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The Meter Is Running

Poet laureate Robert Pinsky fiercely believes poetry is the people's art form. As such, he wants iambics on the Internet, verse on video, and a poem on every tongue.


BOSTON — A small smile brightened Robert Pinsky's face as he pondered the weekend's entertainment offerings. Listed in the newspaper--along with club happenings, flower shows, dinner theaters and the movie guide--were 16 separate poetry events.

Readings. Discussion groups. Open-mike poetry performances. Poetry slams, sort of like sports contests, but where 100 meters is not likely to induce a sweat.

"It's a truly popular art, an art everybody can enjoy," declared Pinsky, champion of odes on the Internet, advocate of everyday lyricism, believer in the simple certainty that a sonnet may dwell anywhere--for example, on the label of a catsup bottle. In Pinsky's view, poetry is the people's art form, and Pinsky, in turn, clearly is content to bear the mantle of the people's poet.

Which makes his official title, poet laureate of the United States, seem . . . "Kind of a paradox, isn't it?" he volunteered.

Raised in Long Branch, N.J., the 56-year-old professor of graduate writing at Boston University hardly seems the type to sport a crown of laurel leaves. He has a delicious sense of humor and an e-mail addiction issue. He haunts Fenway Park and cheers for the Red Sox, anyone's definition of a non-noble cause.

His father was an optician and amateur baseball player (for a team called the Jewish Aces); his grandfather was a tavern owner, bootlegger and small-time prizefighter. When he went off to Rutgers, Pinsky became the first member of his family ever to go to college. Even at graduate school at Stanford, his mother would call every week and beg him to take the optician's licensing exam, "something to fall back on." Pinsky would remind her he intended to become a university professor, a prospect from which his mother drew only scant comfort.

As the father of three grown daughters, Pinsky knows that "it's hard to say what makes a kid go a certain direction." But as a youth, even while playing sandlot baseball, he knew his own direction would be toward the arts. "Even my daydreams about being an athlete were rather theatrical," Pinsky remembered. He played the saxophone, moved by the rhythm as much as the sound. At Rutgers, he hand-wrote Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" and taped it to his dormitory wall. It remains his favorite poem.

His mother's fears notwithstanding, he found gainful academic employment. After Stanford, he taught at Wellesley before moving to the English department at UC Berkeley. But a feeling of intellectual smugness there made him uncomfortable, Pinsky said. His friends at Berkeley thought he was crazy when he uprooted his children and his wife, Ellen, a clinical psychologist, and headed for BU, a lesser-ranked school in a far colder place.

For Pinsky, it was a warm return to an active and prolific community of poets he had befriended during his Wellesley years, headed by his old friend Frank Bidart. "His literary ties, intellectual ties, spiritual ties, ties of affection were all here," poet Lloyd Schwartz, head of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said of Pinsky. "The center of Robert's writing life was here."

Like many in what Schwartz called "this strong circle of serious poets," Bidart and Pinsky were disciples of the late Robert Lowell and followers also of the late Elizabeth Bishop. From his earliest days in this loose, but loyal group, Pinsky stood out as a speculative, abstract thinker. He took risks. He wrote a poetic essay about psychiatry. He forged a new translation of the "Inferno"--"The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994)--and landed Dante on the bestseller list. Refusing to cede to the traditional aversion of some intellectuals to popular culture, he penned an ode to television and a poem about computers. One of his grand works, "An Explanation of America" (Princeton University Press, 1979) is an epic poem written for his oldest daughter, now a manager at Borders Books in Los Angeles.

"There's a line, the last line, in 'An Explanation of America,' " Schwartz said. "It reads: 'So large and strangely broken and unforeseen.' I think those phrases describe Robert's poetry. It's very ambitious, in the largest sense of the word. He deals with very big issues and themes: America! Poetry, and the world, what it means to be a humane person in the world. He deals with them not with the most traditional, logical, orderly and abstract, intellectual methods, but he uses a sort of intuition and psychological association. His mind in that poem is swinging wildly, in an unexpected and quite irrational, poetic way."

Pinsky's works combine "both a manic expressiveness and gesture, plus a very immediate and colloquial tone," agreed David St. John, a poet who teaches at the University of Southern California and who has lectured with Pinsky at the Napa Writers' Conference, where poetry readings are held amid the grapevines. "People feel very much at ease within one of his poems," St. John added. "They are very companionable poems."

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