Profile: Robert Pinsky
Though not commonly known as a Jewish writer, this leading poet did draw on his heritage for a recent project—a biography of the poet King David.
When former American poet laureate and current university professor Robert Pinsky is called to the mike for a poetry reading at the Café Kafka at Springfield University, he is introduced as “the Coltrane of the quatrain.” a It is not an outlandish comparison. Like legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, Pinsky himself plays the sax; more to the point, his poetry has been described as jazz-like. What is remarkable about this scene, however, is that it does not take place in real life, but in an episode of The Simpsons—the television cartoon—in the presence of that other jazz saxophonist and poetry-lover, Lisa Simpson.
The marriage of the extremes of real life and fiction—the actual and the synthetic—is quite possibly what best describes Pinsky’s latest and most adventurous book, his entry into the world of Jewish culture, The Life of David, part of Nextbook/Schocken’s Jewish Encounters Series.
While Pinsky, 67, is not known as a Jewish poet, he is very attached to his Jewish upbringing. In the spacious study of his apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, furnished with the most up-to-date computer imaginable—he is a notorious techie—Pinsky takes pride in his most precious treasure, a baseball autographed by legendary Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax. It is inscribed: “To Robert Pinsky. Never was a ‘Night Game’ so special.” The “Night Game” refers to a love poem by Pinsky that concludes with an allusion to Koufax and to the pitcher’s refusal to play on Yom Kippur.
The walls of the dining room are adorned with oversize photographic portraits, taken in the 1920’s, of two young men, Pinsky’s grandfathers. The one striking a boxer’s pose is Dave Pinsky, a barkeep and sometime bootlegger in Long Branch, New Jersey. The other photo, set in the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas, features grandfather Morris Eisenberg sitting astride a rather rudimentary motorcycle. Family legend has it that Grandpa Morris rode into town one day and swept Pinsky’s grandmother out of the arms of her fiancé and onto the back of his motorcycle.
Pinsky tells these stories because, he says, he is interested in emphasizing that “we all come from somewhere.”
Pinsky’s “somewhere,” his Jewish background, does have echoes in his writing, especially in The Life of David. Reading this book, one senses that he really enjoyed this project.
“It was more fun to write than any other piece of prose I’ve ever written,” he affirms. “I was in a trance, almost like automatic writing. Of course, I was balancing my imagination on some very strong shoulders, not only on those of the writer of the Book of Samuel but also on those of Louis Ginzberg, in his mighty Legends of the Jews.”
As a reader and as a writer of the life of David, “I’m expressing awe,” he continues. “Awe at what a human life can be, both good and bad, and beyond good and bad. It is the most extraordinary life ever lived or attributed….”
I had pinsky in mind for King David from the beginning,” says Jonathan Rosen, general editor of the Nextbook/Schocken Jewish Encounters Series. “After all, they’re both poets I admire. And to be honest, I had a feeling that King David would speak to Robert. Not simply because David is a poet—though it is nice we had a poet-king—but because he is a figure who lives inside a story, who is simultaneously real and mythic, who is Jewish but who lives in the imagination of other religions as well. Robert ran at the subject with all the intelligence, flair and imagination he brings to his poetry and produced a book that is in its own right a work of literature—just what I’d dreamed the series might do.”
Pinsky adds, “It was not to be a biography in a conventional sense. I had been aware that the story had already been subject to great writing and imagination. But it’s not literary criticism. It’s a midrash, a meditation on a story.”
The poet asserts further that he felt in working on this project he was engaged in a conversation with the Jewish literary tradition. The book was to be not only about David and his times, Pinsky explains, but also about the life and times of the story’s rabbinic commentators.
But then, Pinsky is known for tackling important themes, for “standing up for civilization, against decadence and discontent, and the drama of being a citizen, a son, a parent and a Jew in the United States today,” notes fellow poet David Lehman, editor of the series The Best American Poetry (Scribner) and The Oxford Anthology of American Poetry (Oxford University Press). “He writes about the largest of subjects: America, the Judaic imagination, the meaning of meaning, jokes and their relation to language and the unconscious.”
In his poem “Memoir,” Pinsky does rely on his Judaic imagination. He refers to a Mr. Sokol, the shammes in his childhood synagogue, who was constantly crooning Hebrew to himself. The poet found that Mr. Sokol’s quirky behavior was “a way to manifest your Jewishness every second of the day, like wearing a kippa,” Pinsky says. One of the key phrases in “Memoir” is “this, and not that.”
Initially, the poet rebels against the synagogue “The iron cape of the Law, the gray/ Thumb of the Word”—that he perceives as rejecting all that is not of the synagogue. But, when he finds himself in secular culture, he reminds himself that he is also of the synagogue, “that, and not this.” The narrator wants to have it not only both ways; he wants to have it all ways. Pinsky asserts jokingly that the motto on his coat of arms would read, “All of the Above.”
From 1997 to 2000, Pinsky served as poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress. When asked how he came to be chosen, he answers, “Go figure!” He considers the “consultant” part of his assignment as the nobler one, because it is “more democratic” and because it permitted him to inaugurate the Favorite Poem Project, an initiative that still resonates for him.
“I invited Americans to write to me and tell me the name of the poet and poem they like best, together with a few lines about the poem,” he explains. “I received tens of thousands of responses.”
With half a million dollars from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the Clinton Millennium Council to provide a portrait of the United States through the lens of poetry for the year 2000, Pinsky was able to record 50 professional-quality videos—250 minutes in all—of Americans in their natural habitat, from all walks of life, reciting their favorite poem and explaining why the poem has meaning for them.
Three books have resulted from the initiative (www.favoritepoem.org). The first—Americans’ Favorite Poems—is now in its 18th printing; the last one, An Invitation to Poetry (both published by W.W. Norton, as is the middle title, Poems to Read), includes a DVD of several of the videos.
“Robert Pinsky proves it is possible to be a man of letters and a public intellectual in America in 2007,” Lehman says. “He does many things, all of them well. He wrote a brilliant little book about King David. He translated Dante’s Inferno to great acclaim. He has a quick intelligence and wit and a profound sense of moral seriousness, and these qualities distinguish his poetry and prose as well as his teaching….”
Currently, Pinsky is polishing up three projects: a book of poetry, Gulf Music, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux next year; an opera, “Death and the Powers,” to be performed in Monte Carlo in December 2008; and a prose book about small towns originally given as a series of lectures at Rice University.
In addition, Pinsky writes a weekly poetry column for The Washington Post and is poetry editor for both The New Republic and the online magazine Slate.
On the matter of israel, Pinsky says that although he is not an ardent Zionist, he is sympathetic to Israel. “I am not one of those left-wing detractors,” he explains. “I would not sign a petition demeaning Israel. I don’t pretend to have it all figured out, but I am an American. I don’t have to have a foreign policy. I wish Israelis well and I feel a certain brotherhood with them, but I am not quite one of them. I have never had the feeling that I wanted to be where everybody is Jewish.” He did visit Israel in 2000, when he gave a lecture on American poetry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Pinsky’s academic career has included teaching stints at the University of Chicago, Wellesley College, the University of California at Berkeley and, since 1988, in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University. He earned his B.A. in English at Rutgers University and his Ph.D. from Stamford University.
The eldest of three children, Pinsky grew up in Long Branch. He still speaks with reverence of his father, Milford Pinsky, an optician, and notes with pride that he attended the same high school as both his parents.
As a teenager, Pinsky was drawn to music. He played the tenor sax and was part of a band called the Downbeats that played at weddings and bar mitzvas.
His wife, Ellen Bailey, is a clinical psychologist; they have three daughters. The eldest, Nicole, a vice president for human resources at Krispy Kreme in California, wrote the notes that appear in her father’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. A second daughter, Caroline, a veterinarian, lives in Natick, Massachusetts, and is the mother of two sons, whom the Pinskys are pleased to be able to visit often. Their third daughter, Elizabeth, is a student at Harvard Medical School.
He sums up his feelings about his life’s work by saying, “I think that art refers to taking some physical material and making it appear to have a soul. In the art of poetry, the ideas are always there. A word may get the poet started but the poem always crystallizes around a sound, which generates the poem.”
It was to give expression to the soul of the man who was both a warrior and the sweet singer of Israel that Pinsky embarked on his King David project. To get to the soul and sounds of Robert Pinsky himself, a good place to start would be your own computer. Go online and perform the search, “Pinsky poetry reading,” and you’ll find him reciting his works.