry. He forged a new translation of the “Inferno"--"The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994)--and landed Dante on the bestseller list. Refusing to cede to the traditional aversion of some intellectuals to popular culture, he penned an ode to television and a poem about computers. One of his grand works, “An Explanation of America” (Princeton University Press, 1979) is an epic poem written for his oldest daughter, now a manager at Borders Books in Los Angeles.
“There’s a line, the last line, in ‘An Explanation of America,’ ” Schwartz said. “It reads: ‘So large and strangely broken and unforeseen.’ I think those phrases describe Robert’s poetry. It’s very ambitious, in the largest sense of the word. He deals with very big issues and themes: America! Poetry, and the world, what it means to be a humane person in the world. He deals with them not with the most traditional, logical, orderly and abstract, intellectual methods, but he uses a sort of intuition and psychological association. His mind in that poem is swinging wildly, in an unexpected and quite irrational, poetic way.”
Pinsky’s works combine “both a manic expressiveness and gesture, plus a very immediate and colloquial tone,” agreed David St. John, a poet who teaches at the University of Southern California and who has lectured with Pinsky at the Napa Writers’ Conference, where poetry readings are held amid the grapevines. “People feel very much at ease within one of his poems,” St. John added. “They are very companionable poems.”
Not only that, said St. John, but he is “absolutely enthralling to listen to. His sense of language is enacted in his own conversations.”
Pinsky runs on megahertz energy, but even pausing for a cafe latte around the corner from his office, he speaks with dizzying eloquence. Here is Pinsky’s explanation for why, in an increasingly mechanistic world, poetry is growing in popularity:
“The craving for it is even stronger in reaction to how powerful and brilliantly organized mass art has become. Mass art is being designed by talented experts, and being distributed and rapidly duplicated. The copy is the medium. The ultimate medium of the poem, even if the person reads the poem from a book that has been printed from 50,000 copies--the ultimate medium is one person’s voice. Poetry is a vocal art. The medium of popular music is an album. It’s an easily duplicable CD. In poetry, the mass distribution of the written word is only the means to an end.”
As this country’s 39th poet laureate, Pinsky follows on the poetic heels of his own icon, Lowell, as well as Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren. Most recently, Californian Robert Hass and Rita Dove held the post. Both said they came close to collapsing from the way they threw themselves into a job whose official duties are only to give one reading at the Library of Congress to deliver one essay and to organize the library’s literary programs.
But Hass and Dove took seriously the job’s less carefully articulated mandate of increasing public awareness of poetry, and Pinsky can be expected to do the same. He plans to make mass access to poetry one of the primary planks of his platform. He envisions huge read-ins. He wants weekly poems on the Internet: Punch the right button and you can hear them read aloud. “One week it might be a contemporary poem, then a week later it might be a 16th century poem by Ben Jonson,” Pinsky said.
Part of the $35,000-a-year poet laureate’s job is to serve as a consultant to the Library of Congress, and already Pinsky is making plans for a giant poetry repository: videotaped readings, “25% to 30% by prominent Americans, and 70% to 75% the rest of us.” Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Helms, Pinsky’s tailor: “Everyone will read a favorite poem. The only thing that will be excluded is that you can’t read your own work. My goal is to create an archive--what Americans do with the poems they love, what they do with their faces as they read them.”
He also aims to broaden the teaching of poetry. By introducing small children to poems, he said, “you are teaching them the intellectual, physical coordination of ideas and meanings in a way that is fundamental to our nature as animals. Dr. Seuss is good for you.”
There is little secret to his methodology for introducing young people to the wonders of verse. “I put it in two words: Read aloud,” he said. “Not just when they are small. I still read aloud to my three daughters, who are 20 to 30 years old.”
He is equally ferocious in his defense of the relationship between poetry and modern technology. Pinsky is the poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate, and feels fiercely that poetry online is “part of our time.” He has little patience for the suggestion that posting poems in cyberspace might be construed in some circles as a cheap imitation.
“You might as well ask, did it cheapen poetry for poets to write odes celebrating the birthdays of kings in the 17th century?” Pinsky rejoined. The electronic revolution “is part of the world, and poetry is part of the world, too,” he said.
His friend St. John sees Pinsky’s passion for technology as one of his greatest virtues in his official role. “To Robert, to do something as ancient and as timeless as to write a poem should not be at odds with the future, at odds with how consciousness is understood,” he explained.
One way Pinsky said he interprets consciousness is by integrating humor and poetry. “For me, there’s a kind of quickness, restlessness, surprise, vividness and sharpness that characterizes both poetry and comedy,” he said. In the middle of “Impossible to Tell,” a poetic elegy that appears in Pinsky’s major anthology, “The Figured Wheel” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), for example, Pinsky pauses to tell jokes, citing at one point--of all unpoetic references in an ode to a dead friend--Mel Brooks.
But there it is, Pinsky’s sense that poetry knows no barriers, his belief that “poetry goes very, very deep,” that it has “a mysterious power to assuage us and to bring us together"--and that if, by some fluke, poetry is not in all of us, it should be.
LONG BRANCH, NEW JERSEY
Everything is regional,
And this is where I was born, dear,
And first moved to tears,
And last irritated to the same point.
It is bounded on three sides by similar places
And on one side by vast, uncouth houses
A glum boardwalk and,
As we say, The Beach.
I stand here now
At the corner of Third Avenue and Broadway
Waiting for you to come by in a car,
And count the red carlights
That rush through a fine rain
To where Broadway’s two branches--North
Broadway and South Broadway--both reach
To the trite, salt, welcoming ocean.
Reprinted by permission from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.