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Three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Talks Poetry with Students

Robert Pinsky Gives Answers and Inspiration

Three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky reads his poetry.
Three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky reads from his work.

By Katharine Webster

Three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky was relegated to “the dumb class” in eighth grade – also known as “the bad class” – because he didn’t study or behave the way he was supposed to, he told students in Asst. Prof. Maggie Dietz’s poetry class before a public reading for the Writers on Campus Series.

The unconventional jokes, behaviors and mental habits that once got him into trouble now earn him praise because they enliven his poetry, he said. He employs a mix of vernacular and literary language and odd juxtapositions. 

“I’m very uncomfortable with purity,” he said. “I like mockery, blasphemy, teasing.”

One student asked him why his poems included so many references to Greek mythology. Pinsky said he appreciated the Greeks because they understood that any instrument or person can be a source of both beauty and torture.

“The Greeks were in touch with the doubleness of experience,” he said. “That’s infinitely worth thinking about – much more so than being ‘nice.’”

Pinsky was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress in 1997 and served an unprecedented three terms. During his tenure, he founded the Favorite Poem Project, which sponsored public poetry readings by Americans from all walks of life and looked at the role poetry plays in people’s lives. Dietz, who had studied with Pinsky as a graduate student at Boston University, directed the project, co-editing several anthologies of favorite poems and producing a series of videos.

One of Dietz’s students asked Pinsky about his references to music and instruments. Pinsky told him music – learning to play jazz saxophone – saved him in high school and serves him now, providing the rhythms and sounds that turn his ideas into poems. In fact, he only decided to become a poet when he realized he wasn’t good enough to make it as a professional musician, he said. Some of Pinsky’s books have musical names and he often performs his poems accompanied by jazz musicians.

“I almost do have a song or musical feeling in my head when I write a poem,” he said, before demonstrating the rhythm and repeated sounds in a favorite verse. “It’s like a little phrase or riff.”

Matthew Raywood, a sophomore creative writing major from Newburyport, said he enjoyed hearing Pinsky read his poems aloud: The students could hear how he chose words for their sounds as much as their meanings. He also appreciated Pinsky’s use of dissonant elements.

“I always like to take things that are unrelated and see if I can find a tie,” Raywood said.

Sam Aikins, a sophomore political science major from Laurel, Md., said meeting Pinsky inspired him to work harder at writing poetry, “not just the way you think it’s supposed to be, but the way it needs to be – and not to worry if it rhymes.”

He also enjoyed learning that being a poet wasn’t Pinsky’s first choice of career – and yet he ended up becoming America’s poet.

“Poetry can connect to everyone,” Aikins said. “We all find our way to poetry in some fashion.”

Pinsky enjoyed working with Dietz’s students, too.

“I thought the students were great – very poised and articulate,” he said.

After the class, Pinsky held a reading at O’Leary Library that was free and open to the community. About 75 people attended the event, during which Pinsky explained and read several of his poems, including unpublished works, and fielded questions.