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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Pinsky’s father worked as an optician while his mother was a
"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
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
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
"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
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
media — television, for example, or the music CD — are
— Jack Florek
609-258-4798. The United States poet laureate gives the Tanner
on the theme, "American Culture and the Voice of Poetry."
Discussants will be A.S. Byatt (author of "Possession"),
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
Favorite Poem Project." The lecture follows at 4:30 p.m.
Place, 609-921-8500. A book signing by the New Jersey poet and U.S.
Poet Laureate. Friday, April 6, 10 a.m.
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.
(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000).
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