In The Sounds of Poetry, three-term U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky writes, “The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing.” The medium is not language. It’s not merely the human voice, either. It’s the body that produces that voice and that language through a physical process.
Listen to Pinksy read his poem “Rhyme,” and notice how he relishes the mouth-feel of every vowel and consonant.
Of course we know poems are also constructed of words and syntax, and that the signifying sounds are formed with the voice, but this declaration of what is, for Pinsky, the essential source and substance of poetry shifts us away from any idea of the poem as a silent object on the page, an artifact understood only through intellectual and academic scrutiny. The poem must come alive in the body. Taken to its extreme, we could say reading a poem silently is like sitting in our chair and studying a dance manual rather than getting up on our feet and dancing.
We also know that poetry, if it resonates with us, inspires a kind of curiosity that leads to deeper study. We read the same poem again and again. We want to know other poems by the poet who wrote that first one that impressed or moved us. We want to know something about our favorite poets’ lives. We read the poets who influenced them. We learn about the critical, historical and social changes that influence how poetic conventions and aesthetics evolve. We discover there are terms for the elements of a poem and how poets use them.
Reading or Listening to Pinsky’s poetry, even if we know nothing about his life, it becomes immediately clear that this is not only a poet who cares deeply about the sound and shape of every line, word and syllable, but who is in love with scholarship. That is a much-maligned word in certain circles, and it deserves to be rescued.
A true scholar, like a true musician, wants to learn everything they can about their subject. This is part of the excitement of being an artist: you can’t possibly live long enough to know everything there is to know about your art. You are always a student and, no matter how much you learn, always a beginner. It’s not about being an expert, it’s about the excitement of constant discovery. Listen to any serious musician talk about their art for any length of time, and you’ll be astonished at the depth and breadth of what they know about the history of music. This is true whether they’re a graduate of Julliard or a self-taught graduate of a garage band.
Poetry, at its best, is completely physical and completely intellectual. In his poems, readings, interviews and essays, it’s clear Pinsky is a poet who thrives on this paradox.
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