Robert Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, on October 20, 1940. His father was an optician, and his parents were Orthodox Jews. Though influenced by keeping kosher and going to Hebrew school, his parents went to synagogue only on High Holidays.
Pinsky attended Long Branch High School in New Jersey, and while growing up, he fell in love with music. Childhood impressions of everyday sounds gave Pinsky his first desire to explore the mysterious rhythms of life. He began as a saxophonist and with writing songs. He eventually started writing poetry. This became not only his outlet for rhythm, voice, and sound, but also for ideas and a connection to humanity. He earned his B.A. from Rutger’s University and then his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. At Stanford, he held the Stegner Fellowship for creative writing. He then taught at Berkeley University in California and Wellesley College in Massachusetts. He eventually moved to Boston, where he continued to teach creative writing at Boston University into the twenty-first century.
After publishing a collection of essays, Landor’s Poetry, in 1968, he received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 1974. In 1975, he published a collection of poetry titled Sadness and Happiness. In 1976, Pinsky published another collection of essays titled The Situation of Poetry. In 1980, his second collection of poems, titled An Explanation of America (1979), received the Saxifrage Prize. He was awarded the William Carlos Williams award of the Poetry Society of America in 1984 for his publication of History of My Heart (1984). He published a third collection of essays, Poetry and the World, in 1988, which was followed in 1990 with a collection of poems titled The Want Bone. In 1996, he published The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996. This collection of poetry became the definite book for Pinsky’s poetic lifetime, encompassing his life’s work of poetry. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the Ambassador Book Award in Poetry of the English Speaking Union, and the Lenore Marshall Award.
Pinsky translated into English The Inferno of Dante in 1994, keeping the original style of terza rima and giving English readers a living vocal poetic version of the book. His translation received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. He also translated The Separate Notebooks by Czesaw Miosz (1983) with Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass.
Pinsky claimed in a 1998 interview with Ted Genoways for Meridian that he “grew up with the idea that to practice an art was to be involved in every part of it and to try to involve art in every part of life.” Pinsky first associated this through music, and one can see the roots of what would later become Pinsky’s love of the spoken word and the voice of poetry. Parallel to his love for music and the sound of life, at a young age, he came to respect the common worker and the person who could do something: the carpenter, builder, and painter. When one combines these two threads, the sensitivity to sound and rhythm as well as the understanding of practical knowledge, practical people, and artisans, one may see how Pinsky came to write the poems that would come to enhance the knowledge of the interconnectedness of the United States with the greater world.
Because of Pinsky’s ability to incorporate the various histories, places, and times of the United States and the past in his poems, he was named the thirty-ninth United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry of the United States. He held this position from 1997 to 2000.
His major proposal for the nation and poetry was the Favorite Poem Project in which Pinsky compiled fifty short video documentaries of people saying their favorite poem. The recordings were then housed in the Library of Congress. The project encompasses America and the voice of its people, and through this voice, poetry is resurrected and still powerful on the tongues of the...
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