Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry
Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry
Princeton University Press, Paperback, 9780691122632, 96pp.
Publication Date: March 6, 2005
The place of poetry in modern democracy is no place, according to conventional wisdom. The poet, we hear, is a casualty of mass entertainment and prosaic public culture, banished to the artistic sidelines to compose variations on insipid themes for a dwindling audience. Robert Pinsky, however, argues that this gloomy diagnosis is as wrongheaded as it is familiar. Pinsky, whose remarkable career as a poet itself undermines the view, writes that to portray poetry and democracy as enemies is to radically misconstrue both. The voice of poetry, he shows, resonates with profound themes at the very heart of democratic culture.
There is no one in America better to write on this topic. One of the country's most accomplished poets, Robert Pinsky served an unprecedented two terms as America's Poet Laureate (1997-2000) and led the immensely popular multimedia Favorite Poem Project, which invited Americans to submit and read aloud their favorite poems. Pinsky draws on his experiences and on characteristically sharp and elegant observations of individual poems to argue that expecting poetry to compete with show business is to mistake its greatest democratic strength--its intimate, human scale--as a weakness.
As an expression of individual voice, a poem implicitly allies itself with ideas about individual dignity that are democracy's bedrock, far more than is mass participation. Yet poems also summon up communal life.. Even the most inward-looking work imagines a reader. And in their rhythms and cadences poems carry in their very bones the illusion and dynamic of call and response. Poetry, Pinsky writes, cannot help but mediate between the inner consciousness of the individual reader and the outer world of other people. As part of the entertainment industry, he concludes, poetry will always be small and overlooked. As an art--and one that is inescapably democratic--it is massive and fundamental.
He is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Gulf Music: Poems; Jersey Rain (2000); The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 (1996), which received the 1997 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee; The Want Bone (1990); History of My Heart (1984); An Explanation of America (1980); and Sadness and Happiness (1975).
He is also the author of several prose titles, including The Life of David; Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry (2002); The Sounds of Poetry (1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Poetry and the World (1988); and The Situation of Poetry (1977). In 1985 he also released a computerized novel, Mindwheel.
Pinsky has published two acclaimed works of traslation: The Inferno of Dante (1994), which was a Book-of-the-Month-Club Editor's Choice, and received both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award ; and The Separate Notebooks by Czeslaw Milosz (with Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass ).
About his work, the poet Louise Gluck has said, "Robert Pinsky has what I think Shakespeare must have had: dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician's dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions."
From 1997 to 2000, he served as the United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. During that time, he founded the Favorite Poem Project, a program dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry's role in Americans' lives.
In 1999, he co-edited Americans' Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology with Maggie Dietz. Other anthologies he has edited include An Invitation to Poetry (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004); Poems to Read (2002); and Handbook of Heartbreak (1998).
His honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, both the William Carlos Williams Award and the Shelley Memorial prize from the Poetry Society of America, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate .
Pinsky has taught at both Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.