Robert Pinsky Opens 28th Annual Seminar


photo by Curt Richter

wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

hungry generations tread thee down


The 28th
Annual Key West Literary Seminar got under way last night with the John Hersey
Memorial Address by poet Robert Pinsky. After a warm introduction and greeting
by president of the Seminar Lynn Kaufelt and president of the San Carlos
Institute Rafael Penalver, Pinsky spoke on modernism and memory.

He began with
the recitation of two lines from John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” He used these
lines to illustrate that as humans, unlike the “immortal Bird,” we are, indeed,
“born for death” because of our inextricable need to create memory that is
larger than a single generation. In this way, modernism and memory are forever

He noted a Zulu
tribe whose practice was not to worship their ancestors, but to consult. For
Pinsky, this crystallized his feeling that what we learn from past generations
has a transformational quality. Modernism is a form of memory that wants to
disrupt complacency, Pinsky said. He noted some of the great modern poets such
as William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Allen Ginsberg for their way of maintaining
musicality in their poetry while still disrupting and changing, the very heart
of modernism.

For Pinsky, the
act of reading past poetry is a way of “consulting” ancestors as the Zulus do.
He says we must read Keats and tread him down, just as future generations will
read us and tread us down. This is modernity. He noted the delicate connection
between remembering and forgetting, how neither is ever perfect. Forgetting can
never be total and memory can never be exact, and this is the genesis of
culture and psychology.

He concluded
with William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie” and his translation from a verse of
Dante’s “Paradiso” in order to illustrate our need to understand mortality. He
said that the project of life is large and profound, and that an artist’s life
is larger. For Pinsky, poetry is essential, more so than pop music or movies,
for example. This is because poetry is more intimate. It involves lips,
tongues, ears, breath. The act of being “born for death” is noble, mystical,
inspiring, ambitious, and adventurous.

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