Robert Pinsky spoke in the Hunter Lecture Series in Chattanooga a couple of nights ago. I knew I was in for a good evening when I swung into Moccasin Bend on I-24 and the biggest moon I’ve ever seen appeared, a massive golden orb in the blue dusk over the city lights. I was moved to invoke aloud the name of a Hebrew man-god. I had no camera, so was free from the temptation to risk my life by pulling over for a shot, and I was forced to just enjoy Lady Moon’s full spectacle. On top of that miracle, I found an unoccupied free parking spot near UTC.
Pinsky did not read his poems (bummer), but instead gave a great talk (bummer erased) about art, education, the evolution of grunting, the physicality of poetry, and the Favorite Poems project. In other words, here was another Rambler (albeit a three-time poet laureate, so an über-rambler). I had a great time.
I will not attempt to give an abstract of his talk, but instead I’ll share a few interesting ideas and links to his great online poetry videos.
One of the questions he asked was, “why has an unpromising little ape [Homo sapiens] done so well when so many other species have more impressive physical attributes?” His answer: we cooperate, not just with those alive now, but with past and future generations. That sharing of knowledge is extraordinarily powerful. How do we accomplish this? Well, these days via the web. Before that, with the printed or scribbled word. But for most of our life as a species, by “moving and grunting in certain ways.” In other words, by dance, music and poetry (he left out story-telling, aka sitting around the fire BSing…). Art, he claimed, is the key feature of our species that has allowed us to thrive.
(Side thought: some skill with thrown rocks and spears probably helped. Give me poetry, but give me meat also. Poems about spears, maybe – Homer?)
After some discussion of taxi drivers in Russia, W. E. B. Du Bois, the Boston Arts Academy public high school, Robert Frost’s assessment of the poetry-college athletics nexus, the desirability of extending the educational philosophy of the ruling classes to all people (i.e., everyone gets to take art seriously, not just the aristocrats), and his experience of Aristotle as a college freshman, Pinsky made a convincing case that, for art, physical experience is central, not peripheral or ornamental. So, art is central to our existence as a species and the physicality of art is the ground on which all this is built. He illustrated this with some examples from the Favorite Poems project – “normal” people reading and talking about their favorite poems. These are not profs, critics, or specialists. Pinsky claimed that their giving voice to the poems allows us to “see the work of art happening in the reader,” a “deep connection” back over tens of thousands of years to the core of our nature as humans.
At a time when our lives often revolve around uploads and downloads to “the cloud,” with physicality reduced so often in our culture to tasteless gluttony and tawdry lust, his emphasis on artful embodiment was refreshing. Occupy: your body. I wonder how much of this embodiment can be captured in online videos? So asks the blogger through his Ethernet cable, coming to your Android (aye, language is telling).
Homo sapiens, let’s be the lightning that connects cloud to ground. We’re the one species that can do it. Yes, we can have both; sparks fly when they connect.