Poetry is often approached with a sense of trepidation, sometimes with outright fear.
Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky thinks that those people aren’t giving themselves enough credit.
“I think a lot of people underestimate how literate people are in poetry,” Pinsky said.
Pinsky, author of The Sounds of Poetry, which is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week One, will discuss his work at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Pinsky’s love for poetry led him to found the Favorite Poem Project when he assumed his role as the 39th poet laureate of the United States in 1997. The project is meant to celebrate poetry and the impact it can have on a person’s life. Videos at favoritepoem.org showcase people reading their favorite poems as part of the project.
“You will see a construction worker reading lines by Walt Whitman and discussing those lines very cogently,” Pinsky said. “You will see a Jamaican immigrant read a poem by Sylvia Plath, and comment on it very passionately. You will see a Cambodian-American high school student in California read a poem by Langston Hughes and comment on it in a way that relates it to her family’s own experiences under the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.”
Pinsky emphasized that the act of reading a poem aloud is what gives it truth.
“The sound of a poem in a person’s voice is the source of its conviction, and people are able to hear that,” Pinsky said.
“It’s similar to singing or dancing. It’s also an innate appetite that people have and an innate ability that people have.”
In The Sounds of Poetry, Pinsky argues for the presence of this ability that many people think they don’t have. He emphasized that the two elements of the poem are the physical and the emotional, and that verity comes from those two elements becoming one.
“The point of The Sounds of Poetry is the truth often depends and sometimes originates with a physical perception,” Pinsky said. “As we say, the proof is in the pudding.”
Pinsky said that one of the biggest misconceptions about poetry is the academic mode that people are taught to approach it with.
“I think well-meaning teaching has made people think you must begin your inquiry into a poem with the question, ‘What does it mean?’ ” Pinsky said. “In a sense, that’s an insult. When you deal with a person or a cuisine or a city, the first thing you want is the experience. And only on reflection will you ask, ‘What does it mean?’ ”
Pinsky emphasized that approaching poems in such a methodical way leads people to “underestimate the physical presence of poetry.”
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said Pinsky’s passionate perspective on the aural aspect of poetry is important and especially relevant to the theme of Week One, which is “21st-Century Literacies: Multiple Ways to Make Sense of the World.”
“We thought that one of the most useful things we could do with our audience is to teach them to read poetry,” Babcock said. “Not just necessarily out loud — even to hear it in your head when you’re reading it on the page. Hearing [Pinsky], he has this rhythm that is fabulous.”
Pinsky first visited Chautauqua in 1999 to discuss his poetry collection, The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems with the CLSC. He said he was excited when Babcock asked him to be a part of the 2015 season.
“I know what a unique community it is, and it’s very gratifying to me that I can help the work of Sherra Babcock and other people there,” Pinksy said. “So in one word, I was glad.”