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Robert Pinsky read poetry and offered a public discussion on Mount Saint Mary's Doheny Campus on Jan. 22, 2017.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky speaks at the Mount

On a stormy Sunday winter evening at Mount Saint Mary’s downtown Doheny Campus — and in the wake of a presidential inauguration and nationwide protests — former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky offered a public reading and a “poetics on democracy” that focused on the big picture.

His improvised talk, “Rusted is Living, Polished is Dead,” was based on a 19th century lecture given by art and social critic John Ruskin. “The idea is that the rusted, the thing in progress, is more alive than the thing polished,” Pinsky said. “I like things that are works in progress. American culture at its best is a mixing, work in progress.”

Mount Saint Mary’s hosted and co-sponsored the event in partnership with the Ruskin Art Club, an arts association founded in Los Angeles in 1888. The University’s Master of Arts in the Humanities program also provided support for the event. 

During the evening, Pinsky mixed in poems from American modernist poets such as William Carlos Williams (“Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” and “Gothic Candor”) and Marianne Moore (“Silence” and “To Military Progress”). He also read several of his own poems, including “Should” and “Creole” — as well as a just-finished poem he created for a “Writers Resist” event in New York City. Titled “Exile and Lightning,” Pinsky described the poem as an effort to speak to the question of whether culture holds us together or drives us apart. 

“I don’t think poetry and music are at the fringe of human intelligence,” Pinsky said. “I think they are right at the center of it, right at the middle. Basic, fundamental. They’re the root.”

Pinsky also shared about the joys of curiosity (“not everything is wonderfully poetic, but everything can be a doorway that your mind should be able to go through”) and the thrill of something as simple as speech —  both in poetry and in everyday life. “I like things that sound good,” he said. “Ideas are good and I don’t mind imagination, but unless there’s a pleasure in saying it, it doesn’t stay with me.”

To make his point, Pinsky used a brief, two-line poem by Walter Savage Landor: ‘On love, on grief, on every human thing / Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.’

“Say that out loud,” Pinsky said. “Three times at the beginning, I touch my upper teeth to my lower lips. ‘On love, on grief, on every human thing. ’Then at the end, three times I purse my lips with ‘water with his wing.’ Even without noticing that, we’re very moved by it. It’s partly music and it’s partly thinking. And it’s very, very powerful to us.”

Robert Pinsky served an unprecedented three terms as U.S. poet laureate. During that time, he founded the wildly popular and influential Favorite Poem Project. In addition to his career as an esteemed civic poet, Pinsky is also an award-winning critic, essayist, translator and teacher. 

Learn more about writing-related programs at Mount Saint Mary’s — including undergraduate programs in English, Philosophy, Education, Journalism and New Media, and Liberal Arts for both traditional and adult students, as well as advanced graduate degrees such as an MA in Humanities, an MFA in Creative Writing and an MS in Education.

Learn more about the Ruskin Art Club at

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