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Pinsky's Poetry Impresses NIH'ers

By Josť Alvarado

On the Front Page...

NIH'ers filled Masur Auditorium to capacity on June 25 to hear and savor the work of "the People's Poet" Robert Pinsky. While delivering the NIH Director's Cultural Lecture, the current U.S. poet laureate captivated the audience with readings of his profound, eerie and heartrending verses, which were accompanied by anecdotes and witty commentary.


In his presentation of Pinsky, NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus credited him with "making poetry into a national pastime." He noted the poet's talent for "using words to imagine community between the still-living and the newly dead, between art and science, religion and its rituals of mourning." Varmus summed up Pinsky's work by citing a verse from Howard Nemerov's "The Makers": "...They were the ones that, in whatever tongue/Worded the world, that were the first to say/Star, water, stone, that said the visible/And made it bring invisibles to view..." It was a fitting tribute to a writer whose poetry evokes drama and history from commonplace objects and instruments, and gives transcendence to everyday human activities.

Poet Robert Pinsky reads from his work in Masur Auditorium.

Pinsky read poems from his books The Figured Wheel and The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. He commenced with a reading of "Ice Storm," a moving eulogy for Harvard biologist Bernie Fields. The memory of the "boyish ritual of evening poker games on the first Sunday of the month" with his deceased friend is the starting point for recounting scenes and impressions of the life of a "considerate and thoughtful man" dedicated to science. But it is not Pinsky who is doing the talking here, but his friend Bernie, who addresses Pinsky from the dead, and asks, "What is a life?"

"It was harder to write than I thought," said Pinsky. "It is of a fragmentary nature, of imagined communication from the dead. Here, matters of the dead take over."

Pinsky's "Shirt" is a model of how social meaning can be derived from a single artifact. It describes the workmanship and tells of the struggles and hardships of garment workers from the past and the present. The poem poignantly relates the Triangle Shirt Factory fire of 1911, which claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly poor immigrant women. As Pinsky reads, the listener is haunted by the memory of the desperate escape from the burning factory floor through windows with no fire escapes, where men helped the women out "as if to enter a streetcar and not eternity."

"Through poetry you can elucidate the historical nature of everything. I believe that to learn about objects is to learn about civilization," he said.

An artifact can also be a word, as in "From the Childhood of Jesus," where Pinsky appropriates the word Jesus and gives a very personal view of the historical and religious figure. He read and reflected on another poem from his repertoire, "The Haunted Ruin," about which he said, "Everything is a haunted ruin. You don't know all the history. Everything comes from previous generations. Even your computer is a haunted ruin." In fact, this poem was first circulated on the Internet after he was asked to recite it over the phone. Pinsky, poetry editor of the online magazine Slate, was quite pleased with the electronic diffusion of his poetry, and hopes the applications of multimedia technology bring poetry to a wired generation.

He also read from his 1994 English translation of Dante's Inferno, which put the Italian classic on the bestseller list. He joked on the process of remaking, through translation or poetry, established works. He told of a scene in the movie Saturday Night Fever where John Travolta's character was asked admiringly by a girl if he had made up a particular dance move, and he answered, "Yeah, I made it up. I first saw it on TV and then I made it up."

Pinsky mentioned the Favorite Poem Project, his special undertaking as U.S. poet laureate. Through this project he hopes to address the fading of poetry from high school and college curricula despite its increasing popularity. His aim is to create an audio and video archive of many Americans saying aloud their favorite poems. At the end of his talk, the Boston University professor circulated postcards on which NIH'ers could nominate their favorite poems for the national reading.

At a reception outside the Clinical Center special events office, many Pinsky fans waited eagerly to meet the poet laureate and get their books autographed. For Dora Malech, 16, a recreation therapy volunteer at CC's pediatric section, the opportunity to hear Pinsky was "really special for me." Malech, who says she has followed his poetry for several years, loved hearing Pinsky read his poetry because it is "so personal to him that it really comes alive when he reads it himself. It is a poetry that makes something special out of everyday things."

For Katie Smeltz, 30, a presidential management intern who works in NCI's Office of Clinical Research Promotion, Pinsky's poetry touches a unique chord in her life since some of it is evocative of her Jewish ancestry and the immigrant experience. The poem "Vilnius" has a special meaning for her since her grandmother is from there; she also has a relative who was in the Triangle Shirt Factory fire of 1911. "His poetry really speaks to me. It makes history real for me today because a shirt is something I can understand right now," said Smeltz, who has published her own writing. "Whereas I hear stories from grandmother and her sister about their struggles as immigrants and it seems like history I don't understand, Pinsky allows me to understand it better because he gives it tangible objects. That's why for me it means so much."

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