Robert Pinsky at Pope John XXIII High School

Today Robert Pinsky visit the school where I teach, speaking in our Leadership Lecture Series. He was brilliant! He spoke about his appearance on The Simpsons (noting how the most intelligent writing on television is in The Simpsons and South Park), and then segued into his own unlikely path to leadership in the world of poetry. He talked about the need for two different kinds of leaders, those whose leadership flows from authority and those who question authority. Pinsky falls into the latter category.

Regarding poetry, Pinsky talked about how verse is the only art form whose medium is the reader himself, not the words. It is the closest thing to an immediate experience of art, in essence almost without medium. As the reader proclaims a poem out loud, the words become his own. This is the basis for Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, where audio and video recordings of Americans reciting their favorite poem are made, bringing these poems alive in a new and unique way.

After his lecture, Pinsky spent and hour with a group of student writers and poets, where they had the opportunity to ask questions. Students wanted to know about his own favorite poets (Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, TS Elliot) and his writing habits (any place it is inconvenient, on planes for example). Possibly the best piece of advice Pinsky gave these budding Pulitzer winners was to gather an anthology of their favorite poems, typing or writing them in order to become more familiar with the intricacies of the language.

Most impressive about the day was Pinsky's charisma. He found a way to reach students and teachers at the same time while always remaining himself. I can't wait to see him again, which will be as the narrator of Purcell's Fairy Queen with Boston Baroque in March.

I'm off to start my poetry anthology, but here is one of my favorite Pinsky poems:

Ginza Samba

A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirley wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone
Widening ever outwards and bawaah sprouting
Infinitely upwards through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In Sax's Belgian imagination

And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two

Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom on cousin's child
Becomes a "favorite negro" ennobled
By decree of the Czar and founds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife's honor, while the other cousin sails

In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore were she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of Pushkin estate, blowing

His American breath out into the wiggly
Time uncurling its triplets and sixteenths--the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:

It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face--the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twun haunted labrinths of stirrup
And anviil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.