First hearing him read some thirteen years ago, at a youth conference in Wyoming, the thing about Robert Pinsky’s poetry that shook me up was the way he spoke. He enunciated like no one I’d ever heard. He hit each syllable not only clearly but with dynamics. The syllables took the manner of punctuation, propelling you forward or sitting you still.
How they combined into words and phrases, construction in pursuit of meaning, put what I understood about poetry to that point in a fresh light. Line breaks, rhyme, meter, onomatopoeia, symbols, styles, they were simply supports. What mattered was what you wanted to say.
Of course, I needed more years to realize what had grabbed me. But I was grateful when I slowly caught on and glad this week when Pinsky came and read at the Folger. Salzburg pal Jess and I caught him there Tuesday. (Photo above was hers. We also ate Good Stuff burgers and discussed her new roommate, Abe Lincoln.) Pinsky read for an hour or so and then took questions. He talked with excitement about decades of collaborations with musicians and technologists. He enunciated with drive, even reading the poem I’d heard him read thirteen years ago.
What he said at his Yale reading later this week: “A poem is a work of art made out of the sounds of a language. It is not a song. It is sounds of speech approaching the conditions of a song.” He spoke similarly on writing at an event with Springsteen a couple years ago. “For me, it’s an awful lot like noodling at the piano, playing with colors, except it’s syllables. I write with my voice. My voice box is my writing instrument.”
At the Folger, he read another one I was hoping we’d hear, one just called “Book.” Part captured a more recent hope and fear of mine:
Enchanted wood. Glyphs and characters between boards.
The reader’s dread of finishing a book, that loss of a world,
And also the reader’s dread of beginning a book, becoming
Hostage to a new world, to some spirit or spirits unknown.
I did the dragon’s will until you came
Because I had fancied love a casual
Improvisation, or a settled game
That followed if I let the kerchief fall:
Those deeds were best that gave the minute wings
And heavenly music if they gave it wit;
And then you stood among the dragon”‘rings.
I mocked, being crazy, but you mastered it
And broke the chain and set my ankles free,
Saint George or else a pagan Perseus;
And now we stare astonished at the sea,
And a miraculous strange bird shrieks at us.
*Have yet to decide whether to admit its existence this year or not.
As a fan of the former poet laureate and not-too-shabby dancer, I dug through the site and a few favorites I hadn’t thought of recently, like Dulce et Decorum Est and We Real Cool.
I also came across a poem that for years has held special meaning for me: Robert Frost’s ‘Out, out–‘. The poem offered amazing accompaniment for the Kenneth Cole ad I saw in the front of the New Yorker last night.
For those who know my chainsaw story, the ad is a must-see. I’ve torn the page out of the magazine and will save it forever. All I’ve got say is: Mr. Cole, believe it.
Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music tooï¿½
While the former poet laureate didn’t mention baseball in his comments, we know the playoffs had to be on his mind. Once a Brooklyn fan, now a Red Sox fan, Pinsky’s a wait-’til-next-year kind of guy. You think he wasn’t rooting for a Cubs-Red Sox series?
In the year the long ball finally quieted down, he had to be loving this postseason. He’s a pitcher’s poet. His Night Game has got to be one of the best pitching duel poems ever, if anyone else ever wrote one. If no ever did, then the poem still throws the lights out.
Pinsky doesn’t write like a man who sits around reading Bill James. Across the waves of a radio Brooklynite’s Dodger dial, he would probably agree with Vin Scully: “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.”
Poets are all about illumination.
This postseason, when statistics are giving way to game sixes and sevens and goats and ghosts, Pinsky introduces Keats’ work with nameless appropriation. “The fulfillment, the hovering, and the finality of autumn,” writes the baseball fan, illuminated but long-suffering.