Robert Pinsky on How Music Saved Him

Darry Madden
April 30, 2012
Robert Pinsky accepts the Liberal Arts Tribute Award.
Robert Pinsky performs with pianist Laurence Hobgood.
Student Cynthia Mothersil performs Pinsky's work with a student ensemble backing her up.
Student Tamara Rodriguez performs "poet motion" with the Berklee student ensemble at the Liberal Arts Symposium.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinksy inspired students with his prolific poetry and infectious love of jazz at the 18th annual Liberal Arts Symposium. Pinksy spent a week at Berklee leading seminars for faculty and students, culminating in his performance "Words and Music," and the presentation of the Liberal Arts Tribute Award.

The symposium opened on a student jazz ensemble performing a Pinsky piece entitled "Antique."

I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned
In the river of not having you, we lived
Together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms
And we were parted for a thousand years.
Ten minutes ago we raised our children who cover
The earth and have forgotten that we existed

The ensemble kept the music at a low sizzle. A dancer moved through the space, clad only in black, pulsing her body with the throb of the music.

"That was fantastic. It's only a shame that it wasn't 1:30 in the morning in a smokey Cambridge coffeehouse," said president Roger H. Brown to laughter.

In fact, it was 9:30 in the morning, and Pinsky watched from the front row. Pinsky is the author of many collections of poetry, including Gulf Music: Poems; Jersey Rain; The Want Bone; and History of My Heart.

Brown read a Mary Oliver poem that speaks to the need to become an artist, asking if Pinsky felt it reflected his own development. "It was much filthier!" Pinsky called out to him.

In his keynote address, Pinsky told the audience that being a poet was actually his second choice to being a musician. "I was in the 'dumb' class in the eighth grade. Music held me together. Music kept me alive."

After a very successful career as a poet, Pinsky is now creating a new form he calls "poem jazz," that merges his two loves. In poem jazz, Pinsky's main collaborator, pianist Laurence Hobgood, improvises as the lines go by, providing flourishes that seem to perfectly interact with the ideas and phrases. It hearkens back to similar collaborations between Jack Kerouac and jazz musicians like Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

Pinsky said his musical collaboration with Hobgood making poem jazz, is "no exaggeration, a dream for me. It means more than literary awards and titles. It strikes more at the heart of what I'm up to."

As a child, he dreamed of playing tenor saxophone. He performed his poem "Ginza Samba," which is an elegiac tribute to the instrument while sweeping through the darkest parts of history, unafraid to deal head on with the reality of African slavery.

Even though the saxophone was technically invented in Belgium, its use suggests otherwise, according to Pinsky. "It's an American instrument. In fact, it's a black American instrument, because it was made so by geniuses."

In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing

His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths—the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere

During his weeklong visit to Berklee, Pinsky visited two Artistry, Creativity, and Inquiry seminars, spoke with faculty at the master's lunch, and led a Berklee version of the Favorite Poem Project for faculty and staff, an offshoot of his nationwide Favorite Poem Project.

Beth Platow, an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts Department, appreciated Pinsky's visit and saw its lasting effects. "As a faculty member, I have to say that my class discussions after Pinsky's visit were the richest I've had all semester. He sparked an interesting and intense conversation between students about poetry, performance, art, music, and the intersection of different genres."

Pinsky, too, seemed happy to be on campus. "I have loved watching the Berklee kids making music with such ease and expertise," he said.

In addition to Pinsky's keynote, the student winners of the Songs for Social Change Songwriting Contest performed at the symposium, including winner Kaline Akinkugbe and runners up Hilda Boustany, Nick Goldston, and Jen Starsinic.

As Goldston pointed out, where but at Berklee could an 18-year old have Robert Pinsky open for him?