Former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and creative writing, and pioneering memory researcher Howard Eichenbaum, a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences, have been named William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professors, the highest honor bestowed on senior faculty members actively involved in research, scholarship, and University civic life, as well as teaching.
The appointments were announced last week by President Robert A. Brown, who notified Pinsky and Eichenbaum personally. “Professors Howard Eichenbaum and Robert Pinsky represent the very best of Boston University,” says Brown. “Through their scholarship, research, and teaching they are internationally acclaimed leaders in their fields and bring honor to our academic community.”
The professorships, which faculty members hold as long as they are at BU and retain as emeriti upon retirement, were established in 2008 and named in honor of BU’s first president. Nominations for the award are due each October, with honorees selected and announced the following year. The professorship comes with an annual scholarly allowance of $20,000 and funding for a month of summer salary.
Pinsky and Eichenbaum will join nine previously named Warren Professors: George Annas, a School of Public Health professor and chair of health law, bioethics, human rights, and a School of Medicine and School of Law professor (2009); Laurence Kotlikoff, a CAS professor of economics (2009); James Winn, a CAS professor of English (2009); Nancy Kopell, a CAS professor of mathematics and statistics (2009); H. Eugene Stanley, a CAS professor of physics (2011); Wendy Gordon, a LAW professor of law (2011); Thomas Kunz, a CAS professor emeritus of biology (2011); Catherine Costello, a MED professor of biochemistry, physiology and biophysics, and chemistry (2013); and Keith N. Hylton. a LAW professor of law and economics (2013).
Often called the last of the public poets, the charismatic, buoyant Pinsky is also a prominent critic, educator, and occasional performance artist with his spoken jazz. Appointed US poet laureate in 1997, Pinsky served until 2000. He used his post to inspire Americans to make poetry an integral part of their lives, something to be consumed with appreciation and exuberance beyond the ivory tower.
“I think poetry is a vital part of our intelligence, our ability to learn, our ability to remember, the relationship between our bodies and minds,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1998. “Poetry’s highest purpose is to provide a unique sensation of coordination between the intelligence, the emotions, and the body. It’s one of the most fundamental pleasures a person can experience.”
Pinsky launched the Favorite Poem Project, dedicated to celebrating, documenting, and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives, in 1998, during his first term as poet laureate. During the project’s one-year open call for submissions, 18,000 Americans, age 5 to 97, representing every state and a range of backgrounds, education, and occupations, wrote to offer their favorite poems, resulting in 50 video documentaries of readings by selected volunteers. With the BU School of Education, the project conducts an annual Poetry Institute for K-12 educators. Pinsky says that “BU enabled the Favorite Poem Project videos of Americans reading poems they love.”
Among Pinsky’s many published poetry collections and prose are Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Gulf Music: Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007); Jersey Rain (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000); The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; The Sounds of Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Poetry and the World (Ecco Press, 1988); and The Situation of Poetry (Princeton University Press, 1977).
“BU is the best professional home I have had,” says Pinsky, whose many honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the William Carlos Williams Award and the Shelley Memorial Award, both from the Poetry Society of America, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.
“At BU I have taught gifted, dedicated poets, many of them now celebrated for their work,” says Pinsky, poetry editor of the online magazine Slate. “At BU I have had as colleagues writers I deeply admire. BU has fostered my writing. So this new, great honor confirms and crowns this University as a helpful, productive, and exciting place for me and my work.”
An international leader in the field of memory and neuroscience, Eichenbaum is the director of the BU Center for Memory and Brain and the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurobiology. His work examines the critical role of the hippocampus in memory formation.
“It is very gratifying to have the work my collaborators, students, and I have pursued these many years recognized by the president, provost, and my colleagues at BU,” says Eichenbaum, who was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, an honor shared by founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59). “My career has been a journey to discover the secrets of how the brain works, and in particular how it stores and organizes memories,” Eichenbaum says.
He and his team are probing the firing of neurons in the hippocampus, a structure near the center of the brain that plays a major role in memory. Understanding how those firings pinpoint our position in both time and space, Eichenbaum says, is more than an academic triumph; decoding the machinations of the hippocampus could help us design drugs to treat memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory loss. “I feel we have made progress in revealing some of the fundamental mechanisms of memory,” he says, “and it is indeed very satisfying to see that our findings have had an impact in my research field and at the University.”
The editor-in-chief of the journal Hippocampus, Eichenbaum sits on the editorial board of 10 other journals and encyclopedias and is the author or coauthor of nine books and numerous research papers, reviews, and book chapters.