Early life and education
Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey to Jewish parents, Sylvia (née Eisenberg) and Milford Simon Pinsky, an optician. He attended Long Branch High School. He received a B.A. from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow in creative writing. He was a student of Francis Fergusson and Paul Fussell at Rutgers and Yvor Winters at Stanford.
Pinsky married Ellen Jane Bailey, a clinical psychologist, in 1961. They have three children. Pinsky taught at Wellesley College and at the University of California at Berkeley, and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.
Early on, Pinsky was inspired by the flow and tension of jazz and the excitement that it made him feel. As a former saxophonist, he has said that being a musician was a profoundly influential experience that he has tried to reproduce in his poetry. The musicality of poetry was and is extremely important to his work. Additionally, Pinsky revealed in a 1999 interview with Bomb Magazine that he enjoys jazz for its "physical immediacy, improvisation and also the sense that a lifetime of suffering and study and thought and emotion is behind some single phrase."
Rather than intending to communicate a single or concrete meaning with his work, Pinsky anticipated that his poetry would change depending on the particular subjectivity of each reader. Embracing the idea that people's individuality would fill out the poem, he has said, "The poetry I love is written with someone’s voice and I believe its proper culmination is to be read with someone’s voice. And the human voice in that sense is not electronically reproduced or amplified; it’s the actual living breath inside a body—not necessarily the second life of reception—not necessarily the expert’s body or the artist’s body. Whoever reads the poem aloud becomes the proper medium for the poem." Pinsky observes 'the kind of poetry I write emphasizes the physical qualities of the words' for poetry to Pinsky, is a vocal art, not necessarily performative,but reading to one self or recalling some lines by memory. Pinsky comments 'all language is necessarily abstract ' . No aspect of a poem, he observes, is more singular, more unique, than its rhythm, for there are no rules.
He received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 1974, and in 1997 he was named the United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, being the first and so far only poet to be named to three terms. As Poet Laureate, Pinsky founded the Favorite Poem Project, in which thousands of Americans of varying backgrounds, all ages, and from every state share their favorite poems. Pinsky believed that, contrary to stereotype, poetry has a strong presence in the American culture. The project sought to document that presence, giving voice to the American audience for poetry.
The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, D.C. commissioned Pinsky to write a free adaptation of Friederich Schiller's drama Wallenstein. The Shakespeare Theatre presented the play, starring Stephen Pickering in the title role, directed by Michael Kahn, in 2013. Premiering on April 17 of that year, the play had a sold-out run, in repertory with Coriolanus. Pinsky also wrote the libretto for Death and the Powers, an opera by composer Tod Machover. The opera received its world premiere in Monte Carlo in September 2010 and its U.S. premiere at Boston's Cutler Majestic Theater in March 2011. Pinsky is also the author of the interactive fiction game Mindwheel (1984) developed by Synapse Software and released by Broderbund.
Pinsky guest-starred in an episode of the animated sitcom The Simpsons TV show, "Little Girl in the Big Ten" (2002), and appeared on The Colbert Report in April, 2007, as the judge of a "Meta-Free-Phor-All" between Stephen Colbert and Sean Penn.
In 2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Selected Poems
In 2012, Circumstantial Productions released the CD, PoemJazz, by Robert Pinsky and Laurence Hobgood.