Poet Laureate Visits Duke

January 31, 2008
Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky. Scott Davidson

As the thirty-ninth U.S. poet laureate, Robert Pinsky sought not only to bring poetry to the people but also, in his words, to demonstrate "the vital life of poetry outside of any professional, academic context."

Last semester, through talks and readings on campus, Pinsky did a little bit of both. Pinsky, who served an unprecedented three years as poet laureate, from 1997 to 2000, spoke on "Poetry and Documentary Experience," presenting several clips from his Favorite Poem Project. For the project, thousands of people of all ages, occupations, and regions were asked to share their favorite poems.

Pinsky shared one of his own favorites, Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium." He talked about the tendency for poetry to become too formalized, scaring people into feeling as if they have to say something "smart." A poem is first and foremost "something that sounds marvelously moving," he argued. "The greater the passion, the more the transcendence."

He didn't dismiss the additional value gained from a close, knowledgeable reading. But, he added with a smile, "you don't study the score before you've heard the music."