Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 7 1998 3:30 AM

Robert Pinsky

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     The varied life of what my children refer to as The Poet Launderette: tonight (Sunday), my poker game. Yesterday, a ceremony at Longfellow's house in Cambridge, Mass. The house is part of the White House Millennium Council's program to preserve certain national treasures. The beautiful old house on Brattle Street is to become a kind of arts education center for children. The First Lady, Sen. Edward Kennedy, and I each say a few words. As before, she is impressive: warm, and what is called "present" by psychologists, and well prepared. As poised as she was at her Wellesley commencement, politely scolding Sen. Brooke (I was present then, as a new boy-professor). And she looks great. Then, very much at the center of the event, an irresistible group of students from the New School/Cambridgeport recited from Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride." This is a work that Sen. Kennedy turns out to have memorized, on the orders of his mother. And Hillary Rodham Clinton has a fair bit of "Hiawatha" by heart. All this poetry in people's heads affirms the Favorite Poem Project, my main undertaking as laureate/launderette (put in enough dimes and I keep talking about the project). The idea is to make a video and audio archive of about a thousand Americans, all ages and ethnicities and professions, etc., with each one saying aloud a poem he or she loves, and a sentence or two about why. After the ceremony, with the First Lady whisked out to her next event, at the African Meeting House, and the senator also out the door, the kids have only me as someone to autograph their binders, and I reciprocate as a good poetry entrepreneur by giving out Favorite Poem Project response cards (address: 236 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, or favpoem@bu.edu). The children, fifth-graders, young enough not to be overawed, seem aware that they have performed with verve and enthusiasm. They are such bright souls that they don't even yawn during the speeches. (The senator refers to "Bob Pinsky, who always inspires us"; he has called me "Bob" before, and I wonder whether to settle for that or if there might be a way to instruct him that I am always "Robert"--something that's hard to say to anyone at all without seeming terminally pompous.) The First Lady visibly and authentically enjoys talking with the young students, and so do I, a fact that restores my confidence in myself as "someone who likes children," as I think an old Johnny Mathis song has it. On Thanksgiving this idea of myself was powerfully tested by a little boy relative who arrived at the peak of a cold and proceeded to cough, apparently on purpose, all over everybody and everybody's food, as often as he could. So we all have colds, with mine dangerously near the vocal cords; the Longfellow House ceremony aside, I have a Favorite Poem Reading in Hartford, Connecticut, and lecture in California this week. The poet Frank Bidart has a cold, too. He was at the feast, and in traditional uncle-style fell asleep in a living room chair--the child I'm striving not to loathe didn't like that, so he hit poor Frank in the face with a toy, to put an end to it. The mother and father just simpered. If 5-year-olds are old enough for the parents to train them to say words like "magma," aren't they old enough to cover their mouths when they cough, and let sleeping poets be? Another thing. (The Poet Lariat is on a whirl of rant, to use another of my nicknames.) As the father of three daughters, I may be prejudiced, but isn't there a certain kind of boy child who is boring as no little girl is? I mean the long, repetitious monologues about volcanoes or dinosaurs or airplanes, those compulsive narratives of violence and threat that don't go anywhere. Not all little boys, of course! My grandson Sam in L.A., for instance--I'm going to see him next week! Like the kids from Cambridgeport, he is no spouter of magma or microbes.

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.