You couldn’t ask for a better or more generous ambassador of poetry than Robert Pinsky. I got to stand up close and watch him in action yesterday, during a reading and signing session at a bookstore cum museum called The Book Garden just up the street from the Delaware River, and I can tell you he’s the one to study if you want to see how a master does the job.
Speaking to a group of about eight people before going on to the evening’s 10th anniversary edition of the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, Pinsky was low-key, often very funny and disarmingly gentle in the way he handled questions.
One woman brought up Robert Frost telling someone to “just read what’s there” instead of searching for hidden meanings in his poems, and Pinsky gave back a bit of gossip (the theatrical nature of Frost’s rustic sage routine, and how it played into the suspicion of intellect that Pinsky considers one of America’s most unattractive traits) before going into an explanation that showed Frost was at least partly right — there are always depths to plumb in a work of art, but the academic tendency to strip-mine for them shouldn’t block one’s appreciation for the lovely surface.
He also told a funny story about a writers gathering at which a woman mistook him for Russell Banks and asked him to inscribe her copy of Continental Drift. Pinsky, ever the sport, wrote “I’ll never forget the wild times we had on the beach at Maui” and signed it “Russell.” Later on, the woman evidently encountered Banks and realized her mistake. Banks, also a sport, added his own inscription about Maui, and signed it “Robert.”
The evening began with a very cleverly staged performance of Pinsky’s “To Television” (from the collection Jersey Rain) conceived by David Kucher of the River Union Stage and his remarkably poised and talented son. Pinsky read old poems and new ones from his upcoming collection Gulf Music. He also talked up the Favorite Poem Project and its three associated books, the latest of which includes a DVD of favorite poems being read. The festival is the dreamchild of writer and editor Nicholas DiGiovanni, and even though I was present when he organized the inaugural festival (also with Pinsky as the headliner), this was the first time I’d been able to attend one. My loss — I’ll bend heaven and earth to get to them all from now on.
My brush with a felony rap came at the Book Garden, where one of the customers saw me standing by the cashier in my shades and black shirt and assumed I was Robert Pinsky. She even went to so far as to say that I looked nothing like my jacket photo.
“That’s the plastic surgery,” I told her.
“I think you’re joking, but I’m not sure,” she said.
“Well, after that Mafia threat, I had to do something,” I said.
She then held up a copy of Gulf Music. “My goodness, this is expensive,” she said. “Why are the prices on poetry books so different?”
“We’re paid by the line,” I said. “Prose books, the pricing is by the word.”
“Now I know you’re kidding,” she said, and I fessed up.
After dinner, I trailed some friend as they drove out to the Unitarian Universalist church in Kingwood Township, where the festival was being held. Earlier that day, I had developed a fixation on Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, and I was playing it over and over during the drive through the dark-blue twilight hills of Hunterdon County. Suddenly the Jeep braked, and as I followed suit, I saw the silver shapes of deer flashing through the Jeep’s headlights and vanishing into the dark farm field to our right.
Talk about the perfect visual accompaniment to that song. There was so much poetry in the air that day, I guess even nature wanted to get in on it.
And for making it possible to experience all of it, all I can say to Robert Pinsky, Nick DiGiovanni and everyone else connected with the festival is — thank you.
Also checking in with his impressions of last year’s Delaware Valley Poetry Festival was my colleague Gene Racz:
Feeling run down and worn thin, I was hoping to refresh myself last Friday with a little art … presented first-hand by a true artist.
My wife understood, but my 9-year-old twin boys were confused as to why I was so uptight about getting down to the Old Stone Church in Baptistown to hear former poet laureate Robert Pinsky speak.
Reading their body language, I could almost hear the thoughts of my boys in the backseat. Reading their
minds, my father’s intuition came up with the following: Why is daddy running so hard at the start of the
weekend? What the heck is a poet Laurie-at anyway? Why did daddy yank us cold out of a heated backyard
soccer game? Why can’t we stop for a soda? Why is daddy now lost somewhere near Frenchtown? For the sake of art beloved children, for the sake of art.
Turns out, Pinsky was fabulous. The 60-something Long Branch native and Rutgers grad read some of his poems, took questions and spoke candidly about his poetry. He served up a flood of insights into his lifelong love affair with words and spoke of his appreciation for silence and demonstrated how breaks and pauses help create the music of good verse. Confident yet vulnerable, masterful without airs, Pinsky exuded a warmth and deep sincerity that made the poetry reading feel more like an uplifting sermon. I half expected him, in minister-like fashion, to stand outside the church door and shake the hand of each member of the audience as we filed out. He didn’t. The poetry was the benediction.
Henry Miller once wrote that, “”Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life.” At 43, I still don’t really have a clue as to what that significance is. All I know is that I’m still struggling to slow down a little and appreciate the beauty that’s right in front of me. The commonplace surrounding us can grow stale and cold.
Pinsky said he likes to look up words in the dictionary that he already knows … or thinks he already knows. He revels in discovering meanings he was unaware of – meanings that have been hiding, all the while, in plain sight. As Miller wrote: “”The artist does not tinker with the universe; he recreates it out of his own experience and understanding of life.”
Poetry is one way to deepen our awareness and understanding of life. Pinsky spoke of poetry as being a
most personal art form. That’s because the medium of poetry is not a TV screen, a CD or a canvas. The
true medium of poetry is ultimately us, the readers, who filter the poet’s words through our own minds and
hearts. Pinsky’s words have power, and his poems invite us to get more intimate with the world which is
always right at hand.
Poet and essayist Katha Pollitt put it well when she wrote that Pinsky’s poems give a sense of “”getting at the depths of human experience, in which everything is repeated but also always new.”
Pinsky argues that poetry has a strong presence in American culture. The finest moment of the evening came when one of my boys looked up at me as were filing out of the church and said, “”Hey dad, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
You don’t get to be poet laureate for nothing.