Saturday, January 15, 2011

ArtsBuzz: Pinsky brings message of poetry’s endurance to Delray festival

Robert Pinsky.

By Chauncey Mabe

As America’s only three-time poet laureate,‭ ‬Robert Pinsky would appear perfectly suited to deliver a‭ “‬State of the Nation‭”‬-style disquisition.

Who better to survey the role of poetry in contemporary life‭ ‬--‭ ‬the challenges‭ (‬and opportunities‭) ‬presented by the digital revolution,‭ ‬the rise of spoken-word and hip-hop,‭ ‬the advent of the amazing shrinking attention span‭?

Pinsky,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬declines the invitation:

‭“‬Unlike the Dow Jones or the Mets or video games,‭ ‬poetry is fundamental and central and enduring,‭” ‬Pinsky says.‭ “‬Poetry goes deeper than terms like‭ ‘‬the state of‭’ ‬and‭ ‘‬2011.‭’ ‬Nothing against‭ ‬2011,‭ ‬but personally,‭ ‬I’m in many ways more interested in‭ ‬1595‭ ‬and‭ ‬2164.‭”

Before branding Pinsky with a scarlet‭ “‬E‭” (‬for‭ “‬elitist,‭” ‬or perhaps even‭ “‬effete‭”)‬,‭ ‬it’s important to note that his faith in high culture is matched by an equally firm confidence in the general reader.

Pinsky,‭ ‬special guest poet at this week’s‭ ‬7th annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival,‭ ‬created the Favorite Poem Project during his time as poet laureate‭ (‬1997-2000‭)‬.‭ ‬Not only is it an ingenious forum for the promotion of poetry,‭ ‬it also disproves a received truth about the American character that goes back to the nation’s beginnings.

That’s the idea that America hates poetry and neglects its greatest poets.‭ ‬Eighteen thousand people responded to Pinsky’s call for a favorite poem,‭ ‬with‭ ‬50‭ ‬of them filmed in mini-documentaries,‭ ‬reading and discussing their selection.‭ [‬To see the videos,‭ ‬visit‭ ‬‭]

“No human culture I know of is without poetry,‭” ‬Pinsky says.‭ “‬Poetry is like dancing,‭ ‬or singing.‭ ‬There may be fads or exemplars,‭ ‬but the thing itself is large and permanent.‭ ‬I love the Favorite Poem Project because it doesn’t persuade you to love poetry,‭ ‬but asks what poetry you already love.‭”

As a poet,‭ ‬Pinsky is often praised for the musicality of his verse.‭ ‬He grew up hoping to become a jazz musician and at one time hoped to be a musician,‭ ‬but turned to poetry when his skill with the saxophone fell short.‭ ‬Since his first collection,‭ ‬Sadness and Happiness,‭ ‬came out in‭ ‬1975,‭ ‬he’s published a total of‭ ‬11‭ ‬collections.‭ ‬He’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.‭ ‬He’s also an important translator,‭ ‬critic and essayist.

‭“‬I write with my ear,‭” ‬Pinsky says.‭ “‬I’m trying to do with the sounds of vowels and consonants what I was not always doing with the horn.‭”

When he reads Wednesday night after the gala fundraising dinner,‭ ‬Pinsky will be accompanied by the Paul Tardiff Jazz Trio.

‭“‬Jazz was one of the pleasures of youth,‭ ‬but I drifted away from it in my‭ ‬20s.‭ ‬I thought that pleasure was in the past,‭ ‬but now I’ve read with some tremendous musicians.‭ ‬It’s very different from songwriting,‭ ‬where the words fit the tune.‭ ‬It’s more like a conversation between words and instruments.‭” [‬To see samples of Pinsky reading with jazz accompaniment,‭ ‬visit‭ ‬‭]

Miles Coon,‭ ‬founder and director of the festival,‭ ‬calls Pinsky‭ “‬a master of taking a symbol of America or some aspect of American life and expanding on it.‭”

“One of the things I love about poetry is the way it presents the vagaries of life and how to deal with them,‭” ‬Coon says.‭ “‬One of Pinsky’s poems I adore is‭ ‘‬Samurai Song.‭’ ‬It’s a persona poem,‭ ‬with a samurai talking about loss and how he copes with it.‭ ‬In reading it I feel like I’m a samurai and we are all warriors on the battlefield of life.‭”

In fact,‭ ‬adds Coon,‭ ‬the first time he saw Pinsky read the poem it was with a jazz trio.‭ “‬Which seemed odd,‭” ‬Coon recalls.‭ “‬Jazz‭? ‬Samurai‭? ‬But it works,‭ ‬which proves a point.‭ ‬Even someone reading to the rhythms of jazz is a samurai.‭ ‬Pinsky epitomizes the strength of the personal lyric.‭ ‬He represents all of us,‭ ‬and what it means to be a body in time,‭ ‬alive.‭”

Coon is no less enthusiastic for the other poets on this year’s schedule:‭ ‬Heather McHugh,‭ ‬Thomas Lux,‭ ‬Alan Shapiro,‭ ‬Ellen Bryant Voigt,‭ ‬Vijay Seshadri,‭ ‬C.D.‭ ‬Wright,‭ ‬Jane Hirschfield and the spoken-word poets D.‭ ‬Blair and Taylor Mali.

The poetry workshops are sold out,‭ ‬but plenty of room remains for the public readings and discussions by the featured poets that take place each afternoon at‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬and each evening at‭ ‬8.‭ ‬You don’t even have to attend the gala dinner‭ (‬at‭ ‬$250‭ ‬each‭) ‬to attend Pinsky’s performance.

Tickets for all the public events are‭ ‬$12‭ ‬general admission,‭ ‬$10‭ ‬for seniors and‭ ‬$8‭ ‬for students.‭ ‬All events are at Old School Square in downtown Delray Beach.‭ ‬For schedules,‭ ‬directions and tickets‭ (‬it’s wise to purchase ahead of time‭)‬,‭ ‬see‭ ‬‭

The festival begins‭ ‬Tuesday with a‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬craft talk by Jane Hirschfield and Vijay Seshadri.‭ ‬The kick-off reading,‭ ‬featuring Heather McHugh and Alan Shapiro,‭ ‬follows in the evening at‭ ‬8.‭ ‬It wraps up Saturday night with a spoken word performance by Blair and Mali,‭ ‬both national slam poetry champions.

‭“‬This festival is going to be great,‭” ‬Coon says.‭ “‬We have‭ ‬107‭ ‬poets coming to take the workshops,‭ ‬including a woman from England here for the second time.‭ ‬We have a participant from British Columbia.‭ ‬It’s a testament to what we’ve accomplished here.‭ ‬And our line-up of featured poets is just terrific.‭”

Lux,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬is the festival’s‭ “‬old stand-by,‭” ‬Coon says,‭ ‬having been here for every year to date:‭ “‬People are blown away by his readings.‭” ‬McHugh,‭ ‬he declares,‭ “‬is a certified genius,‭ ‬one of the most intelligent,‭ ‬witty poets writing today.‭”

Pinsky,‭ ‬making his first appearance at the festival,‭ ‬also praises the line-up of poets.‭ “‬Anyone who knows poetry will see how good it is,‭” ‬he says.‭ ‬It’s also the kind of event that can prove his idea that Americans already love poetry and do not need to have it sold to them‭ “‬like soap or toothpaste.‭”

A big part of the misconception that America doesn’t revere poetry comes from‭ ‬its‭ ‬characteristic entrepreneurial spirit,‭ ‬which has left poetry in particular and culture in general to the mercies of the marketplace.‭ ‬In many European and Asian cultures,‭ ‬Pinsky explains,‭ “‬there is a social class that considers itself by heredity the curator of art.‭” ‬In Eastern Europe,‭ ‬he says,‭ ‬two cab drivers in an argument may accuse each other of having no culture.

‭“‬It’s no better or worse,‭ ‬but for good or ill we don’t have that traditional snob value for certain kinds of art,‭” ‬Pinsky says.‭ ‬As a result,‭ ‬it falls to two‭ “‬industries‭” ‬to preserve and foster culture:‭ ‬show business and academia.

‭“‬I have a lot of respect for shows and film,‭ ‬but the idea poetry is not loved by comparison is misguided,‭” ‬Pinsky says.‭ “‬You can’t compare an Elizabeth Bishop poem to a TV show,‭ ‬or even whether it’s on the curriculum.‭ ‬Entertainment and the academy are only part of the culture.‭ ‬They are not the culture.‭”

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