Former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky discussed everything from city lights to genealogy and television at a poetry reading Wednesday.
Pinsky read a selection of his poems, discussed his writing process and fielded questions from an audience of about 60 Yale students and faculty in the Whitney Humanities Center. At the reading, Pinsky said he is primarily concerned with the interplay and sounds of words in his poetry.
“A poem is a work of art made out of the sounds of a language,” Pinsky said. “It is not a song. It is sounds of speech approaching the conditions of a song.”
English professor and poet Langdon Hammer said in his introduction that Pinsky is a poet who understands both the “possibilities and implications” of poetry. Pinsky’s works are deeply rooted in poetic tradition, Hammer said, but also explore what nontraditional routes poetry could take.
Pinsky, who served as the poet laureate and consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress from 1997 to 2000, selected several poems, including “The City Dark,” and then took requests from attendees.
Before starting to read “The City Dark,” Pinsky explained that he formulated the idea for the work after contemplating the concept of genealogy. He said he believes that genealogy should not only include physical ancestry, but also trace the numerous other qualities — such as personal preferences and character traits — that make up a person’s identity.
“Each city light is like an ancestor,” Pinsky said. “We are all the relatives of royalty and of slaves. We are all products of a great love and of rape.”
In between his readings and commentaries, Pinsky allowed time for audience members to ask questions. When an attendee asked Pinsky whether his family had been involved in the arts, Pinsky said that neither of his parents had worked with the arts or attended college, but that he still “grew up among eloquence.” He said that he appreciated his family’s “swagger and style” as a child, and thinks that style contributed to his artistic development.
Audience members said they enjoyed the mixture of poetry reading, discussion and analysis that Pinsky incorporated into his event. Students interviewed said they came into the event with limited prior exposure to Pinsky’s work, but left it with a better grasp of both his poems and the art of poetry.
Jessica Su ’13 said she had read “At Pleasure Bay,” which the audience requested from Pinsky, before the talk, but added that hearing him read the poem deepened her understanding of the work.
“Hearing him read it and hearing how he envisioned the sounds coming together was illuminating,” she said.
Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies, attended the reading with the 10 members of her “Poets’ Landscapes” seminar. She said the talk was a perfect complement to her class and chance to learn more about the influence of American landscapes on poetry.
Pinsky is the poetry editor for the online magazine Slate.