Thursday, January 20, 2000
Don''t read a poem. Say it. Stand up and read it out loud. Let the sounds of the words burble up through your chest. Let your lips curl around them. Let the clicking of hard consonants and the buzz of the "m''s" and "n''s" flow through you and out into the world.
That''s the message Boston University Professor Robert Pinsky has been taking around the country since he was first named America''s poet laureate in 1997. It''s the same message he''ll deliver Friday evening at Monterey''s Santa Catalina School. A poem, Pinsky believes, shouldn''t be left on the printed page, to be studied and contemplated--it should be given voice. "The medium of the art is vocal," he says. "One can learn a lot by reading, but the test of the poem is to hear it. Poetry is written with the voice and is read with the voice."
The pleasure one gets from reading a poem is not just cerebral or emotional, deriving from the meaning of the poem''s words. It''s tactile, physical, animated by the flow of breath through the human body, an art form that has much in common, Pinsky believes, with dance.
"There is a special comfort and excitement people get from saying aloud words with a certain sound, in a certain order," he writes. "By reading poems we love aloud, we can learn how much pleasure there can be in the sounds of words. It''s as if you can concentrate the physical sounds of the words to a point where they give you an emotional or an intellectual relief. You enter a different state."
Although Pinsky makes his living teaching poetry in a university, he stresses that poetry should not be relegated to the ivory tower of academia. It''s art that comes from and belongs to the people, one of humankind''s most ancient forms of communication. "It goes back to our animal origins, our ability to survive by communicating with those who are absent," he says. "Before writing, at a more intimate level than writing, we can communicate by means of this intricate technology based on our own breath, inside our own body."
Pinsky is best known for his Favorite Poem Project, an ambitious national program he launched in 1998 to chronicle Americans'' love affair with poetry. Thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds suggested their favorite poems, with a description of why they chose it; 1,000 of them were invited to read their poems out loud at regional gatherings across the country. Pinsky and his assistant captured the readings on audio and video tapes, and are now compiling them into the Favorite Poem Project Archive, which will be presented to the Library of Congress later this year.
If nothing else, Pinsky says, the Favorite Poem Project demonstrates the significant presence of poetry in Americans'' daily lives. Among Pinsky''s readers were African-American cops reading Thomas Hardy; a 9-year-old girl reading Theodore Roethke; a 15-year-old Hispanic boy reading Walt Whitman. Sometimes two people see completely different messages in the same poem, like the liberal and conservative Congressmen who both read Robert Frost''s "The Road Not Taken"--one of them emphasized its central theme of choice, while the other liked its championing of individuality.
"The project counteracts the widely accepted view that poetry is for the few, something written and taught at universities," Pinsky writes. "It breaks free of academic heaviness and the supposed limited audience of poetry, to reveal the rich and vigorous presence of poetry in contemporary American life."
A graduate of Stanford University, Pinsky, 59, has been teaching at Boston University now for nine years. His books of and about poetry have won numerous prizes, including the 1985 William Carlos Williams Prize for History of My Heart. His The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Although Pinsky believes that children have a natural love for poetry, which is later drummed out of them, he says he "didn''t really learn much about poetry" until his late teens, when his first love--music--didn''t pan out. "I was attracted to [it as] a substitute for music, when I realized I was never going to be a great saxophone player," he says.
The current popularity of slam poetry has done a great service, Pinsky believes, introducing a new generation to the immediacy and sheer fun of poetry spoken out loud. But slam has its limitations.
"I think that the slams are a step in the right direction," he states. "They probably bring people a little closer to Emily Dickinson. But finally, slams are a kind of amateur theatricals. They are fun, but poetry is a vocal, not a performative art."
As poetry editor of on online journal, Slate, Pinsky is certainly no Luddite. But he sees poetry as so essential to our human-ness, that it will survive all technological change. "In an age of mass media, here is a medium--the voice of whoever reads the poem--that is inherently, by its very nature, on an individual and human scale," he says. "Giving dignity to the reader''s own voice has a social, even a political urgency to it. If we neglect poetry, music and art in our schools, thereby breaking a mighty and ancient chain that goes back through Einstein to our genetic dependence on intelligence, we bring a curse down on ourselves."
Robert Pinsky will read poetry Friday at 8pm in the Santa Catalina Performing Arts Center. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Call 655-9310 from 8:30am-4:30pm. For information visit www.favoritepoem.org.