Cover image for Democracy, culture, and the voice of poetry
Democracy, culture, and the voice of poetry
Pinsky, Robert.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 96 pages ; 20 cm.
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS323.5 .P57 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating
PS323.5 .P57 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The place of poetry in modern democracy is no place, according to conventional wisdom. The poet, we hear, is a casualty of mass entertainment and prosaic public culture, banished to the artistic sidelines to compose variations on insipid themes for a dwindling audience. Robert Pinsky, however, argues that this gloomy diagnosis is as wrongheaded as it is familiar. Pinsky, whose remarkable career as a poet itself undermines the view, writes that to portray poetry and democracy as enemies is to radically misconstrue both. The voice of poetry, he shows, resonates with profound themes at the very heart of democratic culture.

There is no one in America better to write on this topic. One of the country's most accomplished poets, Robert Pinsky served an unprecedented two terms as America's Poet Laureate (1997-2000) and led the immensely popular multimedia Favorite Poem Project, which invited Americans to submit and read aloud their favorite poems. Pinsky draws on his experiences and on characteristically sharp and elegant observations of individual poems to argue that expecting poetry to compete with show business is to mistake its greatest democratic strength--its intimate, human scale--as a weakness.

As an expression of individual voice, a poem implicitly allies itself with ideas about individual dignity that are democracy's bedrock, far more than is mass participation. Yet poems also summon up communal life.. Even the most inward-looking work imagines a reader. And in their rhythms and cadences poems carry in their very bones the illusion and dynamic of call and response. Poetry, Pinsky writes, cannot help but mediate between the inner consciousness of the individual reader and the outer world of other people. As part of the entertainment industry, he concludes, poetry will always be small and overlooked. As an art--and one that is inescapably democratic--it is massive and fundamental.

Author Notes

Robert Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, and studied at Rutgers and Stanford Universities. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Wellesley College, and the University of California, Berkeley. For several years the poetry editor of The New Republic, he has won the Oscar Blumenthal Prize (1978) and Woodrow Wilson and Fulbright grants. His book of criticism, The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions (1976), is referred to often. He has argued for, and written, a poetry of discursiveness, one that can treat abstract thought and social reality as well as subjectivity and deep emotion.

(Bowker Author Biography) Robert Pinsky, United States Poet Laureate 1997-2000, has received the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Lenore Marshall Prize, & the "Los Angeles Times" Book Award. He is poetry editor at "Slate" & teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Three-term U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky delivered the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Princeton University last April, reprinted here as Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry. The nine short chapters (including "Culture," "Vocality" and "The Narcissistic and the Personal") of this large-print, 4" 7" book follow "the voice of poetry emphasizing its literal and actual `voice' within the culture of American democracy." Culture is the operative word here, and Pinsky begins etymologically with the word's "old agricultural and biological connotations," and arcs through de Tocqueville, Frost's "Home Burial" and poems by Stevens, Williams and Bishop in pursuit of its varying expressions and "invocations" of social life. He ends with an extended and illuminating discussion of the Favorite Poem Project Pinsky undertook during his laureateship, whereby any American reader of poetry was invited to send in their favorite poem and describe its significance to them. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In a lean volume organized into nine chapters, celebrated American poet, teacher, and past poet laureate Pinsky offers general musings about culture, memory, and the democratic impulses and technologies that either frame or brush up against poetry. Pinsky argues forcefully that poetry has not been rendered obsolete by globalization, commercialization, and technological advance; instead, poetry is more necessary than ever, as it gives voice to the individual. Pinsky points to the success of the Favorite Poem Project, which he designed and embarked on as poet laureate, as evidence that poetry still has meaning in our culture. This congenial but somewhat sketchy work is recommended for those interested in Pinsky and his undertakings; to reach further into the notion that poetry is intrinsically a social medium, one might turn instead to the Nobel acceptance speeches of Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney, found in Antilles and Crediting Poetry, respectively.-Scott Hightower, Fordham Univ., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
I Culturep. 1
II Vocalityp. 19
III Self-Consciousnessp. 30
IV Performancep. 43
V Social Presencep. 46

p. 55

VII The Narcissistic and the Personalp. 64
VIII Models of Culturep. 73
IX Conclusionp. 79
Index of Namesp. 95