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Poet Robert Pinsky To Give Director's Cultural Lecture

By Celia Hooper

The Wednesday Afternoon Lectures for this season will come to a close -- a day late, take note! -- with an exciting flourish: a poetry reading with commentary by Robert Pinsky, 39th U.S. poet laureate. He will present the NIH Director's Cultural Lecture at 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 25 in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10.

Poet Robert Pinsky

Pinsky is one of the nation's more visible and widely known poets, with appearances on public television and radio, and at the White House. Feature articles and reviews about him and his work have appeared in local and national newspapers hailing him as "the People's Poet." Pinsky's 1994 English translation of Dante's Inferno put the Italian classic on the bestseller list. In addition to his appointments as poet laureate and consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, he is professor of graduate writing at Boston University. He also serves as poetry editor for the weekly online magazine Slate.

Pinsky, 57, grew up in a lower-middle class family in Long Branch, N.J. He amalgamates the language and images of his culturally diverse home town with a rich sampling of other bits of Americana as he explores subjects from the lofty to the commonplace. Two recent poems, for example, are about television and a shirt. The lingo, characters, paraphernalia and expressions of religion, fables, Black culture, jazz, city street life -- and even biomedicine -- weave and permutate through his poems. Consider, for example, Pinsky's description of what NIH'ers might call apoptosis and hemopoiesis (from "City Elegies, 'Everywhere I Go, There I am,'" in The Figured Wheel): "...All through your body/A steady twinkling of ceasing and being, the cells/That die by millions and replicate themselves..." A classic Pinsky quote from a poetry reading on the Web could become a slogan for NIH (with the minor substitution of "biomedical research" for "poetry"): "The two most interesting things in the world, for our species, are ideas and the individual human body, two elements that poetry uniquely joins together."

Humor is a prominent ingredient in his poems and commentaries. He told the Los Angeles Times, "For me, there's a kind of quickness, restlessness, surprise, vividness, and sharpness that characterizes both poetry and comedy." One recent poem, "Impossible to Tell," weaves in two jokes as Pinsky relates the story of the death of a friend through medical malpractice while simultaneously exploring renga, a type of Japanese poetry.

As a young man, Pinsky saw himself becoming a jazz saxophone player, and this element of his life also threads through his poetry. One recent poem, "Ginza Samba," includes a history of the saxophone as well as the ancestors of the musicians who have played it. Poetry critics see the characteristics of improvisational jazz coursing through his poems. Alan Shapiro, introducing Pinsky at a poetry reading at the University of North Carolina, commented, "Whether he's moving among ideas or images, meditations or stories, liturgy or slang, Robert Pinsky moves in language the way a jazz musician moves in melody, inventing continuities and harmonies from moment to moment out of the stubbornly disharmonious materials of contemporary life."

Beyond the sheer pleasure of poetry, what can hard-core scientists hope to get out of Pinsky's reading? Maybe a shot of creative energy. In an editorial in the New York Times (Apr. 10, 1997), Pinsky says "poetry has served as a mighty taproot of an intellectual as well as spiritual kind. There appears to be a link between the creative power of imagination and the power of what might be called 'mumbo jumbo' -- a place where formal intensity and opacity overlap. That is, to conceive of something new seems to be linked to an intimate sense of the mysterious -- something that is not immediately reducible to paraphrase."

Following his talk, there will be an informal reception outside the Clinical Center special events office. It will include a poster presentation of poetry composed by pediatric HIV patients and their families during the course of treatment in the CC.

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