Ex-poet laureate shares joy of words

March 30, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Poetry, said Matthew Kearney, a Mercersburg Academy English teacher, in his introduction of former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky Monday, is "where the spoken word connects the speaker and listener so intimately."

Pinsky was the fourth of five speakers in the academy's 2003-04 lecture series.

Pinsky's topic was ethics and morals and the first thing he told the audience that nearly filled the school's chapel was that he wasn't a Christian. He qualified his remark, saying that anyone who studies 16th- and 17th-century English poetry, which he does, "encounters Christian ideals."

Kearney said Pinsky, who held the honorary title of poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University.


Poet laureates are appointed by the Librarian of Congress.

He has written six books of poems beginning in 1975 with "Sadness and Happiness," plus two books of translation. He has earned a Los Angeles Times Book Award, among others.

Kearney called Pinsky's translation of Dante's "Inferno" the best English translation of the work.

Pinsky read excerpts of "Inferno" plus three of his poems Monday night.

Pinsky told the audience that a poem is a work of art, "something that sounds terrific when you say it out loud."

When reading a poem, if a reader is not enjoying it or understanding it, then it's time to move on to another one. A reader's appetite for analysis of a poem will appear if he is intrigued by the writing, he said.

Kearney, in his introduction, mentioned that Pinsky even had a role in "The Simpsons" television series. He was asked by a student during a question-and-answer session what part he played in the episode.

He said he played himself, Robert Pinsky, poet laureate. The character was a jerk, he said.

Pinsky said his proudest accomplishment was launching the Favorite Poem Project, a collection of 50 short video documentaries that showcases individual Americans from all walks of life reading and speaking personally about poems they love.

One of the three poems that he read, "ABC," from his book, "Jersey Rain," seemed especially pleasing to the audience.

It has just 26 words, one for each letter of the alphabet.

"Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy
Knowledge, love. Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Quickest respite.
Sweet time unafflicted,
Various world:
X=your zenith."

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