Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky discussed poetry, democracy and a new opera in a two-hour panel conversation hosted by the MIT Communications Forum and held in Bartos Theater on Thursday, Feb. 23.
Pinsky was poet laureate from 1997 to 2000. A Pulitzer Prize nominee, he is the author of six books of poetry, including "The Figured Wheel" (1996), "The Handbook of Heartbreak" (1998) and "Jersey Rain" (2000). He is a professor in Boston University's graduate writing program and poetry editor of the online journal Slate.
By turns amiable, passionate, funny and grave, Pinsky made it clear why he is the only poet to hold the laureate's chair for three terms. He engaged the audience in Bartos in his personal enthusiasm for his 1999 project, "Americans' Favorite Poems," an anthology with DVD.
"I invited Americans to send me the title and author of their favorite poem. I had an advertising budget of $7, and I received tens of thousands of responses. The project revealed a true elite -- people responding to a poem and communicating their response to others -- as opposed to the false elite, the academic, who may not even hear the poem, " he said.
To illustrate, he showed a video of a young man reciting Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" while leaning against a backhoe in Braintree, Mass. This is how Whitman remains "alive -- by the realization of his poem in another's body," he said.
The "ancient art of poetry has an important function in democracy because it inherently respects the dignity of the individual. It is an art of the mind and of the body," Pinsky said.
As for producing the art of mind and body, Pinsky was rueful. "It's so hard to write a good poem. It's like trying to keep an airplane in the air. At one point, I was in love with long, complicated sentences. At one, I fell in love with the substantive, the nuts and bolts, details," he said.
He read "Shirt," a poem full of nuts and bolts of textile manufacturing, noting, "A poem takes place each time it is read, like music."
David Thorburn, professor of literature and director of the Communications Forum, moderated the MIT event.
Media Lab composer Tod Machover, a professor of media arts and sciences, joined Pinsky in the discussion of opera; they are collaborating on a new work, "Death and the Powers."
Pinsky, who wrote the libretto for "Death," described it as the tale of a man who "creates a kind of immortality by converting himself into software."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 2006 (download PDF).