Pinsky Relates ‘Inferno’ for the Common Man


Traditionally speaking, poet laureates serve the public. In England, where the job title originated, their duties include writing verse to commemorate certain communal occasions. Here in the more populist-minded United States, the emphasis tends to be on bringing poetry to the people in other ways.

Robert Pinsky, the 39th poet laureate of the United States, certainly exemplifies the American approach. His most visible venture as poet laureate has been his Favorite Poem project--developing a video archive of a thousand demographically diverse Americans reading aloud their favorite poems.

Yet Pinsky is a notably versatile poet laureate. In addition to the accolades he’s won for his own verse, he’s also been cited for essays and other literary endeavors, including a widely hailed translation of “The Inferno of Dante.”


Moreover, his Favorite Poem project and his Dante translation aren’t as unrelated as they might appear. One of the qualities most praised about Pinsky’s Dante, in fact, is that it’s intelligible to modern readers.

In Pinsky’s version, the 14th century masterpiece is less Christian allegory than other versions, and more psychological journey. “I consider the ‘Inferno’ to be the greatest work ever written about depression,” says the poet laureate, speaking by phone from his home in Massachusetts, where he teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. “It’s about depression and sadness.

“Dante’s conception of despair as an evil that is an absence or a defect seems quite powerful to me, the idea that you deal with your despair by going into it,” Pinsky continues. “Dante and Virgil literally go into hell, deeper and deeper, in order to come out of the other side.”

If that sounds like a Dante to which contemporary Angelenos might relate, they’ll soon get the chance. Pinsky will lecture on Dante at the Huntington Library on Wednesday. And a staged production utilizing his translation will be presented Friday through Sunday at the Getty Center, directed by Robert Scanlan.

Pinsky will also return to L.A. in April, for a joint appearance at UCLA’s Royce Hall with his predecessor as poet laureate, Robert Hass, presented by the school’s Center for the Performing Arts.


Born in 1940 in Long Branch, N.J., Pinsky first encountered Dante during his college years at Rutgers. There he studied with the eminent literary critic and Dante scholar Francis Fergusson, among others.


“I was aware of the ‘Inferno’ from an early age, and I had always found it hard to read, compared to other epics,” says Pinsky. “I didn’t know why. I think it was because of the language.”

Pinsky didn’t pursue Dante right away, but tucked the interest away for future reference. Meanwhile, he went on to build a career as a poet and critic.

His book-length poem, “An Explanation of America,” appeared in 1980 and was awarded the Saxifrage Prize. His “History of My Heart” won the 1985 William Carlos Williams Prize of the Poetry Society of America.

Pinsky’s version of Dante, which was recently issued as a Penguin audio book, appeared in 1994 and spent time on the bestseller lists of both the Boston Globe and Newsday.

That success, in fact, led to an invitation to Pinsky from the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge, Mass., to put together a staged reading of excerpts from his work. The 1995 benefit performance, which was directed by David Wheeler, featured Pinsky himself in the role of Dante, along with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott as Dante’s guide Virgil. Wallace Shawn and Kathryn Walker read the roles of the assorted sinners that the two men encounter on their trek.

The performance was so well-received that Pinsky was encouraged to pursue the project. He subsequently crafted a script, also calling for four actors, in which three of the players alternate in the role of Dante.

This version was heard in February 1998 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, in a staged reading that featured Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Louise Gluck and Lloyd Schwarz. “It’s a show about reading Dante, about the way the reader becomes the pilgrim,” says Pinsky, who notes that the piece is slated to be presented in Santa Fe and elsewhere in the near future.

This, however, is not the version that is to be seen at the Getty. That “Inferno” is, according to Pinsky, chiefly the creation of director Scanlan, a longtime associate of Pinsky’s known for his stagings of Samuel Beckett.

“The Scanlan piece is not my script, it’s Bob Scanlan’s script, [although it is] my translation,” says Pinsky. “The version Bob Scanlan has done is much more theatrical.”

The Scanlan version differs from the Pinsky version in that it’s a full production rather than a staged reading. It also uses four performers, but they do not alternate in the role of Dante. Rather, Dante and Virgil are each performed by a single actor, and the other two actors take on multiple roles.

Pinsky has, however, seen the Scanlan version, when it was performed in September at the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center in Manhattan, though not on any of its subsequent national tour stops in Alabama, Miami, Seattle or Kansas City.

“It’s wonderful to hear talented actors reading your work aloud,” he says. “I’m not sure I understood the show. I’m just an audience member. I found parts of it very impressive, and in parts I felt lost.”

* Robert Pinsky, Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. $10. (626) 405-2141.

Dante’s “Inferno,” Harold M. Williams Auditorium, Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. $25 (includes parking). Tickets: (213) 365-3500.

Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, Royce Hall, UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. April 22, 8 p.m. $12-$20. (310) 825-2101.