77 North Washington Street

IN an online interview with The Atlantic in 1995, Robert Pinsky, whose essay "Poetry and American Memory" appears in this issue, had the following to say of his origins and his poetry: "I am from a lower-middle-class family in a small town in New Jersey. My grandpa had a bar there. My family was nominally Orthodox Jewish. In my work I try to pull together as many of the different kinds and levels of American speech and experience as I can." Pinsky, who is currently serving a third term as poet laureate of the United States, has returned often in his writing to his home town of Long Branch, where he was born in 1940. When he speaks, one hears the unpretentious accent of a kid from the Jersey shore who grew up loving movies and the tenor saxophone (on which he learned to play jazz) as much as literature.

Pinsky has held on to this sense of where he comes from even as he has been recognized as one of the most distinguished poets of his generation. His numerous honors include the Academy of American Poets' prestigious Landon Prize, for his translation of (1994); the Lenore Marshall Prize, for his collected poems, (1996), also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; and election to the post of poet laureate in 1997 and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters earlier this year. His essay collection (1988) was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Robert Lowell, writing in 1975, foresaw Pinsky's dual-faceted eminence: "Robert Pinsky belongs to that rarest category of talent, a poet-critic."

As laureate, Pinsky vigorously and creatively promotes poetry as a living, breathing, democratic art. His book (reviewed last March in these pages) is a guide to hearing and enjoying the vocal elements that make poems beautiful and memorable. The Favorite Poem Project, which Pinsky launched in 1997, is establishing a multimedia archive of poems read aloud by a thousand ordinary Americans, to be delivered to the Library of Congress next spring and made accessible on the Internet (www.favoritepoem.org). Indeed, the Internet is a favorite Pinsky medium. In November of 1995 he became the first poet to read his work aloud for The Atlantic's Web site, and this month visitors to our online Poetry Pages (www.theatlantic.com/poetry/) will be able to hear the classic American poems reprinted in his essay in Pinsky's own resonant baritone.


Photograph by Sigrid Estrada.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; 77 North Washington Street - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 6.