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Robert Pinsky: “A culture that emphasizes the dignity of the individual and founded on equality will indeed foster democracy”

The North-American poet Robert Pinsky.

The North-American poet Robert Pinsky.

Robert Pinsky and Cristina Alsina, professor in the Department of English and German.

Robert Pinsky and Cristina Alsina, professor in the Department of English and German.



On 9 March, the North-American poet Robert Pinsky gave a lecture at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Barcelona (UB). He was invited by the he Consulate General of the United States in Barcelona and the Department of English and German of the UB. Robert Pinsky (New Jersey, 1940) is one the most foremost poets and literary critics in the United States. His participation in an episode of the 13th season of The Simpsons, in which he provided the voice for his character, is a great example of his popularity.

Pinsky has written more than twenty poetry books and essays, edited several poetry collections, and translated Dante’s Inferno. His latest book, Ginza Samba, is a bilingual English-Spanish poetry collection. He has received several awards, for example the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the PEN American Center, and the Poet Laureate for three consecutive years (1997-2000). He founded The Favorite Poem , a project that boosts the role of poetry in the daily life of North-American people.

We were able to chat for a while with Robert Pinsky and his hostess, Cristina Alsina, professor in the Department of English and German of the UB. We spoke about poetry, culture, society and democracy.


Robert Pinsky

As the founder of The Favorite Poem project, what’s, in your opinion, the importance of poetry in people’s lives? Is it especially important in a time of crisis?

We have wonderful electronic media that do things nothing else can do. I love that I can record video, that I can watch old movies, that I have great music whenever I want, privately. We can show our computer graphics, we can show dreams that look real. All of this is very wonderful and quiet important culturally. It should be observed —not as deprecation of that, not as anything negative— all of that is a mass scale. That music, that image, that video, a million copies can be sent all over the world, in a moment.

The medium of the poem, in my opinion, is one person’s voice. As the videos in The Favorite Poem project demonstrate. If you visit project’s site, you’ll see a construction worker talking about Whitman. He gives Whitman in his voice. He’s not an actor; he’s not Walt Whitman himself. The same does the Jamaican immigrant. He says: I’m an immigrant, I’m not rich; Silvia Plath was not an immigrant, she was from a wealthier family, we have different religions, but she speaks to me, and then he speaks her poem in his voice. The medium by the nature of the poem is inherently on a human scale, the scale of one person. So, if we are talking about personal crisis, social crisis and economic crisis, the dignity of the individual is the crucial element in that crisis. This is why we treasure things that are handmade, we treasure personal contact. The dignity of the individual, I believe, particularly in relation to democracy, is essential.


Let’s talk about democracy. How can culture foster democracy?

On the record, culture has not always fostered democracy. Every dictatorship (Stalin, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler) has always had cultural apparatus, often very powerful and very effective. It’s almost the definition of fascism; it has a certain cultural power that makes its glamour. So, I would not automatically conclude that culture fosters democracy. A culture that emphasizes the dignity of the individual, a culture that is founded on the idea of equality, will indeed foster democracy.

I’m the beneficiary of the public education in the United States. My parents did not go to college; they did not attend university. I went to public schools; then I went to a state university. This is an important political and social issue. For the present generation in the United States, the opportunities are not the same as they were for me. For one reason or another, for political reasons and social reasons, public education is much more expensive than it used to be in the United States. People now, from my social class, from the working class or the lower-middle class, they graduate from college with large debts, debts that will take them many years, sometimes most of their life, to repay. This is quite bad. And this is inimical to democracy. So, in my country I think that there is a crisis of culture in relation to democracy. We need to correct the abandoning of public education. That’s possibly a more practical and specific answer than you expected but I think is very important.


What is the role of university in promoting poetry?

I’m not interested in the promotion of poetry. I think there is a misconception as though poetry was a brand of soap or shoe polish or shampoo and we need to say: “Poetry! Get it! It tastes funny, but it’s good for you!” I don’t think so. Poetry is like singing, dancing, it’s like cuisineas distinct of nutrition, or love making as distinct of coition or procreation. Poetry is pleasure. It’s feeling something great in your breath. This is William Carlos Williams:

Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately in unison
like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos
about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn.

 I’m just enjoying the consonants and the vowels!

Universities offer education; universities are for keeping art alive culturally. It’s to take the wisdom of the old ones and give it to the young ones. It is not about promoting art. Promotion seems almost ubiquitous; I think promotion hurts many things. Many businesses are injured when marketing takes over instead of customer service. And in my own industry, and in my colleague Cristina’s industry, which is education, it would be too bad if we cared more about promotion than about customer service. Our customers include the dead. We have an obligation to Quevedo, Cervantes and Shakespeare, and that’s the same as our obligation to mis nietos. We owe it to them, and to them, to pass it on. Promotion? Poetry takes care of itself, it’s great.


Cristina Alsina

Why is Robert Pinsky a must read author? How do you define him?

There are plenty of reasons to read Pinsky in university rooms. In my opinion, he owns a very peculiar and appreciated combination: on the one hand, the musicality that brings you closer to jazz and popular culture manifestations; and on the other, a demand for social justice that invites you to reflect and think critically. This mixture makes him close and helps students think. His works are great to convey that literature is beauty and enjoyment, as well as social protest.


What is essential of Pinsky?

Personally, pleasure. The pleasure of words; the pleasure of reading; the pleasure he shows after reading the classics, after reading the grand masters… He pays tribute to the whole literary tradition of the United States. And, at the same time, he creates a very personal voice, a voice that is easy to recognise when you begin to read him. Even if his work is very personal, it also considers construction. In this sense, he is similar to Whitman —mentioned by Robert too—, in line with a multicultural, democratic and free national imagery.


What role does poetry play in a university hurt by the humanities crisis?

Humanities are not in crisis. The society is in crisis. I consider that in a society like ours, which is incapable of appreciating the value of uncountable things, the things which cannot be turned easily into a number or a figure, we must take a firm line on reading and poetry, as they are a social need. We find the intangible values that make us humans in poetry; we could never turn them into something countable included in the GDP. This is the strong value that humanities provide to society: the privilege of having someone like Robert Pinsky in our classrooms. Students are able to know not only a creator, but also a literary critic, a translator, a literature promoter —even if he does not like this word at all—, a person who brings poetry closer to people. Pinsky has broken with the idea that poetry can only be created inside the university by erudite scholars. His visit to university rooms helps students join the labour market knowing that poetry is beauty and fight. Beauty and fight will change the basis of society.


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