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robert pinsky
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Happy Birthday, Robert Pinsky, Former US Poet Laureate

October 20, 2010
by Jennifer Ferris
Founder of the Favorite Poem Project, former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky has made waves throughout the literary world as a multifaceted artist: essayist, poet, computer adventure game writer, and one of the most popular translators of Dante’s “Inferno.”

Robert Pinsky's Early Days

The first poetry Robert Pinsky says he remembers was the call of the train conductor: “Passengers going to Hoboken, change trains at Summit.” Born October 20, 1940 in Long Branch, New Jersey, Pinsky remembers the first years of his life as happy and full of music.

“My parents were witty people,” Pinsky told The Progressive in 1999. “They had good taste in clothes. They were good dancers. They were prized and sort of like impoverished royalty. My mother listened to the opera on Saturday mornings.”

When he was 11, Pinsky’s mother fell and experienced a severe concussion that disabled her for many years. Later he wrote several poems that mentioned his mother’s erratic and withdrawn nature during this time.

As a teenager, Pinsky dreamed of being a musician and he played the saxophone in a band and at school dances. Shortly before high school graduation, Pinsky began to write song lyrics, a practice, he says, that sowed the seeds for his life as a poet.

“I was goofing around with the sounds of words—rhythms, rhymes, consonants and vowels that echo or clang—from as long as I can remember. When I was about 17, I began to dimly perceive this habit was related to a great art, the art of poetry.”

Pinsky's Notable Accomplishments

After graduating from Rutgers with a B.A., Pinsky went on to earn a M.A. and PhD in Philosophy from Stanford University. While there, he received a creative writing fellowship. His first published work, in 1968, was a collection of essays. After winning a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 1974, he published his first book of poetry, “Sadness and Happiness,” in 1975.

Other collections of poetry and essays followed, and for each Pinsky received praise and awards. His 1984 book, “A History of My Heart,” was awarded the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and his poetry collection, “The Figured Wheel,” (1996) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Throughout his career, Pinsky has been praised for both his deep understanding of the human experience and the melodic form of his poems.

In 1994, after years spent poring over the original Italian text, Pinsky published his translation of Dante’s “The Inferno,” in which he painstakingly recreated in English the rhythm of the original verse. For this effort, he won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry, the Academy of American Poets' translation award, and was a Book-of-the-Month-Club Editor's Choice.

The Librarian of Congress appointed Pinsky the 39th National Poet Laureate in 1997, for his “accomplishments in translation, his interest in making poetry accessible through digital technology on the Internet, and his own probing poetry.”

During his three terms as Poet Laureate, Pinsky established the Favorite Poem Project, in which 18,000 Americans shared their favorite poems by reading them aloud. Pinsky said he believes poetry is a “vocal art,” and he wished, through the project, to prove that—despite popular opinion to the contrary—Americans do read and enjoy poetry. He has published three anthologies and a DVD of the poems gathered through this project.

Since retiring from the post of Poet Laureate, Pinsky has continued to write and teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

The Rest of the Story

Although poetry can sometimes be perceived as an old-fashioned medium, Pinsky is a technophile. In 1984, he wrote the script for a text-based adventure game, “Mindwheel,” in which the player must restore a world from chaos by probing the knowledge of four deceased residents. The game was released with a book (written by another author) that featured some of Pinsky’s poems as keys to the game.

Pinsky is also the poetry editor for the online magazine Slate. On the rare occasion he leaves the world of words, Pinsky—who has appeared both on “The Colbert Report” and on an episode of “The Simpsons”—can be found practicing his saxophone (he returned to the hobby after 25 years) or watching the Red Sox play.

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