Former poet laureate discusses Biblical life

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky told the “story of stories” in the Branford College common room on Wednesday. That story, the biblical account of King David, is the subject of his new work, “The Life of David.”

“I don’t think any life has ever been made up, never mind lived, that had as many things in it as this life,” he said. “We see [David] as a father, we see him as a child, we see him as a brother, as a killer, as a lover.”

Former Poet Laureate Robert Linsky presented his biography of the Biblical King David at a Branford College Master’s Tea.
Grant Smith
Former Poet Laureate Robert Linsky presented his biography of the Biblical King David at a Branford College Master’s Tea.

Pinsky read selections from his book before about 50 attendees of a Branford Master’s tea. He then answered questions ranging in scope from the proper interpretation of the Old Testament to the nuances of “The Simpsons,” a show to which he lent his voice in 2001.

For Pinsky, the richness of King David’s life presented an unusual challenge. “Here I am a poet,” said Pinsky, “writing prose about one of the best poets who ever lived.” In addition to slaying Goliath, David is credited with writing many of the Psalms.

Pinsky said he did not attempt to provide a literary criticism of the Psalms, focusing instead on their role in David’s life.

Many people today lack familiarity with the Bible, or are under the mistaken impression that it is “boring,” Pinsky said. His task in writing “The Life of David,” he said, was to maintain the literary power of Biblical language while creating a work accessible to the public.

Growing up in Long Branch, N.J., Pinsky did not expect to become a poet, he said.

“As far back as I can remember, I was thinking about the sounds of words and the meanings of words,” he recalled. “It was a somewhat shameful obsession, like biting your nails.”

Unsatisfied by school, Pinsky certainly did not dream of a career in academia. “I never wanted to do what people told me to,” he said.

Perhaps for this reason, the rebellious David fascinated him even then. According to Pinsky, two figures loom large in the Jewish tradition: Moses and David. The giant slayer and lyricist was the easy pick.

“One figure holds stone tablets on which are incised things you must do or must not do,” he said. “The other guy has a harp. Guess which one feels more appealing.”

Despite Pinsky’s past resistance to rules, students found the regularity of his poetry to be one of its strengths. Jordan Jacks ’09, editor of the Yale Literary Magazine, admired Pinsky’s “complete brilliance in meter and form.”

“The amount of control that goes into his poems is staggering,” Jacks said. “They are very approachable, yet very strange.”

Pinsky’s talk on David inspired one attendee to return to the original version of his story.

“It makes me want to read the Bible now,” Sam Kahn ’08 said.

Pinsky served as United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. He is the author of seven collections of poetry and founder of the Favorite Poem Project. Pinsky currently teaches at Boston University.

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