Poetry Comes First: An Interview with Robert Pinsky

    icon Nov 20, 2008
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The former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky recently came to Saginaw to receive the Theodore Roethke Award for his most recent poetry collection, Gulf Music.  Pinsky is a prolific writer of much acclaim.

The recipient of many awards throughout his career, he has published numerous books of poetry and prose as well as two works of translation.  In addition to teaching at Boston University, he currently writes the "Poet's Choice" column for the Washington Post and is the poetry editor for Slate.  He generously agreed to an interview with Review conducted via e-mail.

Review:  Since you are in town to receive the Theodore Roethke Award, I thought I would start with the man himself.  Are you a fan of Roethke's poetry?  Has his work impacted you or influenced you in any way?

Robert Pinsky:  When I was in school in the early sixties many great poets were alive, two or three generations of them.  Roethke was one of them for me, along with Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop.

Review:  As someone who has been so successful, winning the Lenore Marshall Prize and being a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, what does it mean to you to win an award named for Roethke?

RP:  I hope it is not unbecoming to say that I also won the William Carlos Williams award-- those two have special meanings for me.

Review:  What poets have influenced you as a writer?

RP:  Along with those I name above, poets of the past: John Keats, William Blake, Emily Dickinson. But also very early poets, the Sixteenth Century, people like George Gascoigne-- his great poem "Gascoigne's Woodmanship" and a similar poem by Andrew Marvell, "Upon Appleton House."  Walter Ralegh, Fulke Greville.  And in other languages, usual suspects for my generation: Pablo Neruda, Cesart Vallejo, Eugenio Montale.

Review:  The poems contained within Gulf Music seem to be very much poems of the present time though they are rich in history, both personal and political.  Can you talk about how history, whether it is tracing family genealogy or recalling national acts of war, relates to your poetics?  How does the personal and the political intersect for you?

RP:  The poems of Gulf Music do very much reflect my feelings while reading the newspaper over recent years, during the George W. Bush administration. A central strand for me comes from something I was told in South Africa. My host, preparing to take me to see a sangomo (roughly speaking, a fortune teller-- the ancestors speak through a sangomo), said to me, "I am a Zulu man, and I am proud of our Zulu culture. You must understand that in our Zulu culture we do not worship our ancestors: we do not worship them, we consult them." I felt I had heard an essence of my own convictions.

Review:  While addressing serious issues, you are still able to weave humor throughout your work.  What role does humor play in your poetry, and why do you think it is important to use?

RP:  I cannot stop trying to be funny. My first heroes, the first artists I wanted to emulate, were comics, above all the great Sid Caesar. In Emily Dickinson, in Walt Whitman, certainly in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, the comic spirit is generous. That's a model for me .

. . like those people with the canoes on their heads in Andrew Marvell's "Upon Appleton House." More recently, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, all have that generous or generative comedy.

My parents were not college-educated, but they and their circle of friends and relative were gifted, accomplished joke-tellers, arguers, complainers. In a way, that was the first stylized and expressive and ambitious language I heard, quite early in my life.

Review:  In "Poem with Lines in Any Order," you write "You can't live in the past," "Nobody can live in the future," and "There's no way to just live in the present."  Can you address this idea of how to live?

RP: I think the way to live is as a conduit: with the mission of carrying the gifts of the Old Ones who came before you in such a way as to make them suitable for those who come after you. You cannot freeze the gifts, they are changing all the time, and you do your part in adapting them to the next set of needs and desires.

Review:  Memory, or perhaps more aptly forgetting, is a recurring topic in Gulf Music.  At times, it feels like you are making a case against forgetting, that there is a danger when certain historical acts are forgotten, but at other times you seem to be saying forgetting is natural and okay.  In the poem "The Forgetting," you state, "Hardly anybody can name all eight of their great-grandparents.

/ Can you? Will your children's grandchildren remember your name?"

Then in a note at the end of the book, you include a wonderful little meditation on forgetting and things forgotten.  What was your motivation for including a note of this nature?

RP:  As in the passage from Dante's Paradiso that ends the book, I try to make peace with the fact that forgetting is inevitable . . .  as is remembering, however imperfect. Both are partial. They are the work of life.

Review:  Do you see a difference between how you write prose and how you write poetry?

RP:  When I read my prose in print, I begin mentally revising each sentence. When I see a poem in print, I think about the next poem I'd like to write.

Review:  In the essay "Bewilderment," Fanny Howe offers one possible definition of the lyric as "a method of searching for something that can't be found."  She also states that the human heart "doesn't want to answer questions so much as to lengthen the resonance of those questions."  I feel that your poems walk a similar path in that they are more interested in exploration than they are interested in resolution.  Do you have any thoughts on this?

RP:  That is a basic modernist idea, in Fanny's formulation. But sometimes I get tired of it-- I think, let's be a bit more like John Keats and Emily Dickinson and crazy William Butler Yeats: let's try to arrive at some understanding.

The English words that begin with "be-" tend to suggest a passivity, often sinister or harmful in overtone: bewitched, becalmed, bereft.

Even "bedecked" has that passive quality. Besmirched. Begone. To be "wildered" is maybe necessary, but at some point seeking likes to

find: maybe not to get, but to take charge, to behold, actively.

Review:  Gulf Music ends with a translation "From the Last Canto of Paradise."  It is one of two translations you have included in the book.  Can you tell me why you decided to end the book on this note--using your words to express those of another?

RP:  The Paradiso lines evoke a calm perception of death, loss, forgetting. In a book generated in a certain measure by anger at Mr.

Bush, Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Gonzalez, Mr. Imhof and their allies, also by a dread of forgetting, I liked having an image of peace and acceptance at the conclusion.

Review:  You have published two full length books of translations.

Why is translation important to you? Have you learned anything about your own craft by working with other people's texts?

RP:  Translation is the highest form of reading.

Review:  As U.S. Poet Laureate, you served for three terms which no one had done before.  Can you tell me about the role you played as Poet Laureate?  Why did you decide to serve for three terms?

RP:  By far the most important thing was the Favorite Poem Project, the three anthologies published by Norton, the videos at www.favoritepoem.org and on the DVD that comes with the third anthology, An Invitation to Poetry. Those videos are far more important to me than the title itself, which is just . . . well, just a title.

Review:  Could you talk about the Favorite Poems Project?  What did you find most surprising about it  What was most rewarding?  Did you yourself contribute a favorite poem to the project?

RP:  One of our principles was that the project did not focus on the favorite poems of poets or poetry critics-- but on readers outside the professional microcosm of poetry. I think the evidence in the videos and in An invitation to Poetry is extraordinary: evidence that poetry is a vocal art-- but not necessarily a performative art, the readers in the videos do something that an actor or a poet could not do.

Also, evidence that poetry has a deep, significant part in the lives of many people in our culture, people of many different ages, professions, kinds of education, regions.

Review:  It seems that you have devoted a lot of time and energy to promoting other poets work through the Poet's Choice column at the Washington Post and the poetry selections for Slate.  Why is this role of advocacy important to you?

RP:  Well, I don't set out to "promote" poetry or particular poets.

The FPP, for example, does not proselytize for poetry: rather, as www.favoritepoem.org demonstrates, the Favorite Poem Project asked readers for the names and titles of poems they liked. Writing the Post column for a while, like the segments I used to do on The NewsHour, like the FPP-- all that has been just an extension of what I do with friends and family: exchange things we like.

Review:  You have appeared on the Colbert Report and The Simpsons, and you have incorporated podcasts into the poetry selections at Slate.

Are there poetry traditionalists who look down on these forays into the world of pop culture?  Or are people more excited to see you reach new audiences/promote the cause in new ways?

RP:  I like comedy, and those two shows are brilliantly written. Smart people know that, and admire them. And the audio of the weekly poems on Slate are profoundly traditional: poetry as an art for the human voice.

Review:  Where does poetry fit in the world of new media?

RP:  The intimacy, the individual scale of poetry-- the fact that the voice is not necessarily the poet's, or an actor's, or a rap performer's, but rather the reader's voice-- that is poetry's unique role and place.  The beautiful, gorgeous, often great work in digital medal is inherently, and by the nature of its medium, on a mass scale.

A poem is inherently, and by the nature of its medium, on a human scale.  The medium is any reader's actual or imagined voice. You imagine yourself saying the poem.  Somewhere in that bodily-imaginary process is poetry's appeal and strength, more precious than ever in relation to new media.  And yet-- as at www.favoritepoem.org--the new medium can convey the poetry.

Review:  What trends in poetry, if any, do you expect to see in the coming years under an Obama administration?

RP:  I don't pay attention to trends; the artist's job is to surprise, to find something fresh.

Review:  What are your hopes for poetry and how it fits into people's daily lives?

RP:  It would be presumptuous to have hopes "for poetry"-- it is larger than that. Poetry is central, fundamental, a basic human art like dancing, singing, cuisine as distinct from nutrition, lovemaking as distinct from sex.  So I don't presume to hope for it-- except to hope that I have created some of it in Gulf Music, to hope that I may write a good poem today!

Review:  After doing so much--being U.S. Poet Laureate, working as an editor and translator in addition to writing, appearing on The Simpsons, teaching--what goals do you have left for your writing and your life?

RP:  An opera with my libretto, Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant, opens in Monte Carlo next fall. I am at work on new poems. Finishing touches on a new prose book about American small towns in Cather, Sturgess, Faulkner, HItchcock and my own life.

Review:  As someone who has a very busy schedule, you still find the time to write poetry.  How do you balance all of these things and still find time to write?

RP:  Poetry always comes first.

Review:  And finally, do you have any advice for young writers and aspiring poets?

RP:  Read the way a cook eats.





From the Last Canto of Paradise

(Paradiso XXXIII: 46 – 48, 52 – 66)

As I drew nearer to the end of all desire, I brought my longing's ardor to a final height, Just as I ought.  My vision, becoming pure,

Entered more and more the beam of that high light That shines on its own truth.  From then, my seeing Became too large for speech, which fails at sight

Beyond all boundaries, at memory's undoing— As when the dreamer sees and after the dream The passion endures, imprinted on his being

Though he can't recall the rest.  I am the same:

Inside my heart, although my vision is almost Entirely faded, droplets of its sweetness come

The way the sun dissolves the snow's crust— The way, in the wind that stirred the light leaves, The oracle that the Sibyl wrote was lost.

From Gulf Music published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

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