Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pinsky’

“Not ordinary speech, but extraordinary speech”: Robert Pinsky on John Milton and the American imagination

Saturday, May 4th, 2019
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Milton’s man in America

“Great art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.” So writes Stanford poet (and friend) Robert Pinsky, in “The American John Milton,”  a 2008 article I just discovered in Slate.  Milton’s ideal “is not a poetry based on ordinary speech—which has been one Modernist slogan—but extraordinary speech.”

Two excerpts from the former U.S. poet laureate’s article:

Here is an interesting, continuing conflict in American writing and culture: the natural versus the expressionistic, or simplicity versus eccentricity, or plainness versus difficulty. American artists as different as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams belong more or less in the “ordinary speech” category. On the other, “Miltonic” side of that division about word order in the mother tongue, consider the expressive eccentric Emily Dickinson, who in her magnificent poem 1068 (“Further in Summer Than the Birds”) writes this quatrain about the sounds of invisible insects in the summer fields:

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

In these lines, the natural and the mysterious become one, an effect arising not just from the words (“Canticle”) but also from their order.

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In the days when the Fourth of July was celebrated on town greens, the occasion was marked by fireworks, band music, and speeches—speeches that almost invariably quoted John Milton, the anti-Royalist and Protestant poet. Anna Beer, in the preface to her useful new biography Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, points out Milton’s considerable influence on the Founding Fathers. English writer Peter Ackroyd published, in the ‘90s, a novel called Milton in America, imagining the poet’s actual immigration—an outgrowth, in a way, of the more remarkable, actual story of Milton’s work in the American imagination.

I once heard the great American poet and iconoclast Allen Ginsberg recite Milton’s poem “Lycidas” by heart. Nearly every page of John Hollander’s indispensable anthology Nineteenth Century American Poetry bears traces of that same poem. In Ginsberg’s published journals from the mid-’50s, he assigns himself the metrical task of writing blank verse (and succeeds with subject matter including his lover Peter Orlovsky’s ass: “Let cockcrow crown the buttocks of my Pete,” another perfect pentameter).

By the way, Derek Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – so Ginsberg wasn’t alone. Read Robert Pinsky’s article in its entirety here.  

Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem” comes to Stanford on Thursday night! Be there!

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017
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Robert_pinskyEvery U.S. Poet Laureate seems to initiate a project that puts a personal stamp on the office. For Robert Pinsky, it was the Favorite Poem Project. (it has its own website, with videos, here.) Since he’s at Stanford this quarter as a Mohr Visiting Poet (we wrote about that here), he’s brought the latest incarnation of the moveable feast here. The reading will be held on Thursday, March 9th at 7:30 at the Black Community Services Center.

Stanford’s new President Marc Tessier-Lavigne will be reading a poem, too. Join them Thursday night. It should be fun.

The event is free and open to the public. Read more on the electronic poster below.

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FPP Flier (Larger JPEG)
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Robert Pinsky: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.”

Thursday, January 26th, 2017
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Stanford’s handsome civic poet (Photo: Jared C. Benedict)

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, has returned to Stanford as a Mohr Visiting Poet for a few months. It’s a familiar habitat for him: as a Stegner Fellow years ago, he studied with the legendary poet-critic Yvor Winters and poet Ken Fields.

Robert has been called the last of the “civic” or public poets – something Irish poet Eavan Boland noted when introducing him at last night’s reading: “Through his work and his example he has made a compelling shape that has restructured the sense of the personal and public poem – and the personal and public poet – connecting and reinvigorating them in new ways.”

She continued: “As a poet he has always been of his moment and has wanted to be. In an interview he said: ‘Maybe everyone is sort of chauvinistic about their own era. I am.’ He was born on the threshold of war, at the gateway of a modern era. The enticing new American world of sports, music, vernacular energy and popular culture was to become part and parcel of his poems and his approach to poetry.”

Louise Glück, also visiting this quarter, speaks of his poems as having “dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician’s dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions.”

Eavan praised his newest book, At The Foundling Hospital: Poems, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, saying, “The poems in it are at once a catalog of causes for pessimism but finally an inventory of reasons for optimism. The poetry is deeply concerned with ancestors, with the mysteries of culture but finally most of all with the intimate details of what survives history or is not recorded in it, and yet makes an important angle to our human story. In the title poem of the book “At the Foundling Hospital,” comes the phrase ‘Fragment of a tune or a rhyme or name /mumbled from memory.’ It carries much of the book’s meaning.”

His own commitment to the art he practices has been stated this way: “We have this great treasure that we got from our figurative grandparents, and it would be very sad if we failed to hand it on to our figurative grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

One of Ireland’s leading poets.

During the question-and-answer period, he was asked about last week’s inauguration ceremony, which omitted the traditional inaugural poem. “I personally don’t think it’s a great loss,” he said. “Most of them are not very good.” He pointed out that the tradition is a fairly recent one, anyway.

However, he had his own inaugural poem for this month, “Exile and Lightning,” published on CNN as an “opinion,” with a disclaimer: “The views expressed here are his.” The first two lines:

You choose your ancestors our
Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.

You can read it all here.  One of the ancestors he claims in the poem is our Polish grandfather Czesław Miłosz. Since he’s my grandfather, too, that means we are related. In fact, that is how we met. He contributed an essay to my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and communicated by phone and by email years before we finally met face-to-face last night.

Another comment might be interpreted as a response to the proposed cuts to government arts funding: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.

The cruelest month: Robert Pinsky on “National Poetry Month”

Monday, April 4th, 2011
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Cheese, tires, and poetry

It’s National Poetry Month, and I didn’t even send cards out this year.  Imagine.

I missed Robert Pinsky, too, thanks to some calendar confusion.  He spoke at Bay School of San Francisco on Thursday, March 31 — and though he was one of my nicest contributors for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, we’d never actually met face to face.

So it was nice to get the former U.S. poet laureate vicariously, at least, on the Farrar, Straus & Giroux Poetry Blog.  Here he is on National Poetry Month:

I confess that personally I feel maybe it has—as the expression used to go—gotten old. Somebody told me that it is also National Cheese Month and National Tire Month.

We need to remember that the art is large and fundamental—not a mere product. As long as that’s the main idea, there’s no harm in joining cheese and tires.

"One of these things is not like the other..."

The problem is, the descent didn’t stop at cheese and tires.I spent several unfortunate hours at the DMV today, and learned from the rolling banner that it’s also Distracted Driver Awareness Month.  Try making a product of that!  “April is the cruelest month,” as T.S. Eliot observed … though I don’t think he had cheese and tires on his mind.

I’ve always had some reservations about the marketing of poetry, precisely because poetry itself is supposed to be a counterbalance towards society’s steady slope towards advertising, public relations values, and the sound bite. Marketing is to poetry what fast food is to a several course repast (with vodka) in a top-notch restaurant.  The feeling one gets from a very fine poem — “Yes, that’s it — that’s it exactly“; inhabiting the poem, rather than simply reading it — is not the take-away from a snappy slogan on a subway poster, whether it’s from e.e. cummings or The Borgias.

I know some days ago I promised some outtakes from the  Zbigniew Herbert evening at NYC’s Poets House … and it’s coming, it’s coming.  Just give me a moment to come up for air.

Robert Pinsky tells VOA about his life as poet laureate

Friday, January 14th, 2011
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Robert Pinsky, whose has a new collection of poems coming out soon, talked to the Voice of America about, among other things, his tenure as poet laureate between 1997 and 2000:

Pinsky (Photo: Juliet van Otteren)

He resists the idea that he was an ambassador for poetry as many characterize the Poet Laureate’s role. “I was not an ambassador for poetry,” as if he were a salesman for a brand of soap.

“I hope I wasn’t even an advocate for poetry,” he says. “I hope I was like that ape that has a good tasting piece of fruit in its hand and say to another ape, ‘Mmm. Tastes good.’” And a lot of the time I was not doing it at all, I was asking other people to do it and listening to what they had to say.”

Robert launched the ongoing Favorite Poem Project.  It invites everyday people to introduce a poem that is meaningful to them, and then recite it on video for others.

Handsome fella, too.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: More on “Breaking up is hard to do…”

Sunday, October 10th, 2010
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He did not live long enough to see bad lineation

It started with Billy Collins. Now Allen Ginsberg has entered the act, via Publisher’s Weekly.

In July, we discussed the searing, red-hot topic of the day: the e-book and its effect on a poem’s lineation:

Poet Billy Collins has come out decisively against the e-book. The AP story is here.

His reason:  It’s difficult to manage a poem’s line breaks on the electronic screen, which has a disturbing tendency to break lines at awkward places and slide the remaining text onto the next line flush left, as if it were a new line.  Why it’s taken Collins so long to notice this is unclear — he could have seen it in any of his online reviews.

Robert Pinsky is confident the technical problems can be fixed, but that adds that besides the problems with portable e-readers, “most word processors treat verse as though each line were a paragraph. So, for example, typing a Wallace Stevens poem with capital letters at the beginning of the lines can be mildly annoying,” Pinsky says.

Now Craig Morgan Teicher at Publisher’s Weekly is ranting about the eBook version of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems and the screwed-up lineation.  “This is not ‘Howl,'” he howls:

“Ginsberg broke his poem into what he called “strophes,” those long lines that hark back to Whitman.  The indentations you see above are meant to indicate that the line keeps going beyond the end of the page, until the next left-justified line.  Ginsberg was careful in his liniation, and part of the poem’s impact is in seeing that “who” sticking out again and again on the left side of the page.  The digital version pays no mind to this whatsoever.  What we get is not the poem itself, but a kind of poor transcription of it.”

Just like we said.  Now, if we can just get Teicher to spell “lineation,” we’re in business.  He’s setting a bad example.  Galleycat repeated the misspelling.