Poetry
1:26 am
Tue August 6, 2013

Pinsky's 'Singing School': Poetry For The Verse Averse

Originally published on Tue August 6, 2013 4:06 am

For Robert Pinsky, the pleasure in poetry comes from the music of the language, and not from the meaning of the words. So he put together an anthology of 80 poems that are models by master poets -- from Sappho to Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson.

"For a lot of people, well-meaning teaching has made poetry seem arcane, difficult, kind of brown-knotting medicine that might be good for you but doesn't taste so good," Pinsky says. "So I tried to make a collection of poetry that would be fun. And that would bring out poetry as an art, rather than a challenge to say smart things."

The book is called Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by studying with the Masters. It includes a 15-word meditation on time by 19th century British writer Walter Savage Landor:

On love, on grief, on every human thing
Time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing.

(Lethe is the river of forgetfulness, one of the five rivers of Hades in Greek mythology.)

Pinsky says that what charms him about this verse is the graceful choreography of the words: "Three times at the beginning of that poem, I put my upper teeth on my lower lip, to say, 'On love, on grief, on every human thing.' And three times at the end I purse my lips to say, 'Time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing.' If you want to write well, it helps you think about vowels and consonants, which are an important element in making what someone else would want to read or hear aloud."

Pinsky says reading poetry aloud — language carried by the human voice — is a unique pleasure — one that Pinsky hammered home when he founded the Favorite Poem Project as U.S. Poet Laureate in the 1990s. The online project features 50 videos of ordinary Americans talking about their favorite poems.

"She spoke to me," Jamaican immigrant and Long Beach, Calif., resident Seph Rodney says of Sylvia Plath in one of the videos. "She spoke it seems, directly to my life. It was powerful. It was bitter. It was caustic. It was at the same time really urgent about the need for love."

John Freeman, former editor of GRANTA Literary magazine, and author of How to Read a Novelist, says with the Favorite Poem Project, Pinksy demonstrated the importance of poetry in American lives.

"I think he is the most important U.S. Poet Laureate since that position has been resurrected," Freeman says. "He really took the job and ran with it."

Pinsky teaches at Boston University, and is author of more than a dozen collections of his own verse. For him, a poem begins with sound.

"Even just the cadence of pauses," he explains. "I stop. I think. I wait. I wait a little longer. Then less. ... Something like that generates the poem. And for me, if anything I do is any good, it's carried by that kind of cadence or melody."

As a teenager, Pinsky wanted to be a jazz saxophonist. Now, at the age of 72, he's playing jazz again, this time syncopating his verse with the rhythms of a band. In March, he performed with a trio at a New Jersey writer's conference.

"When we play together, you're listening very intently to what the others are doing," Pinksy says. "And responding to it as they're responding to you. And that's a joy like no other."

Pinsky has taken his joy in language to a place no other American poet has ever been: In a 2002 episode of The Simpsons, Pinsky plays an animated version of himself giving a reading at a college. And that's nothing to sneer at, says critic John Freeman. "When a poet can be that visible, and that important that they can also be made fun of, that's a good thing for poetry," he says.

For his part, Pinsky says at least he knows someone's listening, even if it's a yellow, fictional, 8-year-old: "Hey listen, as I always like to put it, Lisa knows my work," he says.

Pinsky says his hope for the future of poetry is that more people will know the work of more poets.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Robert Pinsky is on a mission. He's a celebrated poet, a former U.S. poet laureate, and he wants us to listen. Don't take notes. Don't over-think. Don't over-analyze a poem, just focus on the sounds of words. Take, for instance, these lines from a poem he wrote after spending time in NPR's newsroom last year.

ROBERT PINSKY: (Reading) In Mozambique, irrigation and agribusiness are expanding. In Russian, the word liquidate is especially sinister. Speeches and statements. Tongues. Poems, reports, parleys.

WERTHEIMER: He put that poem together in one day, as NPR's news poet. As he explained on air, he doesn't even consider creating one of his poems writing.

PINSKY: Write is almost the wrong verb for what I do. I think compose is more accurate, because you're trying to make the sounds in your mind and in your voice. So I compose while I'm driving or in the shower.

WERTHEIMER: Between composing his own work and teaching, he's developed a reputation that's reached into popular culture, as you're about to hear. His latest project is a new anthology.

Tom Vitale has more.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: For Robert Pinsky, the pleasure in poetry comes from the music of the language, and not from the meaning of the words. So he put together an anthology of 80 poems that are models by master poets; from Sappho to Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare to Emily Dickenson.

PINSKY: For a lot of people, well-meaning teaching has made poetry seem arcane, difficult, a kind of brown-knotting medicine that might be good for you but doesn't taste so good. So I tried to make a collection of poetry that would be fun. And that would bring out poetry as an art, rather than the challenge to say smart things.

VITALE: The book is called "Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by studying with the Masters." It includes a 15-word meditation on time by 19th Century British writer Walter Savage Landor.

PINSKY: It helps to know that Lethe is the River of Forgetfulness, of forgetting in the Classical Underworld. Landor's poem is...

(Reading) On love, on grief, on every human thing, time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing.

VITALE: What charms Pinsky about this verse is the graceful choreography of the words.

PINSKY: Three times at the beginning of that poem, I put my upper teeth on my lower lip, to say on love, on grief, on every human thing. And three times at the end, I purse my lips to say time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing. And if you want to write well, it helps you think about vowels and consonants, which are an important element in making somebody else would like to read or hear aloud.

VITALE: Pinsky says reading poetry aloud - language carried by the human voice - is a unique pleasure, one that Pinsky hammered home when he founded the Favorite Poem Project as U.S. Poet Laureate in the 1990s.

PINSKY: This is "Nick and the Candlestick" by Sylvia Plath.

SEPH RODNEY: (Reading) I am a miner. The light burns blue...

VITALE: This recording of Seph Rodney, a Jamaican immigrant from Long Beach, California, reading Sylvia Plath, is one of 50 videos featuring ordinary Americans talking about their favorite poems on the Web.

RODNEY: She spoke to me. She spoke, it seems, directly to my life. It was powerful. It was bitter. It was caustic. And the same time, really urgent about a need for love.

(Reading) Let the stars plummet to their dark address. Let the mercuric atoms that cripple drip into the terrible well. You are the one solid the spaces lean on, envious. You are the baby in the barn.

VITALE: John Freeman is former editor of GRANTA Literary magazine and author of "How to Read a Novelist." Freeman says with his Favorite Poem Project, Pinsky demonstrated the importance of poetry in American lives.

JOHN FREEMAN: I think he is the most important U.S. Poet Laureate since that position has been resurrected. He really took the job and ran with it.

VITALE: Robert Pinsky teaches at Boston University, and is author of more than a dozen collections of his own verse. For him, a poem begins with sound.

PINSKY: Even just the cadence of pauses: I stop, I think, I wait. And just dadadada(ph), endeh(ph), endeh, something like that generates the poem. And for me, if anything I do is any good, it's carried by that kind of cadence or melody.

VITALE: As a teenager, Pinsky wanted to be a jazz saxophonist. Now, at the age of 72, he's playing jazz again, this time syncopating his verse with the rhythms of a band. In March, he performed with a trio at a New Jersey writer's conference.

PINSKY: (Reading) This great grandchild of the Jewish manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing his American breath out into the wiggly tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths, the Ginza Samba of breath and brass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PINSKY: When we play together, you're listening very intently to what the others are doing, and responding to it as they're responding to you. And that's a joy like no other.

VITALE: Robert Pinsky has taken his joy in language to a place no other American poet has ever been.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE SIMPSONS")

PAMELA HAYDEN: (as Carrie) Hey, are you doing anything tomorrow night? Robert Pinsky is going to be reading at the Cafe Kafka.

YEARDLEY SMITH: (as Lisa) Ah, Robert Pinsky, the former Poet Laureate?

TRESS MACNEILLE: (as Tina) It's going to be great

VITALE: In this 2002 episode of "The Simpsons," Pinsky plays an animated version of himself giving a reading at a college.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE SIMPSONS")

PINSKY: (Reading) Slow dulcimer, gavotte and bow in autumn...

SMITH: (as Lisa) Oh. He's reading "Impossible to Tell."

PINSKY: (Reading) Basho and his friends go out to view the Moon...

VITALE: Critic John Freeman says Pinsky on "The Simpsons" is nothing to sneer at.

FREEMAN: When a poet can be that visible and that important that they can also be made fun of, that's a good thing for poetry.

VITALE: For his part, Pinsky says at least he knows someone is listening.

PINSKY: Hey, listen, as I always like to put it, Lisa knows my work.

VITALE: Robert Pinsky says his hope for the future of poetry is that more people will know the work of more poets.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program