Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 11 1998 3:30 AM

Robert Pinsky

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       "She hates California: It's cold and it's damp." I did live in this state--twice, for nearly ten years in the eighties and for three years in the sixties--but the night chill in Pasadena still astonishes me, signing books in the beautiful courtyard of the Huntington Library, shivering under an outdoor heater. But in the daytime it is unusually clear and smog-free.
       In response to an audience question about Dante and Shakespeare as "giants" and a sort of Gigantism Theory of poetry, it was a pleasure to quote a four-line poem by the twentieth-century miniaturist (as he might be called) J.V. Cunningham:

The dry soul rages. The unfeeling feel
With the dry vehemence of the unreal.
So I, in the Idea of your arms, unwon,
Am as the real in the unreal undone.
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       In The Sounds of Poetry I use this as an example of how like sounds, the intricate web of end rhymes and internal rhymes and partial rhymes and echoes, can give a piece of writing emotional weight and conviction even before the reader is quite sure what it all means. Attachment to a work of art, as to a person or a cuisine or a sport, begins with a physical experience, and only afterward proceeds to analysis and interpretation.
       The physical experience of the actors performing the Inferno at the Getty tonight is complicated by a story in the L.A. Times that quotes me, accurately enough, as having some reservations about the show, compared with my complete enthusiasm for the Penguin audiobook, four cassettes in which Frank Bidart, Louise Glück, Seamus Heaney, and I simply read my translation aloud, taking turns through the cantos.
       I don't want to rain on the parade of these splendid, dedicated actors: Bill Camp as Dante, Reg E. Cathey as Virgil, Leslie Beatty and Michael Balcanoff as various damned souls, with Gil Morganstern's amazing violin. As Gil plays onstage, sometimes interacting with the other performers, the violin represents something interior: sometimes the spirit of art, some psychological presence. And projections by Michael Mazur, based on his great Inferno monotype illustrations. And the truth is, I haven't seen the show since New York, where it contained some comic bits I loathed, since cut from it, and in Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Montgomery, Alabama, where the actors performed it as a staged reading, without the set, before a racially integrated audience, including Reg's parents. (Reg grew up in Alabama, a black professor's son who won his mathematics-professor father's moral support for a career in art.)
       In New York, the show was rough and so was I, sitting next to Seamus, who was reassuring about it while I squirmed through those allegedly comic, burlesque bits. And in Alabama there was a lot of emotion that buoyed and engulfed the performance. So tonight is in a way a fresh test of the whole thing, and I hope I like it, for the actors and for the director, Bob Scanlan, an old and loyal friend who created the script and has had to endure my reservations. Maybe tonight will dispel some of that tension. For moral support, I have the poet Carol Muske and her husband David Dukes for company, though David's status as what Letterman would call a "big-time actor" may add another tension to the evening. What if he finds the whole thing pathetic?
       But he doesn't, and the evening is okay. The Getty auditorium is a good space--as spectacular as the rest of the building, but more human in scale and feeling than most of it. I am moved by how the actors and Gil have improved the show, making it faster, simpler, more direct. David and Carol confirm the sense I had in Alabama, that the beautiful, elaborate set may interfere with what is a show of words. As in Cunningham's poem, the negative space--the absence, the unreal dogging the real--should predominate the negative world of Dante's imagined Hell. The audience seems attentive, and they applaud the actors and so do I. Now, I will spend a couple of days with my daughter and her husband and my grandson, with professional obligations--including this Diary--done.

Robert Pinsky was named poet laureate of the United States in March 1997. His special undertaking as poet laureate is the Favorite Poem Project. His most recent books are The Sounds of Poetry and The Handbook of Heartbreak. He is Slate's poetry editor.