Robert Pinsky, 3-Time U.S. Poet Laureate, Reflects on Jewish Influences in Poetry

Robert Pinsky, a three-term U.S. Poet Laureate and award-winning author, attracted crowds of student and faculty to Tang Theatre on Friday night to hear him speak and recite three of his poems. Invited by the Jewish Student Union (JSU), Pinsky came to Andover and launched this year’s Jewish Cultural Weekend with his presentation titled “Jewish Imagination.”

“I’ll begin by confessing to you that the title [of the presentation,] ‘Jewish Imagination,’ [is something] I always wanted to put it in quotation marks, but that seemed a little fussy. It’s partly a rather nasty history joke. Some of you know that in the history of the fascist, anti-Semitic regimes, Jewish art and Jewish psychology is a term of contempt and hatred from others, and I don’t believe there is a Jewish imagination,” said Pinsky during his presentation.

Pinsky read three of his poems: “Samurai Song,” “Poem With Refrains” and “Impossible to Tell.”
Instead of a formal and routinely presentation, Pinsky engaged his audience in conversation as his talk went on. After each poem, audience members had the chance to ask Pinsky questions. Topics of the questions ranged from his word choices to his belief on how his identity have affected his poetic career and his sources of inspiration.

“It’s hard to pick one [source of inspiration], but Emily Dickinson is important to me, Gerard Manley Hopkins is important to me. I like 16th or 17th century poets. What could be better than that? Fulke Greville, Ben Johnson, Emily Dickinson. I tend to like poetry by dead people,” said Pinsky in response to a question asking him about poetic styles that influence his writing.

Pinsky also shared advice to burgeoning young poets in attendance.

“Create your own anthology. Type it up with your own fingers. It is the most personal piece of work you can do, in certain ways, while in school. It is yours. It is a self-portrait in taste,” said Pinsky.

One of the key points that Pinsky emphasized in “Jewish Imagination” was that an artist does not have to be defined by labels related to their identity. He presented the idea that no matter who you are or what you believe in, your concept of the world is always being changed by those you are close to, said Pinsky.

“I tend to be very skeptical of all forms of purity. I don’t think there is any ‘pure’ American, there’s no pure black sensibility… we use these generalities like Asian, or Native American or Hispanic. [These terms] apply to multiple cultures. There was not one culture on this continent before the Europeans came here. And none of us is purely one particular thing,” said Pinsky.

Pinsky believes that the idea of sharing and adopting one another’s faith and identity influences the creation of his poems.

Jewish Cultural Weekend is an event hosted by JSU, that explores the various facets of Judaism on our campus and beyond.

“We kind of brainstormed last year about what we wanted to do with this weekend,” said Chaya Holch ’17, a board member of JSU who helped plan Pinsky’s lecture. “The board decided that we wanted to do something different, so over the summer I looked into the different options, local options mostly, of famous Jewish writers, and Dr. Pinsky came up as one of the prominent ones on the list, and he lives relatively nearby, and obviously he’s a very important poet, and so we as a group decided to bring him to campus this weekend.”

Rabbi Michael Swarttz, faculty advisor to JSU, said, “Jewish Cultural Weekend is an annual opportunity to share various aspects of Jewish culture with the larger Andover community. I believe I have records in my files of the event going back about 12 or 13 years, but it may be [even] older than that.”

Editor’s Note: Chaya Holch is a Managing Editor for The Phillipian.