Robert Pinsky, former US poet laureate and award winning author, read from his translation of Dante’s Inferno and a selection of his poems at the Ethel L. Handley Annual Reading.
PROVO, Utah (Oct. 3, 2014)—What does it take for the aspiring student to become a great writer or poet? Robert Pinsky, 39th U.S. poet laureate and professor at Boston University, shared advice and conveyed personal insight on writing, in addition to reading from a selection of his poems at the Ethel L. Handley Annual Reading.
“Robert Pinsky writes poems that are fierce in their clarity and swaggery in their sounds,” said BYU English professor Kimberly Johnson to commence the reading. “He makes poetry live, not in some far-off ivory tower, but in our living room, like a necessary friend,”.
At the beginning of the reading Pinsky stated that he would not only share a selection of his works with the audience, but that his goal in participating in the Ethel L. Handley Annual Reading was to make himself as useful to the students as possible.
One student asked how one might best develop his or her talent as a writer. Pinsky responded, “Read the way an ambitious athlete watches excellent athletes. Read the way a cook eats. Read the way an ambitious filmmaker would watch Keaton and Scorsese.”
Pinsky also advised students to create their own anthology. “Type up or write out with your own hand the poems you love by Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare, Cavafy,” said Pinsky. “Whatever it is you love, type it up. Have a computer file called ‘anthology.’ If you’re a serious young poet or writer start keeping what people used to call a daybook.”
Pinsky also addressed the subject of writing process. He said, “It’s important to answer all questions about process with a very important sentence: everybody is different. Whatever personality type you have. Get up early in the morning to work; sleep all day work all night. Work spontaneously. Never revise; revise very carefully. Make an outline; hate an outline. There is no one recipe. Each of us must think about our own habits, proclivities, strengths and weaknesses, and try to make them flexible and effective.”
At the conclusion of the the question and answer
period a student asked Pinsky where he saw poetry going with the rise of technology. Pinsky explained that much of media is produced and viewed on a mass scale, but that poetry was more intimate.
He cited a short poem by Walter Savage Landor as an example. After reciting the poem, he said, “That’s so different from looking at a screen. My mouth, my breath became the medium for the art of somebody who died almost 200 years ago. That is an ancient technology at the center of human intelligence. Singing, dancing, and poetry are not at the fringe but at the core of who we are. We use them to survive, to pass knowledge through the generations. It’s an ancient technology.”
He did, however, explain how the paradox of modern technology makes this process more available. He encouraged students to visit favoritepoemproject.org, a project he started in 1997 as poet laureate as a way of documenting and encouraging the important role of poetry in American culture.
The Ethel L. Handley Reading Series began in 2001 after the death of Handley’s husband, G. Kenneth Handley. To commemorate her life and love of the arts, he started a series that would invite poets of national and international importance to give readings at BYU.
For more information about Robert Pinsky and his work, visit his page or his poetry project at favoritepoem.org.
—Sylvia Cutler (BA English ’17)