“Celebrity poet” sounds oxymoronic, but how else to explain The Colbert Report inviting Robert Pinsky to referee a “Meta-Free-Phor-All” between Stephen Colbert and Sean Penn? (That 2007 duel featured metaphorically shaped buzzers. Penn’s was an apple, representing “man’s thirst for knowledge,” Pinsky said. “What does mine represent?” asked Colbert, holding up a gun-like buzzer. “Traditionally,” deadpanned Pinsky, “a penis.”)
The author of eight collections of poetry and one of the country’s leading advocates for the art, Pinsky will be honored tonight when he receives the Lifetime Achievement Award from the writers group PEN. The award, carrying a $1,000 prize, will be presented at PEN Center USA in Beverly Hills, Calif., one of the group’s two American centers and the award giver. PEN also will give prizes to winners in 10 other categories.
The College of Arts & Sciences English professor, who was U.S. poet laureate an unprecedented three times, from 1997 to 2000, says the honor is special because PEN’s role is special: “Its mission includes work for freedom of expression and efforts on behalf of imprisoned or threatened writers around the world. That’s a particularly gratifying and, in a way, humbling aspect of this award.” He also appreciates the timing of the award, he says, coming as it does after the publication last April of his Selected Poems, a compilation that is his “summing up of what I’ve done and a springboard for writing to come.”
He didn’t mention that his august predecessors as winners include Gore Vidal, Walter Mosley, and Larry Gelbart (screenwriter of Tootsie and cocreator of TV’s M*A*S*H).
As poet laureate, Pinsky was a “barnstormer” (a phrase from the New York Times), contributing poems to mark special days on PBS’s News Hour and exhorting all Americans to share their favorite poems with his Favorite Poem Project. “If people ask in 1,000 years who Americans were,” he told the Times, “this might help them figure it out.”
Indeed, memory is a thread connecting several of the Selected Poems, which Pinsky has explained by saying that “forgetting becomes an increasingly important subject as you get older, not because of memory failure so much as because you have seen many things rise and then fade in the world at large and in your own experience.”
Rutgers- and Stanford-educated, Pinsky translated Dante’s Inferno in 1994, putting the classic on the best-seller lists. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He also wrote the libretto for Tod Machover’s opera Death and the Powers.
PEN, founded in London in 1921, promotes freedom of letters and ties among writers internationally. Literary luminaries including George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad were among the founders.