Thursday, October 20, 2016

Birthday: from "can't write" to Poet Laureate


Robert Pinsky (1940-  )
Poet, essayist, critic

From unpromising beginnings, Robert Pinsky has made a remarkable trajectory across American literary life, not least by being the only person appointed to three consecutive terms as Poet Laureate of the United States.

Of Pinsky’s becoming a poet, The Writer’s Almanac says:

His parents wanted him to be an optician like his father, but he chose to go to college, the first person in his family to do so. At Rutgers, he took a class on poetry his freshman year, and he was amazed by "Sailing to Byzantium" by W.B. Yeats. He said: "It was the speed with which he covered the ground. Wow: 'artifice of eternity'!'' Pinsky typed up "Sailing to Byzantium" and hung it on his dorm room wall, and decided to become a poet himself.
He went on to graduate school at Stanford. When he arrived at Stanford, he thought he was quite talented, so he took a bunch of his poems to the poet and critic Yvor Winters and announced that he hoped he would receive credit just for having written them. Instead, Winters read his poems for three minutes and then said, "Well, there may be some gift here, but it's impossible to tell, because you simply don't know how to write." Pinsky begged to be let into one of the professor's courses, but the prerequisite for all the other classes wasn't being offered that term. Winters took pity on Pinsky and offered to take him on as an independent study, and he became Pinsky's mentor at Stanford. Ten years later, Pinsky published his first book of poems,Sadness and Happiness (1975).
In 1993, a group of 19 poets, including Pinsky, were each asked to translate a section of Dante's Inferno for a reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Pinsky was so excited by the work that he just kept going, and he ended up publishing The Inferno of Dante: A New Translation in 1995 to great acclaim.He said: "I got hooked on the technical challenge [...] It was more like having an absorbing new video game or sewing pattern or boat-building pattern than a large undertaking. It was like trying to master a song, or working on your jump shot or something. It was not consciously a scholarly or even a literary process: more athletic or musical or puzzle solving: working on a wonderful jigsaw puzzle or sudoku."
His books of poetry include The Want Bone (1990), Jersey Rain(2000), and Selected Poems (2011).
He said: "I think that if an audience for any art is having a good time, they are willing to suspend the need for comprehension for a while — that's part of the pleasure. [...] And if it doesn't sound good, it is boring even if we understand it. That's the trouble with a lot of boring art: you understand the stupid cop show, or the tedious sitcom gag, too soon and too completely. Same for the stupid middlebrow poem."
Henry Bemis Books has an autographed, first edition of Pinsky’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated collection, The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996, at

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