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.”
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.