Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 10 1998 3:30 AM

Robert Pinsky

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       "The lecturer," wrote Ezra Pound, "is someone who must speak for an hour." He then adds that "France lost the intellectual leadership of Europe when the academic period was lengthened from forty minutes." (The quotations are inexact because I am typing this on a mini-laptop on a cross-country flight, and my carry-on luggage does not include the works of great fascistic modernist sages. There is room for a toy car to buy my grandson's goodwill, but none for a library.)
       The great virtue of economy in speech is not valued in the world of formal lectures. This rule is reinforced by the fatal tendency for speakers to fall in love with their own voices. Sometimes, the speaker senses that he or she is not doing too well and talks too much, paradoxically, for that very reason--gorging on the nutritionless junk food of one more banal sentence.
       For instance, the people who have invited me to lecture on the Inferno at the Huntington Library in Pasadena tonight will feel scandalously cheated if I speak for ten or fifteen minutes--though that length would be an interesting challenge, maybe forcing me to concentrate my ideas into a memorable form. Among my fantasy acts of giving, after I someday stumble into a large fortune (along with the fat college scholarships reserved for Pinsky Fellows, demonstrably bright high-school kids who do not get many A's and do not become class officers), would be the Pinsky Twenty-Five Minute Lectureships, with the attractive fee reduced severely for every minute over the specified twenty-five.
       I believe that training in lyric poetry, because brevity, density, and elegance of sound are valued in that art, can make for better public speaking. Bloviation, as in the boring academic or political or corporate lecture, is the opposite of poetry. It's not well-known that poetry is an important part of the curriculum at West Point, for related reasons: Students who study engineering, as most there do, and who have military responsibilities as well, can't effectively read long Victorian novels. Time forbids. So poetry is at the core of the military academy's humanities curriculum, and when I visited there last year I found the students eager, sharp, and well-taught.
       One impressive thing about Mrs. Clinton at Longfellow House the other day was that she thanked everyone who needed mentioning, said cogent words about why we were all there, addressed the schoolchildren, and sat down, all within less than five minutes.

Say what you mean in two
Words and get through.
Long, frilly
Palaver is silly.
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       That's some more Pound quoted or misquoted from memory, this time his translation of the German poet (and Jew, as Ezra must have known, or maybe not?) Heinrich Heine.
       It rhymes: That is, it is physically, vocally present and memorable. If you ask most people what they remember about their great teachers, it will come down to recalling the voice, a certain cadence and tone of intensity, a physical presence. I will remember to read aloud the actual words of the poem tonight, in illustration, and to sit down before the clock's big hand gets too close to where it began.
       This morning's e-mail brought the news that someone at Boston magazine has done a search for the 100 Bostonians most mentioned in the newspaper this year, and I am No. 47, and do I have a quote in response? It occurs to me that I might tell them the truth, that I am more than a little disturbed by my presence on this list: Maybe there has been too much travel and yacking by me in 1998--the Poet Launderette stuck on the spin cycle? But in a spirit consistent with my feeling, and with my theme here, I decide not to supply any quote at all.
       In fact, having produced the required number of words for today's Diary, it behooves me to close the laptop and, in two pointed American words, shut up.

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.