Twenty Questions for Poet Robert Pinsky

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Content. © 2013 by David St.-Lascaux

Robert Pinsky teaches at Boston University and is poetry editor for the online magazine Slate.

During Pinsky’s tenure as Poet Laureate of the United States, from 1997-2000, he created the Favorite Poem Project to document, promote, and celebrate poetry’s place in American culture.

His Selected Poems was released in 2011. A prior collection, Gulf Music, won the Theodore Roethke Prize in 2008. Jersey Rain was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2000. The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and received both the Lenore Marshall Award and the Ambassador Book Award of the English Speaking Union. His other awards include the Shelley Memorial Award, the William Carlos Williams Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, as well as the Howard Morton Landon Translation Prize for his best-selling translation of The Inferno of Dante (1994).

Pinsky is co-editor of Americans’ Favorite Poems and Poems to Read, and An Invitation to Poetry, all of which grew out of his work with the Favorite Poem Project. A fourth anthology, Essential Pleasures: Poems to Read Aloud, was released in the Spring of 2009.

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

This interview was conducted by email on 10 August 2010. St.-L’s review of Pinsky’s and Laurence Hobgood’s PoemJazz performance at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City in January 2013 will appear in the March 2013 issue of the Brooklyn Rail.

DSL: In Through the Looking Glass, Alice has the following excerpted conversation with the Queen (”Wool and Water”):

‘Only it is so very lonely here!’ Alice said in a melancholy voice; and, at the thought of her loneliness, two large tears came rolling down her cheeks.

‘Oh, don’t go on like that!’ cried the poor Queen, wringing her hands in despair. ‘Consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you’ve come to-day. Consider what o’clock it is. Consider anything, only don’t cry!’

Alice could not help laughing at this, even in the midst of her tears. ‘Can you keep from crying by considering things?’ she asked.

‘That’s the way it’s done,’ the Queen said with great decision: ‘nobody can do two things at once, you know. Let’s consider your age to begin with — how old are you?’

‘I’m seven and a half, exactly.’

‘You needn’t say “exactly”,’ the Queen remarked. ‘I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’

‘I ca’n't believe that!’ said Alice.

‘Ca’n't you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said ‘one ca’n't believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

You are a poet, a professor, a publisher and a critic – a virtual, vertical entrepreneur! How is it possible that you have done so many things? How are these roles different, and important, for you, and what has excited you about each?

RP: I love that “Wool and Water” chapter, the way rowing becomes knitting, the dialogue, the dreamy Tenniel illustration. Fascinated me when I had just learned to read, and still does. I must have read it a thousand times. (If you can believe that.)

One thing – that’s all I’ve been able to do, one thing: to consider the sounds of English, the sounds of the vowels and consonants, the sounds of the grammatical energy coursing through those vowel and consonant sounds. All those harmonies and discords and tunes and cadences. That’s the single thing I’ve ever mastered. It’s the point of the Favorite Poem Project, it’s where my writing about poetry begins and ends, it’s what I can offer students, and it’s the animating principle of my poems.

Not that I don’t have personal, familial, sexual, political feelings. It’s just that I can’t write them without finding a tune in my head. Gulf Music is a book of political anger, but I couldn’t express it except by finding sentence-tunes and cadences.

The feelings generated by the music of words in a certain order: that’s the one thing I know about, or can offer.

DSL: You wrote:

It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face – the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.

and stated in an interview:

Like poetry, jazz is based on contrasting recurrence and surprise.

Miles Davis’s Kinda Blue and Bitches Brew saved my life on two separate occasions: the former by placid recurrence and the latter by complex surprise. You recite poetry accompanied by jazz musicians. How would you characterize your recitation in these readings as “lyric,” or something else? What might be some effects on a listener listening to a singer singing an unknown language? Who would be on a “desert island” short list of your favorite jazz musicians? Which is more primitive: “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” or “Anthropology”?

RP: I hope that when I perform with musicians, as a kind of non-singing vocalist, with the players and me listening to one another, and responding, that it is pleasurable and meaningful for the audience (I know it is for me!). I hope that pleasure and meaning demonstrate something about poetry itself, and about those particular poems. I hope that what they hear might lead people in the audience toward hearing more when they read a poem and imagine saying it, in one’s own voice. (Or actually saying it, each reader in his or her voice.)

For me, it is a vocal art.


For more than two hours, silent and immoveable, the professor had sat wrapped and absorbed in the contemplation of his ” moi,” asking himself an infinite number of questions concerning the nature and operations of the soul; to which his “moi” replied so completely in accordance with his own preconceived notions, as to add, as he afterwards told me in confidence, very materially to his satisfaction with himself, and with his interior counterpart.
– “Revelations of a Clairvoyant, The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, London, 1838

A European writer friend says a European author couldn’t understand the teaching of writing – the thinking being that the ability to write is apparently like the breathing of air. Yet there are numerous creative writing programs in America. Is a degree in poetry a degree in Oudenology? What is its value?

RP: Arts can be studied and learned and taught: music, drawing, acting and directing, filmmaking, architecture. My former student Leila Philip in her book The Road to Miyama gives an account of studying the art of potting, with a great teacher in Japan. The closest, most kindred spirits to the poet in a college or university (borrowing an idea Robert Frost put forward at one of the leading universities in New Jersey) are the student athletes and their teachers. Basketball, running, pole-vaulting can be studied and learned and taught. As in arts, part of the learning is to study separate elements that in practice – both senses of that fine word “practice” – are not separate but part of a fluid whole, a process entire.

What the study will lead to is unknown. But sometimes, something. So, early in the book The Sounds of Poetry I try (being a teacher) to illustrate the disctinction between duration (or length) and accent (or pitch). In the word “popcorn” the shorter of two syllables is stressed, so that pitch and duration are in a kind of interference pattern. In the word “cornpopper,” pitch and duration re-enforce one another: the longer syllable in duration is also the one accented by pitch.

What that little distinction will lead to for any student is unknown. Some will not get it, some will be annoyed by it, some will return to it, some will not, and some will think about it and find it interesting. For some, in unknown ways – almost certainly in ways unrelated to popcorn itself – it may lead to something in the art of poetry.

Same for the pick-and-roll, the spin service, the sacrifice bunt as distinct from the drag bunt, the technique of the three-point lineman and so forth.

Such things are valuable in proportion as we value the art.

DSL: I had a professor friend who practiced what he called the Superstar Approach: To only care about one student per semester, a student he had identified as the most promising. How many students – really – will become great poets? Why care about the lesser inditers, the probably to-be-poetaster also-serve-who-sit-and-wait puppies in the litter?

RP: I am skeptical about anyone’s ability (including my own) to detect and appraise “promise” in all its infinitely various degrees and kinds and patterns. The junior high coach who cut Michael Jordan was not necessarily a fool, nor was John Wilson Croker when he wrote his smart and condescending review of Endymion by John Keats.

Since I am skeptical regarding prizes, reviews, laureates, academic critics, anthologies, etc. – judgments regarding those far along in an art, like James Joyce and Pearl Buck – how can I not be skeptical regarding judgments regarding the young?

DSL: Wisława Zymborska wrote:

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

Why is it important that we pass the culture of poetry on?

RP: Nothing is more important to me that the passing on of culture. As the abovementioned Keats says, we are born for death. We can pay our debt to him and the other dead people who have benefited us – the inventors of language itself among them – only by trying to transform what they gave us and passing it on. To break the continuity, to interrupt or corrupt or ossify that flowing through millennia, would be a great crime.

DSL: William Wordsworth charmingly wrote:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
‘Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

In what ways does an educator benefit from teaching poetry?

RP: I have most of my life earned my bread as a teacher. Though I know that teachers sometimes do harm, it is on the whole an honorable profession. I’d like to emulate the greatest musicians, athletes, filmmakers – the films of Buster Keaton and Akira Kurosawa are lessons in film, as the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Duke Ellington are lessons in music.

As I say above, it is all a single thing.

DSL: If you could be a student again, and could select a poet mentor (living or past), who would it be, and why?

RP: I dislike the notion “mentor,” and prefer the word “teacher.” And I hope that Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams and Ben Jonson and John Keats have been my teachers.

I have no ambition to be a mentor. I hope that for some people I will have been a good teacher.

DSL: A reviewer wrote about America’s Favorite Poems:

No one person, however well read, could have created this resounding collection.

You have assembled the works of other poets in anthologies, and in your “Favorite Poem Project,” Americans selecting poems that moved them. What inspired you to the communitarian, collectivist approach? Are you the Tom Sawyer, or Wikipedian Jimmy Wales, or Karl Marx of poetry? Does poetry require democracy? Why, or why not?

RP: It seemed simple, fundamental and obvious to me: ask people to say aloud the words of a poem they like, and to say a little about the poem. I think the videos at www.favoritepoem,org demonstrate my point.

I was thinking about poetry, not anything communitarian and certainly not collectivist (though the sentence you quote is interesting, and I think true). I was thinking about poetry – not about marketing of poetry, not about the professional world of poetry, not about the academic study of poetry, not about poetry as show business: just about poetry, an art that for me is necessarily vocal but not necessarily performative.

Without formulating it to myself this way, I guess that thinking about poetry led to a project with implications about culture. That is, the Favorite Poem Project reflects culture in a way that has little or nothing to do with the academic entertainment industry on the one hand or the academic industry on the other hand. I have great respect for both of those industries, as well as some reservations: but they do not, together or separately, encompass all of culture.

DSL: Jorge Luis Borges wrote in “The Book of Sand”:

Then he lowered his voice as if entrusting me with a secret:

“I acquired the book in a small town on the plains for a few rupees and a Bible. Its owner didn’t know how to read. I suspect that he saw the Book of Books as an amulet. He was of the lowest caste; people weren’t able to step on his shadow without contamination. He told me that his book is called the Book of Sand because neither the book nor sand possess a beginning or an end.”

Given today’s robust publishing environment – Poet’s House has a showcase of about 2,000 private press books this year, and there were said to be about 750,000 vanity press published books in 2009, how can an anthologist – or any reader – hope to ingest – let alone digest – even a small fraction of what’s being written? Is it possible to speed read poetry?

RP: The art is vocal. Only a little, in any endeavor, is distinguished.

DSL: You wrote:

In luminous booths,
The bright, traditional wheel is on its ratchet,
And ticking gaily at its little pawl;
And the surf revolves; and passing cars and people,
Their brilliant colors – all strange and hopeful as Ralegh’s
Trophies: the balsam, the prizes of untried virtue,
Bananas and armadillos that a Captain
Carries his Monarch from another world.

Walter Ralegh wrote:

The gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten,
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Visiting their website, I observed that The Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Tool” organizes poems by “Category” – Cycle of Life, Relationships, Activities, Nature, Religion, Arts & Sciences, Social Commentaries and Myth & Folklore. Is it possible that poetry – and life – boil down to eight categories? What are the implications for a poet?

RP: As you imply, these kinds of categories – they are marketing categories I suppose – have little or nothing to do with art itself. Or with any reality. This kind of marketing – most of what such organizations do – is like the chaff that is blown before the wind. It lacks reality.

DSL: You wrote:

the patient
Is not necessarily “sick.” And one assumes
That no small part of the psychiatrist’s
Role is just that: to point out misnomers.

According to The Poetry Foundation, you fit into many of their categories, including the “Blank” (blank verse) category. Was Ralegh a nihilist? Are you really a “Blankist” (or a “Blankean”)? Is an anthology a collection of trophies for a Royal Reader? If so, why; if not, what is an anthology?

RP: An anthology is a bouquet: a bundle of flowers someone has gathered.

DSL: Mark Twain wrote:

I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value – certainly no large value…. However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden.

Why write criticism? What is the pleasure of it? How does a critic benefit from the act of critical analysis? Why did Twain omit art and dance?

RP: I think Twain has said the last word on this subject. The writing about poetry and other arts that I admire, and try to emulate, is writing. Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, John Keats’s letters, Max Beerbohm’s theater reviews, Twain’s essay on James Fenimore Cooper, A. J. Liebling on boxing, Yvor WintersIn Defense of Reason, Thom Gunn on the ballad and English poetry, Vladimir Nabokov’s book on Nikolai Gogol.

DSL: You wrote:

I once thought most people were Italian,
Jewish or Colored.
To be white and called
Something like Ed Ford
Seemed aristocratic,
A rare distinction.

Chacun à son gout v. Universal Truth: With so many voices and experiences today, who is to say something is more worthy? Is it possible that a critic may simply not be open to, or understand the ideas or language of contemporary expression? Doesn’t criticism represent the perpetuation of an intellectual caste system at worst, or an attempt at categorization at its most benign?

RP: Personally, I judge with my ear: if the vowels and consonants and sentence-sounds are doing something interesting, I keep reading. If not, not.

I assume that I miss a lot, but that’s my only reliable compass (or scales, or choosing-instrument): the way it sounds, when I try saying it.

DSL: You wrote in a review of Jan Richman’s Because the Brain Can Be Talked Into Anything:

The rowdy, restless intelligence of Jan Richman’s work is not just for show: these poems have a sense of purpose. They establish an identity – sexual, personal, social, historical – for which survival means defiance, resisting all sorts of expectations, cants, conventions, rote or cautionary voices. Richman’s wit is ready to question anything, including the poses of identity itself….

How specifically can criticism enhance a reader’s appreciation of literature? How should a reader read a piece of criticism – what should he/she look for?

RP: Pound – his ABC of Reading is both a parody of textbooks and a kind of textbook – tells me that “critic” is based on “krino,” the Greek root for choosing. I chose Richman’s book, and in the sentence you quote I try to say why and how I chose it.

(I don’t know if Pound is correct in a scholarly sense, but his eytmology is a good gloss on his saying that the highest form of criticism is actual composition: the poet must choose a word or image or idea or cadence… many kinds of critic, not being writerly, have the luxury of not choosing, but bloviating.

DSL: J.D. McClatchy wrote of your first book, History of My Heart:

“[Pinsky] might still use poetry as (in Emerson’s phrase) ‘a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it,’ but he took his stand on the contradictions and desires of the self.”

How can a poet benefit from criticism? What have you learned from critiques of your work?

RP: McClatchy’s high-grade attention was and remains encouraging and illuminating. Excellent attention is rewarding and helpful.

DSL: Is criticism essentially the germ from which education is derived – that is, thoughtful analysis?

RP: “Kρίνω [Krino]: to pick out for oneself, to choose.”

DSL: You wrote:

Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather.

Dante Alighieri wrote, about fortune-tellers, who walk with their heads on backwards in Hell:

they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.
…and since he wanted so to see ahead,
he looks behind and walks a backward path.

Opposite the Dantean damned, the bowler-hatted Bolivian Aymara say that the future is behind them, the past before, since they can see ahead, but not behind. Why write for dead people? Whom do you write for?

RP: I would like to make something that might please the Old Ones, those who come before me. They inspire me. If I can write a poem that I can imagine pleasing them… then I am content to take my chances as to whether it will please you, or your grandchildren.

DSL: You wrote:

In a blue glow my father and little sister sat
Snuggled in one chair watching you
Their wife and mother was sick in the head
I scorned you and them as I scorned so much

and in “At Pleasure Bay”:

After you die
You hover near the ceiling above your body
And watch the mourners awhile. A few days more
You float above the heads of the ones you knew
And watch them through a twilight. As it grows darker
You wander off and find your way to the river
And wade across. On the other side, night air,
Willows, the smell of the river, and a mass
Of sleeping bodies all along the bank,
A kind of singing from among the rushes
Calling you further forward in the dark.

Death. Tod. Morte: The New York Post, in an article providing dating advice to women, recommended that women should avoid poets, who, it avers, have depressive personalities. Freud of course said that Eros and Thanatos are the twin Universal Themes. Why is so much poetry focused on adversity and death, and how do we benefit from reading poetry about these topics? And while we’re on the subject, can we ever get enough “erose” poems?

RP: One of the reasons death is – as the Woody Allen character says in Annie Hall – “an important subject” is that, being born for it, which is to say being a culture-transmitting animal, we live by virtue of what is given us by previous generations, a peculiar gift we can preserve for those who follow us only by changing it. Though most forms of piety repel me, I am pious about that process.

As to the courtship wisdom of the New York Post, my perspective is different: there are so many good reasons for women (and men) to avoid choosing poets as mates – so many drawbacks and pitfalls… the possible depressive personality seems like the least of it!

People seem to value poems about the same sorts of things we sing about: from the Book of Psalms to Country & Western to Giuseppe Verdi to the blues, there is a high proportion of “adversity and death” as well as somebody done somebody wrong. It feels good to sing about these things, apparently.

DSL: BONUS QUESTION. You wrote the following words for Robot Four:

How can information end?
Is it a form of entropy?

What would you like Robert Pinsky’s legacy to be, in a poetic line or two? What’s ahead for Pinsky?

RP: The title poem of History of My Heart ends with a memory of playing the saxophone at bars and dances when I was very young:

Sometimes, playing in a bar or at a high school dance,
I felt my heart following after a capacious form,
Sexual and abstract, in the thunk, thrum,

Thrum, come-wallow and then a little screen
Of quicker notes goosing to a fifth higher, winging
To clang-whomp of a major seventh: listen to me

Listen to me, the heart says in reprise until sometimes
In the course of giving itself it flows out of itself
All the way across the air, in a music piercing

As the kids at the beach calling from the water
Look, Look at me, to their mothers, but out of itself, into
The listener the way feeling pretty or full of erotic reverie

Makes the one who feels seem beautiful to the beholder
Witnessing the idea of the giving of desire – nothing more wanted
Than the little singing notes of wanting – the heart

Yearning further into giving itself into the air, breath
Strained into song emptying the golden bell it comes from,
The pure source poured altogether out and away.

* * *

Comments are closed.