Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky speaks at AHS

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, spoke to a full house Thursday evening at Ashland High School's Mountain Avenue Theatre.

"He is a poetry rock star," said local science teacher Lynn Kunstman.

While introducing Pinsky, Ashland poet and teacher Jonah Bornstein said Pinsky gave many young people access to a world of poetry they may not have otherwise had.

"He's brought poetry to millions, giving the reader and listener a voice," Bornstein said.

Pinsky is poetry editor for the online magazine Slate and writes a weekly "Poet's Choice" column for the Washington Post. He appeared regularly for seven years on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His translation of Dante's Inferno received the Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry. His book, "The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996," was a Pulitzer Prize nominee. "Gulf Music," published in 2007, is his seventh volume of poetry.

Pinsky, a longtime poetry advocate, was the latest in a line of poets to read as part of the Chautauqua Poets Writers Series. Friends of the Ashland Library, The Oregon Writers Project at SOU, and Ashland High School sponsor the series.

In addition to the public talk and reading, Pinsky also was in town giving writing workshops to Rogue Valley students and speaking on Jefferson Public Radio. He didn't seem to mind the tight schedule. At one point he thanked the Chautauqua sponsors: "Sometimes you're treated like a boring big shot, and left in your hotel room between appearances, but in Ashland I spoke with students, visited libraries, and met people in the community. For that, I thank you."

Pinsky has spent a lot of his career showing people that poetry is for everyone, and he's not just spreading the word in academic circles. He has had some celebrated appearances on popular shows such as "The Simpsons" and "The Colbert Report." The more recent "Colbert Report" appearance was widely praised.

"I love comedy," he said. "My eldest daughter gave me 5 words of advice when I told her I was going on the show. She said, 'Don't try to be funny.' I took her advice and it worked."

At the reading, he discussed the power of poetry to connect people across time, space, and culture. He said poems are the stories our ancestors have left for us.

"It's like the stories are alive and the people are temporary vessels for them," he said.

Poetry as a living and vital part of our culture also was the driving theme of his tenure as poet laureate. During that time he created the Favorite Poem Project. The project now includes three anthologies and 50 short video documentaries showcasing individual Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds reading and speaking personally about poems they love.

During a workshop with students at Ashland Middle School, Pinsky used clips from the Favorite Poems video collection to show students that a single poem can mean something different to each person.

"The poet is the choreographer, and when we read the poem aloud, we are the dancers," Pinsky said.

At the public reading, he delighted listeners with stories of his own past, reading poems that examine everyday objects, memory, and the human condition.

While taking questions from the audience, he was asked what to do if one doesn't understand a poem. He replied, "No one is under any obligation to 'get it.' Treat the poem as if it were a meal. Don't describe the spices; just tell me if it is delicious."

For more information on the Favorite Poems Project visit: .

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