This morning our daughter, a less than passionate English student, groaned while reciting the names of the poets that she has to read between now and Tuesday: Stanley Kunitz, T.S. Elliott, William Carlos Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Pinksy. “Robert Pinsky,” I asked? At my request this morning, she gladly left her heavy textbook behind.
I confess that I struggle with poetry too, but opened the 4.5 lb Norton Anthology of American Literature, (in case you are wondering, yes, I weighed it) to read three poems by Robert Pinsky, because long before he wrote the specific poems included on those pages, he was a man who went to the beach with his wife and baby daughter, and this is how I know.
Every summer day that weather permitted while growing up, we pedaled our bikes the short miles over sidewalks and winding crisscross paths to a tiny beach on the banks of a small lake, located within a prestigious college campus at the edge of our town. Later, I spent college summers life guarding there; after so many years, I knew all the regulars.
The college offered professors and employees of the school reduced fees to swim at our little club and for several years, an exotic looking man in a Speedo bathing suit visited regularly in the afternoon with his wife and young daughter. I don’t remember ever meeting him so I don’t know how I knew his name, but I watched his daughter grow from an infant, to a toddler, to a pre-teen. Thirty some odd years later, I can still picture him, sitting in a woven vinyl beach chair beside his petite and bikinied wife, to the left of the green painted dock that jutted sideways T-shaped into the lake, his daughter digging in the sand at his feet. I assumed he was a professor at the college and don’t recall thinking of him once my lifeguard days ended.
That is, until what must have been 1997, when I read a newspaper article announcing that Robert Pinsky had been bestowed with the title of United States Poet Laureate. Upon recognizing the name, I viewed the photograph next to the article and confirmed that the statuesque Speedo wearer from my memory was indeed the honored poet. Once I explained to my husband how I recognized our new Poet Laureate, his name faded again until this morning, when my daughter mentioned it in such revered company.
Paging through the text after she left, I read his brief biography and a compelling poem called “The Shirt” then imagined how this man, not exotic at all but raised in New Jersey, must feel to see his name alongside the masters of American Literature. He was a professor and already published it turns out, those summers he walked across the beige sand that we shoveled onto our manmade beach. Three of his later poems however, rest under the same cover as works by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson--his verses included with the likes of Longfellow, Thoreau, and Whitman.
How can it feel to wake each morning, perhaps sliding one foot into a leather slipper then the other, stomach growling and cartilage cracking; the distant noise of city traffic honking and accelerating outside—knowing that your name is printed on tissue thin pages beside chapters along with Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald; your work equal in weight to that of these powerful scribes, many of whom left us so very long before?