Thursday, March 19, 2009

"This is my language" A conversation with Robert Pinksy

Robert Pinsky was appointed the thirty-ninth Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1997 and served for three years. During his appointment (the popular title is Poet Laureate of the United States) he started the still ongoing Favorite Poem Project in which Americans from every state submitted their favorite poems to be included in an anthology.

Mr. Pinsky was born in 1940 in Long Branch, New Jersey, and attended Long Branch High School. He received his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University and his master’s and doctorate from Stanford University. He taught at Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley before coming to Boston University where he teaches in the graduate writing program.

He is a poet, essayist, translator and literary critic and has published numerous books, including seven volumes of poetry and a translation titled The Inferno of Dante for which he was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Translation Award. Among other awards are a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, the Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing, the William Carlos Williams Award, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism for Poetry and the World and also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996.

He writes a weekly column for The Washington Post titled “Poet's Choice” and is poetry editor of the online magazine, Slate – and still has time to appear in an episode of The Simpsons.

The Broadkill Review (TBR) expresses its gratitude to Robert Pinsky (RP) for this interview.

TBR When did you begin to describe yourself as a poet?

RP Early on, I was struck by Robert Frost’s remark that you should not call yourself a poet: that was for other people to say about you. So for many years I avoided that, sometimes walking around saying “I write poems.”

But in the world where “poet” has become among other things an academic job category, that avoidance came to seem an affectation. So pretty late on – it may have been after I published my first book, I started using the word about myself. Sometimes I still avoid it, which does seem a bit silly. And yet there’s something to what Frost says, something reverent, if not superstitious, about the art.

TBR How did you feel when your first poem was accepted for publication(which poem, when)?

RP Poetry accepted some poems when I was in my early twenties. I knew that Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Moore, Williams had published important work there. Its page design had authority. I remember feeling consciously that I was at least on the record. It was a magazine that could be found in libraries, the back issues bound as books. In some sense, I now existed.

TBR After taking an informal survey, it seems that writers are very curious about other writers’ work habits. I suspect that is so they can compare and perhaps improve their own habits. What do you think?

RP I have no habits. I think any set of habits you name – early riser or sleeps all day; tireless reviser or first draft only; longhand or machine; planning or impulse – someone has written great work with those habits.

But I myself have no patterns of behavior.

… (Or so I habitually tell myself.)

TBR And so….when do you write? every day? pen, pencil, computer? And how do you fit your writing time into a busy schedule?

RP I write whenever it is inconvenient.

Too much time or too quiet a space, the inviting cabin in the woods –that kind of thing gives me stage fright, or bores me. I like to compose in my head while driving, or in the shower. Sorry to boast, but my prose book The Sounds of Poetry was written almost entirely in airport lounges and on airplanes.

Poetry for me, before it is written with pen or pencil or computer, is written with my voice, my actual or imagined voice trying out the words.

TBR What are you reading now?

RP Ulysses. The Song of the Lark. “Spring and All.” Stevens’ “ Madame La Fleurie.” Daniel Pearl’s pieces in At Home in the World. Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Most of my reading is re-reading.

TBR Tell us about Slate and your duties as poetry editor.

RP I pick the poems, with the assistance of Maggie Dietz. Occasionally, I do a mini-anthology for Valentine’s day, or an anthology of poems against poetry for Poetry Month. Readers can click on an audio file and hear the poet read the weekly poem. Coming up, an anthology more or less celebrating difficulty.

TBR Kathryn Starbuck, in an interview with Poets and Writers, said that through grief (the loss of her parents, brother and husband) she began “scribbling things” and that “they looked like poems”. She has since published a book of poems. Is that enough to start with –that writing takes the shape of a poem?

RP Where else would one start? With reading something that feels great, I suppose. But isn’t that how a very young gent wandered into his back yard one evening and wrote “Ode to a Nightingale”? Kathryn’s account sounds right to me. I might substitute “hearing” or “sounding like a poem” for “looking like.”

TBR She began writing and publishing at 60. This seems to be a great encouragement to late starting writers. Is it ever too late to begin?

RP There are no rules in these things, I think.

TBR Camille Paglia, in the Winter 2006 – 2007 issue of Philadelphia Stories, says that she is “appalled at how weak and shoddy so much poetry has become – including the work of tediously over praised figures…….those pets of the academic elite.” And “No wonder the general public has lost interest in reading poetry…” How do you feel about that?

RP Shallow nostalgia, a cliché. Does she yearn for the days when the “general public” read Edgar Guest? Or is it Rod McKuen’s heyday she longs for? Or is it the days when the general public read Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams?

I agree with over-praised pets of professors, but has she read James McMichael? Anne Winters?

Has Prof. Paglia seen the Favorite Poem Project video of Seph Rodney reading Sylvia Plath?

A forthcoming book by the historian Joan Rubin, Songs of Ourselves, is a history of American taste in poetry. It dispels the myth of a Good Old Days pretty thoroughly.

TBR This makes me think of your essay “Poetry and American Memory”. In it you mention a lack of myth of origin and that our founding fathers were “intellectually inclined planters and merchants” that gave us “great national documents”. You ask the question ”How are they (documents) related to people, or us as a people?” Do you think that American poetry needs to leave the academic and return to the people? Be more accessible to the general public?

RP No, that doesn’t make any sense to me. Is it that “the people” are reading “Paradise Lost” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? Well, in fact, many of them are. But “accessible to the general public” characterizes Lawrence Welk, not Sid Caesar.

Anti-intellectualism is an unattractive, persistent strain in American life. Disguised as “getting back to the people” it remains obnoxious to me.

Dumbing-down is not the alternative to an equally obnoxious elitism.

The best demonstration of what I mean – and I guess of what I advocate -is my new anthology from Norton, An Invitation to Poetry, with the DVD in the back: on the DVD, video segments of a construction worker discussing Whitman, the segment on Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick” that I mentioned in my response to the previous question.

TBR Since The Situation of Poetry was published in 1976 (and reprinted in paper in 1978) has anything in contemporary poetry changed, or anything in your opinion of it since then?

RP Styles and tastes change; essential matters endure.

In Poetry and the World (1988 or 89?) I tried to take up some things that the earlier prose book left out.

TBR You wrote in The Situation of Poetry, that contemporary poets have “a dissatisfaction with the abstract, discursive and conventional nature of words as medium for the particulars of experience.” Have contemporary poets, in your view, moved beyond their rejection of the Moderns’ modeling of meaning? (Is contemporary poetry of today still the same contemporary poetry it was then?)

RP Maybe this is a good question for someone who is now the age I was –early thirties – when I was working on The Situation of Poetry. If I write another book about poetry, it would be about a different set of ideas, maybe picking up ideas that have been in my “Poet’s Choice” columns for the Washington Post.

TBR Speaking of your column for the Washington Post, it is a wonderful “textbook” on how to look at poetry, how to read it and how, even, to become a better writer. Do you intend that?

RP What you say pleases me a lot. The “Poet’s Choice” column above all must be interesting. It must choose and present a poem or two in a way that attracts and rewards the newspaper reader. In addition to that primary responsibility, I do want to make the column a welcoming, teacherly means for readers to enhance their ways of reading and hearing – and yes, of writing.

I hope someday to expand ideas in some of the columns into a book of that kind: not a textbook, but an essay that would take a fresh, helpful approach to the art.

TBR In your poem “First Things to Hand” I love the lines: And if Socrates leaves/His house in the morning,/When he returns in the evening/He will find Socrates waiting/On the doorstep. These lines are like a koan, wonderful to ponder. How did you come to them?

RP I don’t know. It’s a philosophical tag, I think. Something I read or heard somewhere. I tend to be a kind of random collector, a picker-up of things. I truly wish I were more scholarly.

TBR “Shirt” is a poem that demands to be read aloud. Is that because the listings – The back, the yoke, the yardage and The presser, the cutter, the wringer, the mangle, to show a few – set such a strong tempo?

RP In its own way, the poem is in classic English measure – a kind of sneaky, contemporary version of blank verse. It sort of plays the changes on the way Shakespeare puts speech (and prose) to lines.

TBR The visuals in this poem are staggering. Do you think that poems gain their strength, build their scaffolding, from such specifics?

RP Sometimes it’s visual, sometimes it’s auditory, sometimes it’s an idea, or a tune, or a joke. Poetry is omnivorous, it imitates speech, and a poem might use anything that might make conversation or oratory or gossip or love-talk or bickering interesting or moving or effective. Whatever serves the purpose. (And sometimes you prop open a window with a hammer, or bang something into place with a wrench.) Your scaffolding is how it sounds…literally or physically.

TBR Do you feel that by paying close attention to and by writing about the everyday things in life, like a shirt, that poems can lead us to the sublime?

RP Yes. As the achievement of W.C. Williams demonstrates, the ordinarily unremarked can be a doorway or path to the sublime.

TBR Are you still influenced by your years as Poet Laureate? Tell us what it was like being appointed.

RP I have never thought highly of titles, honors, official grades, prizes. Am I vain to think that the title was an anomalous, uncharacteristic episode in my life? In high school, I was very, very far from and all-A’s student. Definitely not National Honor Society or the Good Kids Club. My destiny, I have always felt, was not to be the darling of committees or officials.

Yet here was that title. Some practical, brisk side of me found a way to use it, by which I mean that it made possible the Favorite Poem Project, those three anthologies, the videos, the FPP readings at many schools, libraries, the White House.

For politicians, a title or position may be a goal. For the artist, it is incidental, and sometimes even a little absurd. I am grateful for the opportunities and benefits that arose from the title.

TBR What do you say to writers, in moments of self-doubt, that admire another’s work and think “I wish I could write like that”?

RP That kind of moment is absolutely essential to practicing an art, and improving one’s work in the art. Two of my favorite quotations – I have used them very often –are Yeats’ dictum “Sailing to Byzantium” that there is no “singing school” but “studying/monuments of its own magnificence” and Dexter Gordon’s response to “Where do you get your inspiration?” He says, “Lester Young,” goes on to mention the Ellington band.

The point is that these moments of admiration, with feelings of self-doubt, are how one grows in the art. In my experience, it can happen with a work from the distant past (Keats, Shakespeare, Horace in translation), works in other arts (Kurosawa, Cather), or by friends and contemporaries.

Recently, while watching Almodovar’s “Volver”, I saw a certain expression come over Carmen Maura’s face, a kind of fatalistic blend of relief and regret at the survival of something from the past. I felt very moved. At the same time I was thinking that I don’t know how to do that thing in a poem, and I wish I did….

TBR Any final words of encouragement to fledgling writers?

RP Find works of art you love, and apprentice yourself to them. Memorize things you admire, type them out. Take inspiration from greatness, in all arts.

-- Linda Blaskey conducted this interview for The Broadkill Review

Note: this interview was conducted during Feb./March 2007 via email *The title of this interview is a line from the poem "In Berkeley" by Robert Pinsky The Figured Wheel, New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 The Noonday Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


  1. I'm doing a project for school on Robert Pinsky, and I'm trying to show Williams had an influence on him. He's mentioned a lot, I wonder if he's ever actually said "williams was a big influence on me" I guess that's just wishful thinking on my part. This interview is pretty indepth, I've read a couple and he always seems to speak poetically in conversation, i get that it's his job but it seems precotious. well he is talented.

  2. Robert has a nice little bit on Williams in his book The Sounds of Poetry, referring to "the vocal gestures" of WCW...

    I can assure Robert is being Robert is being Robert. What is your project on/about/etc/etc/etc?

    Thanks for posting...