By YVONNE FRENCH
Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky uses modern technology to write his poems, employs modern urban imagery in his poems, but, like an old master, refers often to classical antecedents and universal themes told and retold over the centuries. He is, in the words of author Jay Parini, both old and new. For example, he is an award-winning translator of The Inferno of Dante. Yet he is also poetry editor of Slate, an online magazine.
The same spirit of old and new informs his main plan as Poet Laureate. In the "Favorite Poem Project," he wants 100 or more Americans to read poems they love on tape.
The project is part of the Library's celebration of its bicentennial in 2000, which kicked off this month with a gala fund-raising event. The resulting archives will be, in Mr. Pinsky's words, "a record, at the end of the century, of what we choose, and what we do with our voices and faces, when asked to say aloud a poem that we love."
Mr. Pinsky believes the human body responds instinctively when one reads aloud, much as people respond to being read to. The act of storytelling or reading a poem, he says, "engages the mind and the body in a genetically primary sensation that involves a column of air in the trunk and the production of syllables. The sensation causes comfort and alertness. Thus the individual body, not necessarily even the artist, can be a medium for art."
The Favorite Poem project would include about 100 or more people, some of them eminent civic figures such as the president and members of Congress. They would be taped in their homes, offices or other familiar settings.
For example, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has offered to read aloud T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Rudolph Aukshun, a retired parole officer in Freeland, Md., has offered to read a Langston Hughes poem ("Hold On to Your Dreams") that he used to recite to his clients; a young man who had been released recently from prison once quoted the poem back to him from memory.
The poems do not have to be by American poets. "They could pick a poem in Chinese, Navajo, Spanish, Yiddish or Italian if they want, as long as they furnish a translation," said Mr. Pinsky. But they cannot be original poems. "I am convinced that this video and audio record of many Americans reading aloud poems they love will have a lot of value for our country: as a record of where we stand, as a model for education in the future, and as testimony to the possibly neglected state of the culture we already have."
Culture was one topic of Mr. Pinsky's wide-ranging inaugural address, "Digital Culture and the Individual Soul," in the Montpelier Room the evening of Oct. 9. Mr. Pinsky discussed "mass culture and the increasing efficiency and brilliance of rapidly duplicated images, text and sound by approaching the new cultural developments through the lens of poetry." Launching into his topic, he said, "The first and main thing about digital culture is that it is part of history. It smells of us. It is human. We made it. It is an outcome."
He continued: "The computer is an extension of poetry. Poetry is a technique developed by this animal, the human -- a fairly useless animal. It has no claws, no hide, no real teeth and it doesn't run fast, but it is clever and it looks around a lot. For survival it developed forms of communication evolved for the purposes of memory, for the effective storage of important information and the transmission of that information accurately and effectively from one person to that person's peers."
As the storyteller, bard or poet transmitted information through the poem, so computers are able to transmit mass art and culture, Mr. Pinsky said.
"An image of Michael Jackson singing with brilliant cinematography is reproduced and duplicated tens of thousands of times and it can spread all over the globe very rapidly. [In another example of mass culture] first you have the winky-gahinky movie, then the doll, then the Burger King and McDonald's knockoffs, then the high-culture Medea action figure. The medium for mass art is by its nature highly duplicable. I do not deplore or applaud it, but I am trying to understand it. My idea of body piercing is that it is not a revolt against parents, it is a revolt against one's own childhood, the Electra winky-gahinky action figure. American 12- and 13-year-olds hunger for something that's not likely to be in the Sears Roebuck catalog. The individual soul loves mass art but we become jaded. Sometimes I just turn off the TV and reach for a copy of the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.
With that, he read several poems by himself and others. (One, the last 30 or so lines of his book-length poem "An Explanation of America," is at the bottom of this page.)
The lecture marked the beginning of Mr. Pinsky's term as Poet Laureate and opened the fall 1997 literary series at the Library of Congress. At a luncheon that afternoon, Dr. Billington welcomed Mr. Pinsky by touting his idea for the Favorite Poem Project. "For the 200th anniversary of this institution, we hope to represent this glorious nation by showing Americans in relation to poetry, yet outside the professional microcosm of poetry."
Unlike the Library's Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, the Favorite Poem Project would not focus on professional poets and poetry critics. The Library of Congress has been producing the archive since the early 1950s, thanks to a gift from the late Gertrude Clarke Whittall, who wanted to bring the enjoyment and appreciation of good literature to a larger audience. The archive now numbers more than 2,000 authors reading their own work and nearly 3,000 recordings altogether; some of the authors have recorded more than once. All public literary programs presented at the Library by its Poetry and Literature Center are recorded on audio, and, since 1966, video.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) who, like Mr. Pinsky, was born in Long Branch, N.J., also made brief remarks at the luncheon. "He happens to be Jewish and I happen to be Italian. The interplay between the two communities in Long Branch was spectacular. This is a very special guy, not only for the nation, but also for us locally."
Mr. Pinsky turned 57 Oct. 20. He grew up the eldest of three siblings only blocks away from the ocean in Long Branch. He said at a news conference Oct. 9 that being near the beach influenced his poetry, which he did not take up until he failed at the saxophone. The turning point from music "to a more natural medium" -- words -- came when he caused a band he was playing with to lose an audition. "I stunk up the place," he said.
His verse translation of The Inferno of Dante won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry and an award from the Academy of American Poets. He called it a work of metrical engineering rather than scholarly study, adding that he believes the Inferno's popularity is due in part to the fact that, unlike his predecessors, he translated it sentence by sentence rather than line by line. "I liked the difficulty of fitting the parts together," he said.
Mr. Pinsky is a professor of English in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University. He is the author of five books of poetry: Sadness and Happiness (1975); An Explanation of America (1979), awarded the Saxifrage Prize as the year's best volume of poetry from a small or university press; History of My Heart (1983), which won the William Carlos Williams Prize; The Want Bone (1990); and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 (1996). He is the translator of The Separate Notebooks, by Czeslaw Milosz (1983). He is a recipient of the 1996 Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award. Mr. Pinsky is the author of three collections of essays: Landor's Poetry (1968), The Situation of Poetry (1977) and Poetry and the World (1988). A new book, A Brief Guide to the Sounds of Poetry, is forthcoming. He served as poetry editor of The New Republic during much of the 1980s.
Mr. Pinsky is married to a psychotherapist and has three children. His work has drawn the praise of many. James Longenbach wrote in The Nation that "among the many writers who have come of age in our fin de siècle, none has succeeded more completely as poet, critic and translator than Robert Pinsky. The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems allows us to recognize the most scrupulously intelligent body of work produced by an American poet in the past 25 years." Author Jay Parini described Mr. Pinsky in the Chicago Review as a writer "with a deeply humane sensibility, drawing new water from old wells, but also reaching into areas where nobody would have guessed that poetry could be found. ... An example of what is best in our current poetry."
Dr. Billington in March appointed Mr. Pinsky as the ninth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry and the 39th Consultant in Poetry.
From 'An Explanation of America'
Mr. Pinsky introduced this final passage from his book-length poem "An Explanation of America," by saying it tracks the growth of a daughter from ages 8 to 11. The father is a professor at a women's college, and she plays a part in a production of The Winter's Tale.
"... The Founders made
A Union mystic yet rational, and sudden,
As if suckled by the very wolf of Rome ...
Indentured paupers and criminals grew rich
Trading tobacco; molasses; cotton; and slaves
With names like horses, or from Scott or Plutarch.
In the mills, there was every kind of name,
With even "Yankee" a kind of jankel or Dutchman.
The Yankees pulled stones from the earth, to farm,
And when the glacial boulders were piled high,
Skilled masons came from Parma and Piacenza
And settled on Division Street and Oak Street
And on the narrow side streets between them. In winter,
Mr. Diehl hired Italian boys to help
Harvest the ice from Diehl's Pond onto sledges
And pack it into icehouses, where it kept
To be cut and delivered all summer long.
The Linden Apartments stand where Diehl's Pond was;
But even when I was little, the iceman came
To houses that had iceboxes, and we could beg
Splinters to suck, or maybe even a ride,
Sitting on wet floorboards and steaming tarps
As far as Saint Andrew's, or the V.F.W.
The Eagles, Elks, Moose, Masons each had a building:
I pictured them like illustrations from Alice.
As television came in, the lodges faded,
But people began to group together by hobbies,
Each hobby with its magazines and clubs;
My father still played baseball twice a week;
And even after you were born, the schools
And colleges were places set apart,
As of another time; and one time you
Performed in The Winter's Tale.
And at the end,
As people applauded louder and louder, you
Stood with young girls who wore gray wigs and beards,
All smiling and holding hands -- as if the Tale
Had not been sad at all, or was all a dream,
And winter was elsewhere, howling on the mountains
Unthinkably old and huge and far away --
At the far opposite edge of our whole country,
So large, and strangely broken, and unforseen."