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Former poet laureate uncovers America's love of poetry


by Lila Hanft Cleveland Jewish News 10.05.07

If poetry pops up anywhere on the average American’s cultural radar, the credit may be due to poet, essayist, teacher and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.

Pinsky will be in Cleveland Oct. 11 to deliver the Silver Scholar Lecture, which is co-sponsored by the Samuel Rosenthal Center for Judaic Studies at Case Western Reserve University and The Temple-Tifereth Israel.

For a poet, even a poet laureate, Pinsky has had a high public profile. He appeared as himself, for example, in a 2002 episode of the animated TV show “The Simpsons” (“I’m not as yellow as I appeared on ‘The Simpsons,’” he once remarked drily).

But Pinsky wears many hats. He teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University, and he has published several volumes of his own poetry, essays on modern poetry, and a celebrated translation of Dante’s Inferno.

He’s best known, however, as the champion of poetry as an important -- and still relevant -- form of public discourse.

“Poetry fills a fundamental human appetite,” he told the CJN in an e-mail interview. “As dancing is to movement, as cuisine is to nutrition, as lovemaking is to procreation, poetry is an art: an expressive form of speech. If art is important, poetry is important.”

Pinsky argues that, contrary to stereotype, poetry is important to average Americans. The proof of his assertion is his Favorite Poem Project (FPP), which invited Americans of every age, occupation, and education to share their favorite poems by published poets.

During its one-year open call for submissions, 18,000 people wrote to share a poem.
The project resulted in a collection of 50 short video documentaries of Americans reading and discussing their personal favorite poems ( The videos appeared regularly on PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer and became a permanent part of the Library of Congress archive of recorded poetry and literature.

“Poetry fills a fundamental
human appetite.” -
Robert Pinsky
“The first Favorite Poem Project anthology, America’s Favorite Poems (Norton), is now in something like its twentieth printing,” Pinsky says. The videos capture the way poetry has personal meaning for individuals. “The third anthology includes a DVD of the videos -- a construction worker reading and discussing lines by Walt Whitman, a Cambodian immigrant reading and discussing a poem by Langston Hughes, a Jamaican immigrant reading and discussing (Sylvia) Plath’s ‘Nick and the Candlestick.’” These are “ordinary readers n not professors or poets” talking “about the personal importance of that particular poem to that particular reader,” he explains.

Born in 1940, Pinsky grew up in a New Jersey family he has called “nominally Orthodox”; they kept kosher and went to an Orthodox shul but only on the High Holidays and sometimes not then, he recalls.

“My writing is permeated by Judaism -- not just the recent prose book The Life of David (about King David), but the poems as well,” he told the CJN.

Pinsky received the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s 2006 Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Literary Arts. He comes to Cleveland under joint auspices of the Rosenthal Center and The Silver Scholar-in-Residence program, established at The Temple in honor of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, Virginia Silver and Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver.

“I grew up eating Jewish food, hearing Jewish jokes told by Jewish people, watching my family and their friends engage in Jewish arguments,” says Pinsky. While he doesn’t “practice any religion in the sense of attending worship services,” the poet “loves being Jewish. It is central to my life.”

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