Vessel

Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the

March 28, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From the Streets, Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky

You can dust off those old Rod McKuen records.

According

to U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, poetry is no longer just for

the cultural elite.

With his activist promotion of poetry in the streets, typified by

his support of such so-called lowbrow cultural activities as poetry

slams, and magnetic refrigerator poetry, Pinsky has been one of the

most popular poet laureates of recent generations, and the only one

to serve three consecutive terms. His frequent appearances on PBS’s

"News Hour with Jim Lehrer," particularly during last year’s

presidential election, have given poetry a new national visibility

and have practically made this New Jersey born and bred poet a

household

name.

Pinsky will help kick off National Poetry Month in April at Princeton

University when he delivers the Tanner Lectures on Human Values (an

annual event meant to advance scholarly and scientific learning) on

Wednesday and Thursday, April 4 and 5. His theme will be "American

Culture and the Voice of Poetry." Following each lecture, a panel

of invited scholars will offer their own thoughts, along with a

rebuttal

or two, on Pinsky’s ideas.

Both lectures and panel discussions will be held at Helm Auditorium,

McCosh 50, on the Princeton campus starting at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday’s

talk is preceded, at 3:30 p.m., with a video screening featuring

Pinsky’s

"The Favorite Poem Project." Pinsky will also hold a book

signing at the Princeton U-Store on Friday, April 6, at 10 a.m.

In an interview that took place via E-mail (his preference while on

tour), Pinsky explained the unique part poetry plays in modern

American

culture, and shared his thoughts on why it has recently enjoyed a

blossoming in popularity.

"The medium of poetry is individual in scale, intimate in nature,

singular, the reader’s voice," he says. "In an age of media

that are mass in scale, spectacular in nature, and plural, that makes

poetry pretty valuable."

Poetry’s growing popularity, especially among the young, is also

influenced

by media saturation. "I think the upsurge of interest in poetry

may be related to a craving for art that is bodily, but not part of

show business. We seem to need poetry’s way inside the reader, the

fact that it is vocal, but not necessarily performative."

In 1997, Pinsky began "The Favorite Poem Project" with an

aim to show just how much poetry is in circulation among us and how

deep a role poetry plays in many people’s lives. Meant to reemphasize

poetry as a vocal art (Pinsky believes reading a poem silently is

like quietly staring at sheet music), it was initially a series of

readings given in a number of cities across the country in which a

group of people with a variety of backgrounds were asked to stand

on stage and read one poem that they loved. Afterwards many went on

to explain just what made the poem so important to their daily lives.

The project has now expanded to include a book, a website

(www.favoritepoem.org),

and a series of videos regularly aired on "The News Hour with

Jim Lehrer." These have become a permanent part of the Library

of Congress Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.

Although the quality of poetry in "The Favorite Poem Project"

runs the gamut from Shakespeare sonnets to "Casey at the Bat"

to poems by pop stars, Pinsky sees no need to draw distinctions

between

high and low art. "No culture works at only one level. Art is

not limited to the greatest art," he says. "Besides some song

lyrics are good, many are mediocre. A very few are better than good.

A similar statement could be made about highbrow poetry."

Born in 1940, Pinsky grew up in Long Branch, New Jersey, watching

Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field, Sid Caesar on TV, and listening to

Elvis Presley and Charlie Parker on the radio. "The years of my

childhood and youth were a beautiful seed time," he has said.

He graduated from Long Branch High School, the same school his parents

had attended.

Pinsky’s father worked as an optician while his mother was a

homemaker.

"We lived in a small rented apartment and didn’t have a lot of

money when I was small. But we considered ourselves smart, beautiful,

and classy." Despite the fact that neither of his parents had

a college education, both were verbally adept and stylish people.

"Their jokes and arguments were inventively eloquent," he

says.

Aside from being named Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997

(a post he turned over to Stanley Kunitz last October) Pinsky has

authored six books of poetry, several books of criticism, two books

of translations, and has won numerous honors. His most recent book

of poems is "Jersey Rain" (published last year by Farrar,

Straus, & Giroux), a title that took on new meaning during last week’s

chilling March deluge. He currently teaches writing at Boston

University.

At a time when competitive poetry slams are routinely

held in neighborhood bookstores and famous poets are up on billboards

selling computers, coffee, and luxury cars, some would argue that

the desanctification of poetry has gone a bit too far. Pinsky

disagrees.

"I don’t see anything inherently wrong with mass art, with money,

or with the desire for status. Duke Ellington and Buster Keaton, for

example, made great works that were appreciated and distributed on

a mass scale. Money and status were subjects taken seriously by

Shakespeare

and Dante."

Still, at its essence, the power of poetry remains the same now as

it has since the beginning of time and that is why, particularly in

the United States, it is more vital today than perhaps ever before.

"Poetry, with its emphasis on the individual person’s voice, is

much like our democratic culture and in contrast to it," says

Pinsky. "The voice of poetry is in the individual reader, and

is also communal. It is inside and outside, in a way that other

wonderful

media — television, for example, or the music CD — are

not."

— Jack Florek

Robert Pinsky, Princeton University, McCosh 50,

609-258-4798. The United States poet laureate gives the Tanner

Lectures

on the theme, "American Culture and the Voice of Poetry."

Discussants will be A.S. Byatt (author of "Possession"),

Jonathan

Galassi (editor-in-chief Farrar, Straus and Giroux), John Hollander

(Yale University), and Marianna Torgovnick (Duke University). Free.

Wednesday and Thursday, April 4 and 5, 4:30 p.m.

The Wednesday program begins at 3:30 p.m. with a film showing of

"The

Favorite Poem Project." The lecture follows at 4:30 p.m.

Robert Pinsky , Princeton U-Store, 36 University

Place, 609-921-8500. A book signing by the New Jersey poet and U.S.

Poet Laureate. Friday, April 6, 10 a.m.

Top Of Page
Vessel

What is this body as I fall asleep again?

What I pretended it was when I was small —

A crowded vessel, a starship or submarine

Dark in its dark element, a breathing hull,

Arms at the flanks, the engine heart and brain

Pulsing, feet pointed like a diver’s, the whole

Resolutely diving through the oblivion

Of night with living cargo. O carrier shell

That keeps your trusting passengers from All:

Some twenty thousand times now you have gone

Out into blackness tireless as a seal,

Blind always as a log, but plunging on

Across the reefs of coral that scrape the keel —

O veteran immersed from toe to crown,

Buoy the population of the soul

Toward their destination before they drown.

Robert Pinsky, from Jersey Rain

(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000).


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