Video: Robert Pinksy shares poetry wisdom

Wesley Ennis

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination for the sound of words,” Poet Robert Pinsky told a near-capacity crowd gathered in the library’s Fehlow Room on Wednesday.

The past U.S. poet laureate, Boston University professor, essayist, literary critic and translator held his audience spellbound with readings of his own poetry and insightful comments about the transmission of culture in America.

In his opening remarks, he thanked Assistant Library Director Jennifer Harris, Reference Librarian Lee Regan, local poet Chuck Harper and bookseller Jay Phillips, calling them “patriotic Americans” for their support of poetry and for providing the forum for his visit.

“It is the nature of our culture,” Pinsky said, “that we do not have a unifying folk tradition to pass on the poems, stories, jokes, riddles and recipes.”

Unlike other cultures where grandparents fill that roll, the United States has a myriad of cultures. He explained how teachers and librarians have become our society’s agents for the transfer of folk tradition, passing the culture from generation-to-generation.

The audience kept an almost reverent silence as Pinsky lectured and read from his works. He joked at the somberness, saying it felt like he was in a church. So, he decided to open a discussion with his audience, inviting comments, questions and even requests for readings.

One question revolved around what the poet meant in a poem. Pinsky said he often receives e-mail from high school students assigned to write a paper on him. They ask, “What did you mean,” in such ’n’ such poem?

It’s more important for the artist, he said, that the audience enjoy the poetry and relate to it personally.

“If I cooked you a meal, I wouldn’t expect you to analyze the ingredients. I would hope you might say, ‘This is delicious. Can I have some more?’ ” Pinsky explained.

Throughout the evening, as Pinsky spoke, it became obvious that how he spoke was just as important as what he said. His delivery is distinctively and purposefully voiced with correctness in his diction; pronouncing each syllable, vowel and consonant.

“Poetry starts with the sounds of the words,” Pinsky said, when asked what makes good poetry. He talked about his interest from a very young age in the mechanics and sounds of language. He consciously made a study of how the words were sounded, he said, and believed it was a unique and personal fixation until he discovered in college that there is a whole science of the study on the subject. 

Over the course of his two-hour visit, Pinsky read at least eight of his poems. He spoke of his early love of jazz and playing the saxophone.

“In high school, I was musical boy,” he said. “In fact, today, I would be a famous jazz musician for the want of one thing – talent.”

Pinsky left the audience with an additional insight. He shared a poet’s understanding of poetry. Like reading sheet music and not playing the song out loud, Pinsky summed up what poetry is all about.

“Each time a person reads a poem out loud, a poem takes place.”