By YVONNE FRENCH
Recently reappointed Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who has had a busy year, told a Library audience a bit about himself and his writing as he closed the 1997-1998 literary season with a reading from his poetry.
In the words of Dr. Billington, "In his first term, Robert Pinsky has actively encouraged a national renaissance of spoken poetry. His vision of recording a broad cross section of Americans reading their favorite poems has met with heartfelt enthusiasm throughout the country. The Library looks forward to enriching its archives with the recordings he selects in his second term."
Mr. Pinsky said: "I'm happy to do the job another year, and I look forward to continuing work on the Favorite Poem Project with the help and cooperation of the Library."
The Favorite Poem Project is Mr. Pinsky's main undertaking as Laureate. He is choosing 1,200 people to say their favorite poem aloud on audio and video tape. The 1,000 audio recordings will commemorate the millennium, the 200 video tapes are to be symbolic of the Library's Bicentennial in the year 2000. As one of the Library's cultural "Gifts to the Nation" on its 200th birthday, the tapes will come to rest in the Library's Archive of Recorded Literature on Tape, which has some 2,000 poets and authors reading their work.
"To see many Americans of various ages, accents and professions each saying a poem aloud clarifies the power of poetry and enhances a communal spirit," Mr. Pinsky said. "To some degree, it helps remind us of who we are." The project is supported by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the New England Foundation for the Arts, the National Foundation for the Arts and Boston University.
During his first year as Poet Laureate, Mr. Pinsky offered a lecture on "Digital Culture and the Individual Soul," brought a range of poets to read at the Library, granted $12,500 in fellowships to poets Carol Muske and Carl Phillips from the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress and launched his Favorite Poem Project with a five-city public poetry reading. At the White House on April 22, President and Mrs. Clinton were hosts to Mr. Pinsky and former Laureates Rita Dove and Robert Hass for an evening of poetry as part of the White House Millennium lecture series.
Looking back on his first year, Mr. Pinsky said: "It has been a pleasure as well as a busy time to be here. The Library of Congress is the greatest house of memory in the world. There is more human striving recorded and cataloged in this institution than there has ever been anywhere. It is appropriate for a poet to be attached to a place of memory because poetry is an ancient way of enhancing memory, a means that predates writing."
Who is this man who has been Poet Laureate for the past year? He revealed some things about himself at the reading, including his sense of humor. He related how he sometimes leaves all but the punch line of a joke on immediate past Poet Laureate Robert Hass's answering machine in order to ensure a call back.
Of his childhood, he said, "I couldn't be an absurdist, I was raised that way."
Mr. Pinsky then read "Poem with Refrains." (The word 'Refrains' in the title refers to selections he included from other poets, all but one of them 16th century English, his favorite group of poets, he said.) The poem is about how his mother didn't go to her own mother's funeral, how she had missed his bar mitzvah ("I wasn't upset: the truth/Is, I had already decided to be the clever orphan/Some time before.") and how, 10 years later, she didn't go to his brother's either. But she does show up for the unveiling of her mother's gravestone. "I can't remember if she prayed or not,/But that may be the way I'll remember her best:/Dark figure, awaited, attended, aware, apart," he said.
Earlier, the poem says: "She fogs things up, she scavenges the taint./Possibly that's the reason I write these poems." Mr. Pinsky told the audience: "In my feelings and mind, the poem wasn't about my mother but about the haunted ruins of Jewish tradition." The poem says: "'Synagog' is a word I never heard/We called it shul, the Yiddish word for school." He claims his poems are monothematic. "Most every poem I've written is about the same thing: We live in a haunted ruin."
From "To Television" he read: "Not a 'window on the world'/But as we call you,/A box, a tube."
Mr. Pinsky went on to read several poems that he defined as being "against autobiographical navel gazing." His first selection was "Avenue," in which he spoke of "Scant storefront pushbroom Jesus//Of Haitian hardware" and "... the tarnished/flute//And brogue of quidnuncs in the bars." Mr. Pinsky's grandfather had a bar where he often spent time as a child, he said.
He also loves to play the saxophone, and described in "Ginza Samba" its European origins, how it was changed by American musicians.
Mr. Pinsky also read "The Want Bone" (below). In notes to his collection The Figured Wheel (1996) he offered an analysis of the poem. "The groan of wanting -- the plainest English word for desire means not-having -- was a physical sound and shape for me ... The sound and shape of O never repeated to the full rhetorical possibility ('O my fin O my food O my flower my O my O,' etc.)."
The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth's bell.
Blue rippled and soaked in the fire of blue.
The dried mouthbones of a shark in the hot swale
Gaped on nothing but sand on either side.
The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.
Ossified cords held the corners together
In groined spirals pleated like a summer dress.
But where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?
Infinitesimal mouths bore it away,
The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.
But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
my flower my fin my life my lightness my O.
"The Want Bone"
© 1990 Robert Pinsky
During the spring poetry season, Mr. Pinsky introduced eight poets who read from their work.
Of Alan Shapiro, he said: "His family liked to tell jokes. He has the family gift of bringing a line home. Mr. Shapiro, professor of English and creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, read "On Men Weeping, which is in part about Michael Jordan winning the NBA championship. "The prize he got for proving he was the man was that he got to be the boy, the baby, weeping, the way Achilles must have wept because he could weep now, the bronze gear recovered." Mr. Shapiro is the author of several collections of poetry, including Happy Hour (1987) and Mixed Company (1996).
Mr. Pinsky said: "Tom Sleigh in The Chain (1996) has truly written about memory itself in a distinctive, harrowing way that is established in the book's opening poem. [He] writes about the way memory thrashes, deceives, lies, twists and consumes itself in poems of beautiful, fulfilling complexity." The first poem in the book is "Lamentation for Ur," which is about an ancient city buried under an Iraqi airbase. It ends: "May the great barred gate/of blackest night again swing shut on silent hinges. Destroyed in its turn,//may this disaster to be torn out of mind." Mr. Sleigh teaches at Dartmouth College. His other collections of poetry are After One (1983) and Waking (1990).
Jorie Graham's poetry has "set a standard for art because of its rapidity of movement, its undiscovered terrain and its emotionally rich substructure," Mr. Pinsky said. She read a poem that juxtaposes memories of being a Holocaust survivor with descriptions of a dying dog from her book Materialism, noting that she has received flak for the poem. She said the interpolation is not supposed to be a comparison. "They can't be measured against each other." Part of the poem reads: "There is a doorway through which we must pass together you and I. Made of words, it sounds like, what if, nothing." Ms. Graham won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for her collection The Dream of a Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994 (1995). Her other collections of poetry include The End of Beauty (1987), Region of Unlikeness (1992) and The Errancy (1997).
Mr. Pinsky called James McMichael's book-length poem Four Good Things (1980) "one of the great American poems. Beautiful and profound, its subject is the modern conundrum of the human ability to plan, invent and construct, and the stifling, destructive consequences." From the title poem Mr. McMichael read: "Because it remembers/perfectly, because it never sleeps, because it can/sort and compare and choose and find the proper/order in the sum of all its pulses, ON or OFF,/the things they say in eighteen million homes are/digitized and stored, revised, called up again by GEOCODE ... We're somewhere in its mesh of cells ... There's always, just a head of us ... an estimate of trends that we/belong to and that waits." Mr. McMichael is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine. He is the also the author of The Lover's Familiar (1978), Each in a Place Apart (1994) and The World at Large (1996).
Erin Belieu's style is "confident, feminine and funny, even when the material is harrowing," Mr. Pinsky said. From her book Infanta (1995) she read a poem that Mr. Pinsky helped her with, "The Death of Humphrey Bogart." She read: "Your type,/Bogie, with your sad, gargoyle profile/and fidgety pistol, the hair-trigger style/of you sipping your gin with killers and dolls,/lips curled back from the glass. Who'd call that a smile?" Ms. Belieu is the managing editor of AGNI magazine.
Fanny Howe, said Mr. Pinsky, "is prized by avant-garde writers. She has what might be described as a Shaker's sense of form." She called the title poem from One Crossed Out (1997) "a sequence of madness going in and out of a third- and first-person voice. It is set in L.A." She read: "Nobody wants crossed-out girls around. ... They say things like 'I'm not who's who in America. Are you?'" Ms. Howe is a professor of writing and American literature at the University of California at San Diego. She is also the author of short stories, poetry, novels and children's books, among them Forty Whacks (1971), The White Slave (1980), Radio City (1984) and The Vineyard (1988).
Mr. Pinsky said Rosanna Warren has a "determination to register accurately -- without melodrama or facile understatement -- painful aspects of life. She has a fiery moral passion and a courtly respect for human culture, customs, works of art and ways of behaving." From Stained Glass she read "Song," which she called "an elegy for her father [Robert Penn Warren], who once consulted in poetry (1944-1945)" at the Library. Ms. Warren read: "A yellow coverlet/in the greenwood:/spread the corners wide to the dim, stoop-shouldered pines./Let blank sky/be your canopy." She is also the author of Each Leaf Shines Separate: Poems (1984) and Stained Glass (1993). Her other books include translations of Eugenio Montale, Satura: 1962-1970 (1998) and Euripides' Suppliant Women (1995).
Mr. Pinsky praised former Laureate Mark Strand's (1990-1991) "elegance of cadences" and his "tantalizing oblique narrative punctuated by sudden immediacies and directnesses. They have defined for us the style that effaces mere personality while establishing an unmistakable sensibility." Mr. Strand read "The Night, the Porch" from his new book of poetry, Blizzard of One. "What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the/comfort/Of being strangers, at least to ourselves." Until recently on the writing faculty of Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Strand will be teaching at the University of Chicago in the fall. His other collections of poetry include Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), The Planet of Lost Things (1982) and The Continuous Life (1990).
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.