Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Robert Pinsky on the KJB and his Life of David

Robert Pinsky. Photo: Dodge Hanson.

Poet Robert Pinsky read from his poems and from his prose book The Life of David on Tuesday evening, October 4, 2011, as part of the O. B. Hardison Poetry Series at the Folger Shakespeare Library, an event introduced and moderated by Folger director Mike Witmore. The Life of David is an imaginative portrait of David, the biblical warrior, poet, and king.

It was my editor Jonathan Rosen’s idea for me to write The Life of David. I protested that I lacked scholarship, couldn’t even read Hebrew. Jonathan said that was irrelevant: the goal was not a work of scholarship but a writer’s understanding of that greatest of lives.

So, along with embracing David’s life story as it is told in Samuel I and II, the book needed to be informed by how that story and its telling had become part of the English language itself, embedded there by the hundreds of writers who had inspired me to write. Implicitly, I needed to respect how the biblical text had formed Milton, Swift, Keats, Austen, Lincoln, Dickinson, Joyce, Faulkner, Stevens, as well as others, great and less great—and how the writers in turn had formed our understanding of David’s story and of the Psalms that are designated as being “of” David.

These are the considerations that compelled me to decide, in a book published in 2005, that all the quotations must be from the King James translation, with its countless and still increasing echoes.

Robert Pinsky, who served an unprecedented three terms as United States Poet Laureate, teaches at Boston University and is the poetry editor of Slate. His books of poetry include Selected Poems, Gulf Music, Jersey Music, and The History of My Heart. He is also the author of the prose book The Life of David and is a well-known and award-winning translator. He has written several books about poetry including Poetry and the World, which was nominated for a National Books Critics Circle Award, and The Sounds of Poetry.

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