Air an instrument of the tongue.
The tongue an instrument
Of the body. The body
An instrument of spirit,
The spirit a being of the air.
-- Robert Pinsky, from "Song"
This is my next-to-last Poet's Choice column. It's time for me to move on. My regret at leaving the column is tempered by my delight that it will be taken over by Robert Pinsky, one of our very finest poet-critics, whose work I've been reading avidly for 30 years. I was lucky to start out with his first book, Sadness and Happiness (1975), which brought to contemporary poetry a rich discursiveness, a compelling new way of thinking and a refreshing sense of other people. I've followed him through his book-length poem An Explanation of America (1980), a remarkable meditation on being a citizen in our republic; History of My Heart (1984), which shows him to be an omnivorous thinker working at full power; The Want Bone (1990), which initiated a strange new lyricism into his work; The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems:1966-1996 (1996), an essential gathering that included 21 new poems; and, most recently, Jersey Rain (2000), a work of mid-life reckonings. "Now near the end of the middle stretch of road/ What have I learned?" he asks in the title poem. "Some earthly wiles. An art."
I am eager to recommend Pinsky's brilliant verse translation, The Inferno of Dante (1990), and his highly engaging and unusually readable works of criticism: The Situation of Poetry (1977); Poetry and the World (1988); The Sounds of Poetry (1998); and Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry (2002), which thinks hard about the place of poetry in modern democracy. He has been especially alert to the way that poetry includes the social realm and argues that "the solitude of lyric, almost by the nature of human solitude and the human voice, invokes a social presence."
By now everyone should know that in 1997 Pinsky founded the Favorite Poem Project during his tenure as poet laureate of the United States (1997-2000). This project, a huge national resource, has culminated in three anthologies, which he has edited with Maggie Dietz: Americans' Favorite Poems; Poems to Read; and, most recently, An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, which includes a DVD of people from all walks of life saying something about their favorite poems and then reading them aloud. The original meaning of the word "anthology," which derives from the Greek, is "a bouquet of flowers," and these books compose a surprisingly diverse and colorful garden. They give us a strong sense of how single poems reach individual readers.
Here is one of my favorite poems by Pinsky. I once had the life-changing experience of teaching poetry to a group of deaf children in Westchester County, N.Y., and thus this poem has special relevance to me. It triggers memories and gives me back a sense of my students' secret creativity and power, their eerie silence and explosive imaginations.
If You Could Write One Great Poem,
What Would You Want It To Be About?
(Asked of four student poets at the Illinois Schools
for the Deaf and Visually Impaired)
Fire: because it is quick, and can destroy.
Music: place where anger has its place.
Romantic Love -- the cold or stupid ask why.
Sign: that it is a language, full of grace,
That it is visible, invisible, dark and clear,
That it is loud and noiseless and is contained
Inside a body and explodes in air
Out of a body to conquer from the mind.
(The stanza from "Song" appears in Robert Pinsky's book "Jersey Rain." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 2000 by Robert Pinsky. The poem ""If You Could Write One Great Poem, What Would You Want It To Be About?" appears in his book "The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 1996 by Robert Pinsky.)