As part of my responsibilities as Assistant Administrator/Project Director, and out of personal interest, I recently attended a poetry reading at the iconic Grolier Bookstore in Harvard Square. The Grolier is the oldest poetry bookstore in the US, further cementing it’s place in history as a must-visit literary haven with each passing day. We at CambridgeEditors are lucky enough to reside just a short walk outside of the Square, and we visit the store as frequently as we can to shop around or hear poets read. This particular visit was extraordinarily special: the reader was Robert Pinsky. To circumvent another bio– Pinsky’s reputation precedes him. Use Google if you must.
Pinsky commanded the room with his eccentric presence, gesturing excitedly as he read poems from his favorite anthology, English Renaissance Poetry; a collection of shorter poems from Skelton to Jonson. He followed no explicit pattern; sometimes a read passage would be interplayed with an amusing anecdote, or perhaps deconstructed for rhyme and syntax, or else simply allowed to hang in the air like a sort of warm, literary humidity that slowly soaked through the audience’s heads and into their brains. Not that the passages he read were especially complex, many were less deliberately obscure than much of the work we see from modern poets, but we’ll get into this revelation further later on. The above metaphor might also betray the audience’s age: most were older than 50 and familiar with the warm hug of humidity– literary or otherwise.
There were, however, a notable cluster of younger people crammed into the back of the bookstore. There, listening to one of the great modern American poets, they represented hope for the age-old art that has been lost on many younger minds. I myself, being only 19, was moved to make going to poetry readings more of a habit after hearing Pinsky speak. Despite living so close, the readings had admittedly never been a priority for me. I now know what I’ve been missing. I doubt all will live up to his masterful reading, but I know that I never want to risk being absent from such a special night again. Though we were in the minority, it almost felt as if Pinsky was reading to us– the youth. The anthology he read from was a compilation of 16th century works written almost entirely by young men. While many were informed by elite educations, their age meant a lack of wisdom that we typically require of poets these days. In 2016, poetic notoriety is almost always reserved for those over 30 (at the very youngest), but here was Pinsky lauding the work of 20-somethings deliberating their mortality. Pinsky highlighted one particular sentence from Thomas Nashe’s bio: “Like the other University Wits with whom this name is associated, his personal life was uncertain, his fortunes often low, and his professional career prolific” (Williams, 285). Nashe died at age 34. This was the art in its rawest form. When poetry belonged to both popular culture and high culture; the poetry of survival; the art unabridged by time.
What struck me most that night was the breadth of Pinsky’s knowledge. He danced between so many names and styles and references that only one who has devoted their lives to the subject could access with such ease and fluidity. At one point, he began reciting an unusual and complex piece that he hadn’t reviewed in years, but he knew by heart. It was like magic. Not only was he able to call up the information he needed, but he could just as quickly manipulate it to aid him in proving a point. For instance, he used the anthology to illustrate a poetic spectrum, from primitive to decadent, that represented the binary of meaning and style in the art. At one end, text is blunt to a fault, and the other, text can become overly flamboyant and lose meaning. However, Pinsky argued, most of the work in the anthology he picked actually fell in the middle, combining intention and method into the ideal poem.
Not once during the whole hour that Pinsky spoke did I feel lost. Despite the fact that he was dealing with complex subject matter, his presence was so authentic and invested that he never left the audience behind. This leads me to his final point: poetry, for all of its intricacy, is accessible for young people. Pinsky was reading work by young people, for an audience with young people, and concluded with the message: poetry can be brought to young people. He suggested that instead of starting teens off with the beautiful but convoluted style that modern poetry embodies, we should have young people begin at the beginning. 16th century poetry is, and I shudder to use the word, relatable to youth because it it written by their peers. If we as a society want to reignite poetic passion in Millennials, we should hold up a mirror to their angst and emotion by handing them a book of 16th century poetry.