English Alum Returns for Commencement
by Sandhya Ramashwar
Robert Pinsky is best known as the Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. What is less well known is that this New Jersey native began his poetic career as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, earning an English major from Rutgers College in 1962. Dr. Pinsky was the guest speaker at this year’s commencement, marking the first time in twelve years there has been a speaker at the general Rutgers University commencement. This was also the first time in twenty-six years that the university commencement was held on Voorhees Mall, allowing Dr. Pinsky to give his speech directly in front of Murray Hall.
As an undergraduate, Dr. Pinsky played the saxophone, but soon found that the sound of words, rather than music, was his preferred medium for creative expression. Rutgers, he remembered, was “a great place for a literary education,” and cited courses he took with Paul Fussell and with Francis Fergusson as having strongly influenced him. He also noted that the creative gifts of his peers at Rutgers helped to intensify his educational experience here.
Dr. Pinsky now follows in the footsteps of his professors at Rutgers, encouraging a new generation of language lovers as a professor in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University. In a 1997 interview with The Anthologist, he characterized his approach to teaching poetry as centering on the students’ personal approaches, as they discuss their work in the context of great art and compile anthologies of poems that define the art for them. As Poet Laureate, Dr. Pinsky made it his goal to make poetry more widely accessible. One great success has been the Favorite Poem Project, which inspired nearly 1,000 Favorite Poem readings across the country, two published collections of poetry, and an extensive website featuring volunteers reading their favorite poems.
The importance of writing and poetry were one theme of his commencement speech as well, which discussed the connection between educational accomplishment and social class in America. He encouraged his audience to be proud of graduating from an institution like Rutgers, and to recognize their place as elite members of society, but not elitists. Quoting an essay his late father had written for a college class, he said that the truly elite person “considers the well-being of other people more than his own.” He also read a powerful poem by another New Jersey poet, William Carlos Williams, affirming what Dr. Pinsky called the “democratic, aspiring, American notion of what is noble, superior” by praising the hard work of his grandmother in supporting her family. “All degrees are honorary,” he reminded the audience. “Their meaning and their value depends on what is really done to deserve them.”
It was a thrill to have Dr. Pinsky on campus for this event, to welcome back an illustrious alum while wishing great success, fulfillment, and noble accomplishment to approximately 350 new alumni from the English Department. Congratulations to our graduates, and thanks to Dr. Pinsky for helping us commemorate their achievement.
More about the 2004 Commencement
Robert Pinsky’s Interview in The Anthologist
The Favorite Poem Project