Dr. Robert Pinsky, Former U.S. Poet Laureate, advocated for more arts education and appreciation in American culture during his talk for the Hunter Lecture Series. Pinsky was the third speaker of the 2011-12 series co-sponsored by The Benwood Foundation and the University.

Dr. Robert Pinsky

Pinsky began his talk with an explanation of how humans use language. According to Pinsky, babies begin to make sounds similar to language they hear within a few weeks of birth.

“My conclusion is art and poetry are not at the fringes of human intelligence and society, but at the center of the evolution of our intelligence,” he said.

Pinsky said Americans are less interested in art because there is not much support for it in our culture.

“We are without the two great supports that traditionally support the arts. First, there is no class to be the caretaker of art. The other support is a folk culture. Children used to learn the poems and music from their grandparents, but that’s no longer true,” he said.

“In the absence of the aristocratic and folk caretakers of art, we improvise and put a tremendous pressure on schools. School take more of the burden,” he continued.

In his talk, Pinsky shared videos from what he called “his own improvisation of the caretaking of art,” his Favorite Poem Project. The project is dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives. The project, in which thousands of Americans of varying backgrounds, ages, and from every state, shared their favorite poems.

After showing a video of a construction worker from Massachusetts reciting his favorite poem, Pinsky explained the importance of poetry to people’s lives.

“When he is reading a poem to you, it has a different kind of power. You see the work of art taking place in him. A poem is something that happens, like a piece of music. It happens any time anyone chooses to say it. I believe it speaks to something that goes very deep in us, something primary and essential,” he said.

Though his project has reached many people, Pinsky dismisses the notion that he is promoting poetry.

“To me, poetry is too large and fundamental to be sold like a brand of soap. Poetry is a basic art. A poem is primarily something that moves you. I feel like the videos demonstrate that,” he said.

Dr. Pinsky with UTC students

Earlier in the day, Pinsky met with UTC students for a question and answer session on poetry and creative writing.

“He seemed really happy to meet with us and was very forthright with answering all our questions,” Iris Mahan, UTC student, said.

“My favorite thing that he said was ‘failure and rejection is life. You will never have enough trophies in your closet to protect yourself from that,’” Mahan continued.

Now in its fourth year, the goal of The George T. Hunter Lecture Series is to raise awareness of some of our most important public policy issues by bringing community opinion leaders, residents, students, and scholars together to hear from and engage in dialogue with national leaders.

To learn more about Pinsky’s project, visit favoritepoem.org.

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