The People's Poet Speaks
By Melanie Formentin
TAMPA, Fla. (April 26, 2010) – Once described as the “People’s Poet,” Robert Pinsky has worked tirelessly to make poetry accessible to people of all walks of life. The successes of numerous publications and recognitions seemingly pale in comparison to Pinsky’s ability to keep the art of poetry simple and individualized.
Pinsky, who holds the unique distinction of being the only three-time U.S. Poet Laureate, has launched programs such as the Favorite Poem Project. His appreciation for popular comedies has also given him a platform in which to highlight what he believes are the strengths of poetry.
He will present a reading at the University of South Florida this Wednesday, April 28. Hosted by the Humanities Institute, the Department of English, and the University Lecture Series, Pinsky’s reading will begin at 7 p.m. in Traditions Hall at the Gibbons Alumni Center. For more information, click here, or contact Melanie Formentin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 974-3657.
Pinsky began his career in the late 70s, publishing Landor’s Poetry. From there, his career moved in an upward trajectory. In 1974, not long after earning his doctorate at Stanford University, Pinsky received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. Since then, he’s earned more than one dozen honors and awards while publishing 19 works of poetry.
Still, there is some irony to Pinsky’s success as a poet. Although inspired by great poets such as William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost, Pinsky’s approach to poetry is firmly rooted in an appreciation for and success with music.
“I have thought about the sounds of words and phrases since I can remember. Maybe even before I learned to talk?” Pinsky said. “That lifelong habit or obsession or tendency reflects something at the heart of statements about poetry that are important to me: William Carlos Williams’ author’s introduction to The Wedge, Robert Frost’s brief essay, ‘The Figure a Poem Makes.”
As a teenager, Pinsky’s “ambitions and only successes had to do with music.” In high school he was voted “Most Musical Boy,” as opposed to most literary or—as Pinsky jokes—“Most Likely to Succeed.”
The habit of thinking about the sounds of words and phrases is reflected in the way Pinsky recites poetry. When reading his works, Pinsky carries a distinct tone in which words ebb and flow, seemingly lyrical. To Pinsky, this is a reflection of what he believes is at the heart of great poetry.
“The greatest strength of poetry is its inherently human scale,” Pinsky said. “It is an intensely bodily art, and the body is that of the audience, the reader.”
The human scale that Pinsky refers to reflects his belief that people give poetry life. Individuals respond to poetry in different ways and give their own voice to each poem they read.
“The medium for a poem is human breath,” Pinsky said. “The voice of whoever reads it—not necessarily the voice of the poet, or of an actor. Each reader’s actual or imagined voice. This principle is demonstrated by the Favorite Poem Project videos.”
Launched in 1997, the Favorite Poem Project is “dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives.” Through the project, 18,000 Americans volunteered to share their favorite poems during a one-year open call for submissions.
Thousands of letters arrived from a diverse array of Americans. From young to old, Americans representing all 50 states, diverse educations, backgrounds and occupations, contributed to the project. From the submissions, several collections were created and archived on the Favorite Poem Project Web site, “Americans’ Favorite Poems,” “Poems to Read,” and “An Invitation to Poetry” are three anthologies created from submissions to the project.
Additionally, a collection of 50 short video documentaries “showcases individual Americans reading and speaking personally about poems they love.” The videos are part of the Library of Congress’ archive of recorded poetry and literature and have been regularly featured on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
To Pinsky, the Favorite Poem Project exemplifies the human quality of poetry. Through the videos, we see, “the construction worker reading Whitman, the Jamaican guy reading Plath, the U.S. Marine with the Hispanic surname reading Yeats, the lawyer reading Elizabeth Bishop, etc.”
The appreciation Pinsky has for the unique nature of poetry is also exemplified in a willingness to appear on popular shows such as The Simpsons and The Colbert Report. Not only does poetry gain much of its beauty from its musicality and individual personalization, but to Pinsky it boasts many of the same qualities as comedy.
“I love comedy and poetry for similar reasons,” Pinsky said. “The quickness, the rapid movement of the mind. The combat-dance between mind and body. … Poetry, like comedy, moves ahead swiftly, even when it seems to linger.”
Such rapid movement intertwined with prolonged pauses help give Pinsky his voice, his personalization of poetry. The musicality and the individualized nature of his diction reflect the same inherent qualities that he believes all people bring to poetry. As we read poems, we make them ours; and so, Pinsky truly becomes the people’s poet.
The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.