Friday, March 27, 2009

Robert Pinsky - "The Fate of the Modern"

I attended the Dun Laoghaire Poetry Now Festival keynote address last night by American poet Robert Pinsky. Entitled "The Fate of the Modern" it was a most wide ranging, at times detailed talk which I enjoyed immensely. It is impossible to summarise such a performance and indeed it should be impossible. I'll just mention some of the points made and poems referenced by Pinsky.

His starting point was the lines "Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!/ No hungry generations tread thee down;" from the Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats. Stressing the fact that as humans we are "born for death" he went on to read and talk about a two line poem, "On Love, on Grief", by Walter Savage Landor

On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing.

You can read some comments by Pinsky on this poem and hear him reading it here on Slate magazine.

Modernism, Pinsky seemed to say, is a means of dealing with the past which is different from the traditional excessively respectful way. It involves remembering and forgetting - two aspects of the same activity. It is a way of changing ghosts into ancestors.

As examples of poems which exemplify this modernism he read To Elsie by William Carlos Williams. You can read the poem here and hear Williams reading it. He also read the last section of A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg noting how it ended with an echo of Landor - the image of the river of forgetfulness, Lethe. This poem is available to read and hear here.

Towards the end of his talk he read the first poem, Poem of Disconnected Parts, from his latest collection, Gulf Music. It contains these lines, a quote from a Zulu tribesman, which echoed what Pinsky said about ancestors and the modernist attitude to the past:

"The sangomo says in our Zulu culture we do not
worship our ancestors: we consult them."

And he finished with the last poem from the same volume "From the Last Canto of Paradise" which is as it says a translation of a small part of canto 33 of Dante's epic. You can see and hear him read the same poem here.

New York Times review of Gulf Music here.

The Poetry Now Festival continues today.


BarbaraS said...

Sounds very invigorating, Michael. I'm unable to attend, so it's great to hear a snippet from the table :)

Michael Farry said...

Invigorating and tiring at the same time, M4 - M50 traffic but great to be among people who value poetry. Also lots more must read books of poetry.