By YVONNE FRENCH
Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky spoke poignantly about himself at a reading of new work May 5. The autobiographical statements came on the heels of his unprecedented third consecutive appointment as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Dr. Billington on April 5 appointed Mr. Pinsky to a third term as Laureate and named three poets to be Special Consultants to assist with poetry programs of the Bicentennial year. They are former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Louise Glück and W.S. Merwin (see LC Information Bulletin, May 1999). "We want to create a once-in-a-century arrangement, not only to celebrate poetry during our 200th birthday, but also to significantly increase support for the national outreach of the Poetry Office and the Poet Laureate," Dr. Billington said.
Said Mr. Pinsky: "It is a considerable honor. I am overjoyed to be accompanied by people like Rita, Louise and William." The four poets will read at 6:45 p.m. Nov. 10 in the Coolidge Auditorium. Also reading will be the three 1999 Witter Bynner Fellows, David Gewanter, Campbell McGrath and Heather McHugh.
In his reading May 5, which closed the Library's 1998-1999 Poetry and Literature Series, Mr. Pinsky revealed why he is so fond of writing poetry: he is obsessed with order and his persona was shaped by a head injury suffered by his mother when he was a child in Long Branch, N.J. After the injury, incurred during a fall, she became hypersensitive to light and sound, and her condition affected the entire family.
His explanation gave an autobiographical context to the poem "The Green Piano," first published in The New Yorker. Mr. Pinsky explained that he had been sitting at the piano when his little sister came in with those who were carrying their injured mother. He told the Coolidge audience his sister later told him that seeing him at the piano is the first memory she had of the incident although she was present when their mother fell.
The poem relates how uncertain his family life became in the years after the fall. His mother was carried up the stairs and into the living room, "inaugurating the reign of our confusion," Mr. Pinsky read.
He then describes how the piano was the color of pea soup when the family first got it; it later was partially antiqued in ivory and umber and finally was painted dusty pink before disappearing altogether, only to be replaced by a "crappy little Baldwin Acrosonic."
Another of his new poems, "Samurai Song," contains the phrase: "When I had/ No mother I embraced order."
Mr. Pinsky said it was an unusual reading for him in that he was trying some new works rather than pulling out "chestnuts from his previous writings." He said after the reading that, although it is difficult to reveal such personal feelings, he did so because he was in the mood and felt at home with the Library audience. The new works will be published in a book next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "The book is in part an inquiry into what kind of person I am," Mr. Pinsky told the audience.
Mr. Pinsky began and ended the reading with poems by William Butler Yeats. From "Meditations in Time of Civil War: The Stare's Nest by My Window," he read: "We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart's grown brutal from the fare," which reminded him of the violence in the Balkans and Colorado.
Addressing a group of members of the Library of Congress Professional Association Poetry and Meditation Forum the next day, he amplified: "All human culture is not benign. We have created, for example, such cultural realities as racism and germ warfare. Yeats's lines seem to me a powerful formulation. They raise the question, 'What should we feed the heart?'"
Mr. Pinsky also attended a May 5 luncheon at the Library during which the Librarian of Congress praised Mr. Pinsky's main endeavor as Laureate, the Favorite Poem Project, as a "particularly wonderful feature of his laureateship" and lauded his "unselfish admiration for other poets and the joy ordinary people take in a whole variety of poetry. It has been a very uplifting thing for all kinds of people. He has been a humanist among poets."
For the Favorite Poem Project, which is also a Bicentennial project of the Library, Mr. Pinsky has asked Americans to tell him what their favorite poem is and why it is important to them. He has received more than 15,000 responses and is culling them to produce an archives of 1,000 audio and 200 video tapes. He will present the tapes to the Library in April as one of the Library's Bicentennial "Gifts to the Nation." The tapes will augment the existing Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, which has recordings of 2,000 poets and authors reading their work, among them Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda and Gwendolyn Brooks.
The presentation of poetry readings will be made during a special Bicentennial conference on "Poetry and the American People: Reading, Performance and Publication." The conference will be held April 3-4, 2000, at the Library of Congress, and will include readings by the three Special Consultants and the Poet Laureate.
Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, also praised Mr. Pinsky for the project. "Robert has caught -- embodied -- the power of poetry in his own life, and has emboldened and empowered others to find it in theirs," Mr. Gifford told the Coolidge auditorium audience. "His laureateship has been a time of growing, escalating public outreach. We have become aware that poetry inhabits lives we had not suspected, comforts those in trouble, sustains those in need, satisfies those who seek completeness of vision. We all harbor favorite poems."
If Mr. Pinsky had his way, everyone in America would have a notebook full of their favorite poems and they would often say them aloud. He brought his own notebook of 45 poems he admires to the informal talk with members of the Poetry and Meditation Forum, and encouraged members, as he does his graduate students at Boston University, to begin their own Favorite Poem notebooks.
"There's something on a deep anthropological level, something almost genetic or evolutionary [about saying poems you love aloud]. Certain cadences or phrases get under your skin and they become part of your emotional habitat -- like an amulet or medicine pouch carried on one's person. But instead of a literal medicine bag with stones or plants or trinkets, the power inheres in these specific, meaning grunts that have emotional resonance beyond their denotation."
Mr. Pinsky teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University. His most recent publications are The Handbook of Heartbreak: 101 Poems of Lost Love and Sorrow and The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, which Mr. Pinsky describes as "a brief, plain book about how to hear poems."
His other works include the collections of his poetry Sadness and Happiness (1975); An Explanation of America (1980), awarded the Saxifrage Prize as the year's best volume of poetry from a small or university press; History of My Heart (1984), which won the William Carlos Williams Prize in 1995; The Want Bone (1990); and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 (1995). His verse translation of The Inferno of Dante (1994) was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award.
Having served as poetry editor of The New Republic through much of the 1980s, he is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate, and a contributor to "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS television, reading poems related to current events. Mr. Pinsky has also introduced several recordings of Favorite Poem Project volunteers on "Anthem," a weekly program on National Public Radio.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.