Robert Pinsky

 Robert Pinsky is the author of nine books of poems and seven of prose, in addition to editing numerous volumes, translating Dante’s Inferno, and performing his poems with distinguished jazz musicians. He is also the only member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to have appeared on “The Simpsons” and “The Colbert Report.” For years a regular contributor to PBS’s The News Hour, his honors include the PEN/Voelcker Award, the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Lenore Marshall Prize, Italy’s Premio Capri, the Korean Manhae Award and the Harold Washington Award from the City of Chicago. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, and serving for an unprecedented three terms, Pinsky’s tenure was marked by ambitious efforts to prove the power of poetry—not just as an intellectual pursuit in the ivory tower, but as a meaningful and integral part of life. To this end, he initiated The Favorite Poem Project, which celebrates, documents, and encourages people’s engagement with poetry, through public events that feature a diverse range of Americans “saying the poems they love.”
“I think poetry is a vital part of our intelligence, our ability to learn, our ability to remember, the relationship between our bodies and minds,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. He is a preeminent figure in illuminating the rich and exuberant presence of poetry in American life.

Pinsky’s own poems reflect his generosity and astonishing breadth of mind, inviting us into a world energized by their cultural and historical moment, whether early 20 th Century Galveston, Post-war Krakow, or our contemporary reality. But his work has become so familiar, writes The Nation, “that it can be easy to forget how idiosyncratic and downright strange his recent poems are, and how distinct his early work was at the time of its inception.” And, especially for such a public intellectual, his poems are extremely personal—with their jazzy rhythms and wacky lists, and in the way he seems to allow his ear to determine a piece’s trajectory. Pinsky’s work is gathered in Pulitzer Prize-winning The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 and, more recently, in Selected Poems (2011). His most recent individual collection, At the Foundling Hospital, was released this past fall.

In Louise Glück’s words, “Pinsky has what I think Shakespeare must have had: dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician’s dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions.” Pinsky himself has said: “I would like to write a poetry which could contain every kind of thing, while keeping all the excitement of poetry.” Tony Hoagland affirmed that he has done just that, asking: “What has six arms, an appetite, and roams over the earth devouring experience with omnivorous reverence? The poet Robert Pinsky, that’s who.”

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2017

Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had 
No lover I courted my sleep.

From ROBERT PINSKY SELECTED POEMS (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011)


Air an instrument of the tongue,
The tongue an instrument 
Of the body, the body
An instrument of spirit,
The spirit a being of the air.

A bird the medium of its song.
A song a world, a containment
Like a hotel room, ready
For us guests who inherit
Our compartment of time there.

In the Cornell box, among
Ephemera as its element,
The preserved bird –– a study
In spontaneous elegy, the parrot
Art, mortal in its cornered sphere. 

The room a stanza rung
In a laddered filament
Clambered by all the unsteady
Chambered voices that share it,
Each reciting I too was here ––

In a room, a rhyme, a song.
In the box, in books: each element
An instrument, the body
Still straining to parrot
The spirit, a being of air.

From ROBERT PINSKY SELECTED POEMS (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011)


This is the golden trophy. The true addiction.
Steel springs, pearl facings, fibers and leathers, all
Mounted on the body tarnished from neck to bell.

The master, a Legend, a “righteous addict,” pauses
While walking past a bar, to listen, says: Listen––
Listen what that cat in there is doing. Some figure,

Some hook, breathy honk, sharp nine or weird
Rhythm this one hack journeyman hornman had going.
Listen, says the Dante of bop, to what he’s working.

Breath tempered in its chamber by hide pads
As desires and demands swarm through the deft axe
In the fixed attention of the one practitioner:

Professional calluses and habits from his righteous
Teachers, his dentist, optician. A crazed matriarch, hexed
Architect of his making. Polished and punished by use, 

The horn: flawed and severe, it nestles in plush, 
The hard case contoured to cradle the engraved
Hook-shape of Normandy brass, keys form seashells

In the Mekong, reed from Belize. Listen. Labor: 
Flip all the altered scales in the woodshed. Persist,
You practiced addict, devotee, slave of Dante

Like Dante himself a slave, whose name they say 
Is short for Durante, meaning Persistent––listen,
Bondsman of the tool––you honker, toker, toiler.

From ROBERT PINSKY SELECTED POEMS (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011)