Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: North Wales, Montgomery County
Former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky was a celebrity judge in the 2000 Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program.
Robert Pinsky, US Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000, was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, on October 20, 1940. The first person in his family to attend college, Pinsky earned a BA from Rutgers University and a PhD from Stanford University. He is the author of more than a dozen poetry collections, including the critically acclaimed translation The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse of Translation (1994). In 2000, he served as the celebrity judge for the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program. Pinsky, who resides in Massachusetts, shares three grown daughters with his wife, Ellen. He currently teaches a poetry workshop to graduate students at Boston University and recently released the collection Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters (2013) as a guide for teaching the art of poetry in a fun and accessible way.
Robert Pinsky was born on October 20, 1940, in Long Branch, New Jersey. Even as a child, Pinsky was conscious of his love for the arts. His father, Milford Simon, was an optician. Sylvia, his mother, wanted her son to become an optician, too. Instead, Robert became the first person in his family to go to college. While attending Rutgers University, Pinsky copied his favorite poem—William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”—by hand, and taped it to his wall for inspiration. In 1961 Robert married Ellen Jane Bailey, a clinical psychologist. Over the course of the next ten years, the Pinsky family would add three daughters—Nicole, Caroline Rose, and Elizabeth. Upon graduation in 1962, Pinsky enrolled in graduate school at Stanford University in California. After receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford, he returned to the East Coast to teach at Wellesley College from 1968 to 1980. In 1980 he trekked back to California to join the English Department at The University of California at Berkeley.
Pinsky’s first volume of poetry, Sadness and Happiness, published in 1975, further intrigued him to examine literary compositions. In an attempt to explain his unique approach to writing, he published extensive volumes of literary criticism, including The Situation of Poetry: ContemporaryPoetry in Its Traditions, Poetry and the World (1976) and The Sounds of Poetry (1999). Published in 1976, The Situation of Poetry articulates Pinsky’s need to “find a language for presenting the role of a conscious soul in an unconscious world.” Pinsky’s approach to poetry incorporates psychological insight, historical accounts, and even comedic relief.
Pinsky’s love of knowledge and desire to create led him to publish his most famous poem in 1994, The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. In 1996, his book The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and received both the Lenore Marshall Award and the Ambassador Book Award of the English Speaking Union.
Pinsky has said of his work on Inferno, “I literally could not stop working on it.” He worked obsessively, writing until the point of sleep. “We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night.” Inferno ended up on the Bestsellers List. New Yorker contributor Edward Hirsch said, “The primary strength of this translation is the way it maintains the original’s episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character. It is no small achievement to reproduce Dante’s rhyme scheme and at the same time sound fresh and natural in English, and Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante’s vernacular music where many others have failed.” Inferno received both The Los Angeles Times Book Review Award and the Howard Morton Landon Prize for Translation in 1995. Its success furthered his writing career and earned him his next job: Poet Laureate of the United States.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington appointed Robert Pinsky to be the ninth Poet Laureate and the country’s 39th Consultant in Poetry in 1997. The position of Poet Laureate requires recipients to complete an annual lecture on their poetry, introduce poets in the Library’s annual poetry series, and raise public awareness of poetry through programs and country-wide projects. The energetic Pinsky was elated to receive the title of Poet Laureate for three consecutive terms; “American poetry has been one of our national achievements. Along with the honor of following the American poets who have held this post, I have an opportunity to continue our appreciation of that treasure. I am very pleased.”
In line with the aims of his position, Pinsky initiated The Favorite Poem Project in 1997 to “celebrate, document and encourage poetry’s role in Americans’ lives.” Now compiled on an Internet database, the project initially invited 100 average Americans to read their favorite poetry and have it recorded for the official archives of the Library of Congress. The project received over 18,000 submissions, attracted people from all walks of life, and has produced 50 short documentaries showcasing Americans reading and speaking about poems they love. It also features a forum for teachers and students, including lesson plans developed at the Summer Poetry Institutes hosted at Boston University in 2001-2003.
During his final year as Poet Laureate of the United States, Pinsky served as the celebrity judge for the selection of the Poet Laureate for Montgomery County. Founded in 1999 by Joanne Leva, a resident of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, each year the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program selects a local poet to write and read poems for county events in the coming year. Three other poets, including the celebrity judge, select the winner by identifying and ranking the top 25 poems submitted by all of the applicants.
Pinsky co-edited Americans’ Favorite Poems and Poems to Read (1999) and An Invitation to Poetry (2006), all of which grew out of his work with the Favorite Poem Project. A fourth anthology, Essential Pleasures: Poems to Read Aloud, was released in 2009. His latest editorial contribution was in selecting 100 out of the 1,875 poems that had previously appeared in The Best American Poetry anthology for inclusion in its milestone 25th Anniversary Edition, The Best of the Best American Poetry, published in 2013. Among his own recent collections are the 2008 Theodore Roethke Prize-winner, Gulf Music, and Selected Poems (2011).
Pinsky’s additional honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, Poetry magazine's Oscar Blumenthal prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
A self-proclaimed email addict, Pinsky is currently a contributor for Slate, a weekly Internet magazine, and PBS’ NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. He has taught at Wellesly College and the University of California, and he returned to his beloved East Coast in 1988 for a position at Boston University, where he continues to teach poetry workshops for graduate students today.
In discussing his new anthology, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters (2013), with National Public Radio (NPR) host, Linda Wertheimer, he explains why creating a poem is not necessarily writing: “Write is almost the wrong verb for what I do. I think compose is more accurate, because you’re trying to make the sounds in your mind and in your voice. So I compose while I’m driving or in the shower.”
Pinsky and his wife Ellen reside in Newton Corner, Massachusetts. During the baseball season, he can be spotted at Fenway Park cheering on the Boston Red Sox.
Sadness and Happiness. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.
An Explanation of America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
History of My Heart. New York: Ecco Press, 1984.
The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. (translator) New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1994.
The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1996.
Jersey Rain. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 2000.
Life of David. New York: Schocken, 2005.
Gulf Music. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.
Selected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.
Americans’ Favorite Poems and Poems to Read. Ed. (With Maggie Dietz). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
An Invitation to Poetry. Ed.(With Maggie Dietz). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
Essential Pleasures: Poems to Read Aloud. Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
Best of the Best American Poetry: 25th Anniversary Edition. Ed.(With David Lehman). New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Criticism & Academic Works
Landor’s Poetry. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1968.
The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976
Poetry and the World. New York: Ecco Press, 1988.
The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999.
Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.