Robert Pinsky, Literary Celebrity

The private life of America's most public poet

| September-October 1999

“I don't think of myself as tremendously public,” says the most publicly visible U.S. poet laureate in the position's 13-year history. "I have spent most of my life in a room like this one, in a house with my kids." We are sitting in Robert Pinsky's large attic study, drinking South African Rooibos tea while blue jays scream in the yard. A saxophone is propped on a stand near one wall.

Pinsky, 58, is the author of five books of poetry, including, most recently, The Figured Wheel (Noonday Press, 1997), a collection of old and new poems. He has translated the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and his translation of Dante's Inferno (Noonday, 1994) turned the 600-year-old classic into a best-seller. A professor in the creative writing program at Boston University, Pinsky is known as a teacher whose enthusiasm is contagious.

Though he has been a private man for much of his life, Pinsky has often written about the poet's civic responsibilities. Like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, he has taken up what he has called the classic challenge for American poets: creating a "democratic poetry" with which to celebrate—and criticize—a vibrant, complicated nation.

Pinsky's high public profile is largely due to his regular commentaries on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His Favorite Poem Project has also brought him attention, earning him such media nicknames as "the people's poet" and "poetry's preacher." The project began in 1997, shortly after the Library of Congress appointed Pinsky poet laureate. His initial plan was to compile a record of Americans reading the poems they loved. Two years and numerous public readings later, 12,000 participants had submitted entries by the deadline in April, according to the Project's Web site ( The first poet laureate to serve a third term, Pinsky this fall will begin compiling the final video archive—a permanent testament to his belief that poetry has an audience far wider than many imagine.

How did you come up with the Favorite Poem Project?
My good friend Frank Bidart and I were watching a Willie Nelson concert tape. At the end, the audience is tearing at their garments and screaming and weeping, and Willie is on stage doing the final number and the credits are rolling. And Frank said, "Now, that's what a poetry reading should feel like."

And I said, "Well, it's easy for him. He doesn't have to do all his own material."

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