Poet Robert Pinsky Inspires Audience

Former Poet Lauereate Robert Pinsky would want you to read this article aloud – at least, he would if it were a poem. Pinsky, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000, is an established poet, editor and translator of poetry and prose. His full collection of work includes an impressive 18 books. He paid the Phillips Academy campus a visit last Friday, April 25. Addressing the packed audience in Kemper auditorium, Pinsky’s opening remark elucidating a poem was, “My conversation has had to do with forgetting… Remembering and forgetting are the same process—you can’t do one without the other.” Many of the poems that he selected to read aloud were indeed about reminiscence and forgetfulness, enlightenment and oblivion. The two ideas were blurred and interwoven throughout his works, sometimes juxtaposed and other times merged seamlessly. Besides these two ubiquitous themes, Pinsky claimed that his poetry is “a dedication to clear, discursory language.” It is easy to tell that Pinsky loves words. His readings were fluid and pronounced, well-enunciated and well-formed—he clearly savors the taste of words in poetry. Although he is not known for his end-rhymes, Pinsky’s prose still has a distinct flow; one can tell that he has spent years playing with the sound, shape and texture of words, along with their meanings. “The poem is something that happens every time someone says it,” Pinsky said concerning the importance of reading poetry aloud. He believes that the poem is an oral phenomenon with the reader’s voice serving as the medium of the prose. The attention he paid to the undulations of his poems—the rhythm, meter and patterns of short and long words—were brilliant, and possibly only able to be captured in verbal form. Pinsky read nine of his own poems and supplementary lines or stanzas from works by other poets. His ability to refer quickly to another author when answering questions or stressing a critical aspect of writing clearly demonstrated his passionate dedication to the art form; it also showed his investment in spreading and perpetuating poetry, especially among young people. “Students are really important to me,” he said. “When I was young, I discovered the art of poetry from teachers, poets—older people.” Pinsky believes that it is important for the passion to continue. “Maybe someday one of you will be doing this at another school,” he said. One of the most interesting poems of the night was the second Pinsky read, titled “ABC.” It was a twenty-six word long poem, each word starting with a letter of the alphabet, in order. The creative poem was about death and the attitudes people hold toward the enigmatic subject. The last line read “X=your zenith.” Pinsky said after reading, “X represents the unknown…Thank heaven, it’s much better not to know.” The poem was both creative and eloquent—a profound statement of the intangible fears we have about death, and the narcotic methods we use to fight our anxiety. Not only was the content fascinating, the form itself was remarkable. Pinsky’s word choice meshed cohesively; in such a small number of words, he addressed a legitimate, serious issue of death and divide, while also maintaining a sense of playfulness. The first line read, “Any body can die, evidently.” Another of Pinsky’s poems that he read aloud, entitled “Shirt,” wove the story of the production of a single shirt with the lives of the workers who contributed to make it. It was a poem of stories within stories, weaving characteristics of different shirts with the shadows of lives lead by the different people who wore them. Pinsky’s use of lists of short words juxtaposed with long stories in the poem had a beautiful auditory quality, both spoken and heard. The written stylistic properties of “Shirt” were vastly different from “ABC,” as well as from the other poems he read. Pinsky does not allow himself to become stuck in a specific genre, topic or writing style. Yet his work is far from unfocused or erratic—every poem related somehow to the elusive element, mystery, remembering and forgetting, oblivion and history. Pinsky’s visit to Phillips Academy was an enlightening one; poets and non-poets, writers and thinkers alike will always remember and never forget him. His dedication to the arts was inspiring and his passion, blatant. Relating art and the change from tentative penchant to action, he said, “Your ambition should be to make your passion your instrument.” And Pinsky clearly practices what he preaches.