First a confession: I’m in the meet and greet line after poet extraordinaire Robert Pinsky read and described his work to a crowd from his (and my children’s) hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey, when the woman who had been behind me is suddenly in front of me. My hobbling husband is waiting at the front and, being both a little wound up and vaguely concerned about how long he would have to stand there leaning on his cane, I say to her, "You cut in line." To which she replies, "No, I didn’t." "Yes, you did," I insist. Then, with electric poodle hair and glowering eyes, she turns fully in my face and roars, "Shut up! Lady." Whoaoaoaoa.
I’m not sure I said anything after that. I think I grumbled under my breath a bit, then waved my spouse over and whispered in his ear. Not shy of anything or anyone, he reprimands her. We enter the Twilight Zone . Woman, to me, seething: "I’m the chair of the English department, retired. I’m going to write a short story about you!" Hah! Lady. What? Are you kidding? "Journalist," I retort. "I’ll write about you," and here I am, hesitant to embarrass an elder statesman of the field, but how can I resist sharing such an absurdity as dueling exposure threats? It is the one sour note from a delightful afternoon. Obviously, I should have just let her pass. Normally, I would have. What’s the harm after all?
I fell a little bit in love with the poet, I think, and was, probably like her, eager to get to him and, yes, to my own sweet spouse. On the way to the car after we have our brief interlude with Pinsky, I say to Jeff, "This is classic. I confront someone for being out of turn. They threaten me with ‘Do you know who I am?’ which never, ever, ever elicits the desired response, and our experience is sullied while she goes on to schmooze with the luminaries." When will I learn?
Robert Pinsky grew up the son of an optician, on Rockwell Avenue, which bisects the street where life was happiest for me and mine . It was happy there for Pinsky too. He called Long Branch a town of "strong character" and "significance" in American history. Seven presidents vacationed there, lounging on or near the beach at the end of my street, which is now a part of Seven Presidents Park . James Garfield died in Long Branch . Ailing after the assassination attempt that eventually killed him, he insisted on traveling to his summer home to recover. Railroad tracks were laid to get him to the Elberon section of town. (Elberon is now the providence of Orthodox Jews who reside under the multi-town Eruv that extends the boundaries of "home" on the sabbath.) Garfield expired upon arrival. A bronze statue of the unimpressive president graces the beachfront promenade in front of the Ocean Place Resort. A worker from the sanitation department painted it gold one year, if I recall correctly. Not a great career move. About as wise as a public duel.
Anyway, Pinsky wrote a poem about Rockwell Avenue called "The Street." The woman sitting behind me at the reading was first with her hand up during the Q&A. She too had grown up on Rockwell Ave. and wanted to know why he’d written such a poem, about the seedier side of life there. She had been embarrassed by their street way back when. He said he had too … until he realized what rich material the experience had provided for his poetry. Everything is clay for writers.
The first poem Pinsky read was an entirely American one that basically said to Long Branch, to his ancestors, to all who would claim him, "I don’t belong to you or need you. I belong to myself alone." He then explained that once one stands up to stereotypes that threaten to define, one can wrap one’s arms around their own heritage. His theme was lifted from a Zulu ethic he had heard on a trip to Africa. "We do not worship our ancestors; we consult them" … and/or argue with them … be they Jersey, Jewish or literary. Then he read a couple love poems to his home town.
Clearly Pinsky’s ancestors in the university auditorium on Friday afternoon were proud of him. He, the son of a "nominally Orthodox" Jewish family, was allowed to bring pizza home from Nunzio’s on Westwood Avenue, but only if he and his father confined themselves to the piano bench while they ate. Pinsky went to synagogue across the street from one of the town’s Catholic churches. On Saturdays, he watched lovely, forbidden Catholic girls going to and fro, and later was inspired to write "From the Childhood of Jesus ," a poem he said was about the two things he hated most as a child: Judaism and Christianity, because they tried to tell him who he was and who he wasn’t. (Read it and you’ll understand.) Later he would embrace both religions as ancestors. Judaism in obvious ways; Christianity as the keeper of his language.
Someone asked him why, as a Jew, he would write a translation of Dante’s Inferno . He scoffed and rebuked the woman. The language that he loves was carried along by the Christian faith. He said he isn’t even a translator, but a poet who redeemed the work from the literalists by giving it back its beauty … to great effect, I assume. The work has repaid him handsomely.
What I most appreciated from the Q&A was when Pinsky said it is no tragedy for artists to earn their bread through menial labor. He’d always assumed that would be his lot. He is a teacher by trade. Growing up at the Jersey Shore as the grandson of a bootlegger and bar owner, he had known many gifted musicians who spent their days cutting hair, etc., and, one presumes, their summer nights entertaining tourists. It is no tragedy.
Someone asked for a definition of poetry. Pinsky didn’t blink: "Poetry," he said, "is making works of art from the sound of language."
The hometown boy served three unprecedented terms as U.S. Poet Laureate . Predictably, he claimed not to care about such things. He is very proud, however, of his Favorite Poem Project , through which thousands of ordinary Americans have shared their passion for poetry.
Pinsky won my heart because he spoke my native tongue in my native place. He is not just a writer; he is a thinker with a Jersey Shore sensibility. A sensibility that is no nonsense; fierce; honest; a little bit raucous and irreverent; beauty loving. Beautiful.