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Interview with J.
M. Spalding for The Cortland Review
J.M. Spalding: Why
poetry, why not a musician or rock star?
Robert Pinsky: If I could
play the horn like Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon, it would be tempting indeed to trade
poetry for it. But the thrill I get from certain poems by Yeats or Ben Jonson or Dickinson
or Cavafy—I like rock, but I’ve never gotten a thrill like that from it. In truth, no
art has thrilled me quite as much as certain poems have. And why not try to emulate what
has seemed the greatest to you, for you.
J.M. Spalding: When did
you know that being a poet was something that you wanted to spend your life doing?
Robert Pinsky: Sometime
in my late teens or very early twenties.
J.M. Spalding: How did
you begin as a poet?
Robert Pinsky: One answer
might be "Imitating Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Frost, Eliot." Another might be
"Reading the dictionary and daydreaming about the sounds of words when I was a
kid." Another might be "Liking entertaining people when playing the saxophone as
J.M. Spalding: Eliot’s The
Waste Land—a poem I’m quite sure you’re familiar with—what do you think of
Robert Pinsky: A great,
personal poem once mistaken for a work about large historical and cultural materials.
J.M. Spalding: Poets are
sometimes liked for their work but despised for their views. Clearly there are those who
dislike Eliot for his anti-Semitism, Pound and Kerouac for their political views. In your
opinion, can one truly like the poetry but not the poet?
Robert Pinsky: Maybe.
Probably. But the limitations of all three of those artists as
artists—members of America’s provincial upper-middle class, who warred with that
class’s attitudes while embracing them—are deeply related to the meanminded aspects
of their social and political attitudes. Wouldn’t Pound be a greater writer if he had
attained something more like Joyce’s complex humanism, for instance? Wouldn’t Kerouac have
more depth as a writer if he had managed deeper views of American politics and culture?
J.M. Spalding: What was
your initial reaction to being named United States Poet Laureate?
Robert Pinsky: After the
initial feelings of pleasure at the honor and fear at the work (I knew how much energy Bob
Hass and Rita Dove had expended), I mused a little about the title itself: I had always
preferred "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress" as more dignified
and nobly American. But "Poet Laureate" has magnetic connotations for people,
J.M. Spalding: What is
the most enjoyable thing about being Poet Laureate?
Robert Pinsky: The
responses to the Favorite Poem Project have been various, enthusiastic and moving beyond
J.M. Spalding: What do
you want to do when your term as Poet Laureate expires?
Robert Pinsky: Keep
writing, keep enjoying my family. Maybe spend a little more time on music.
J.M. Spalding: What
inspired you to translate the Inferno?
Robert Pinsky: It was an
accident, an assignment to do one Canto for a group project.
J.M. Spalding: What text
did you use?
Robert Pinsky: My main
text was the Singleton en face in the Bollingen edition, with Singleton’s
wonderful notes. And I had much recourse to other translations (Sinclair, Musa,
Mandelbaum, Binyon, Longfellow) as trots and consultants.
J.M. Spalding: When you
sit down to write, what kind of setting do you have? Are there any objects that you keep
Robert Pinsky: I don’t
care about all that.
J.M. Spalding: Who is the
biggest critic of your writing?
Robert Pinsky: I am.
Friends like Frank Bidart and Louise Gluck help, as does my wife and many other friends,
but the main and most fearsome and important critic is the author.
J.M. Spalding: If you
were stuck on a desert island and could only have three books and three music recordings,
which would they be?
Robert Pinsky: Ulysses,
Paradise Lost, The Complete Works of Ben Jonson.
Toscanini, Parker, and Ellington boxed sets.
J.M. Spalding: If you
were stuck on a desert island with Rod McKuen, what would you do?
Robert Pinsky: I’d ask
him to tell me his candid, unexpurgated memoirs of people like Auden, Cary Grant, Charles
Laughton. I imagine that the gossip would be spectacularly entertaining.
J.M. Spalding: What is
the current status of poetry in America today?
"Status" or "state"? Both seem amazingly high. As to the status of it,
people are nearly pious about it, often, even though practice of it is uneven. As
to the state of poetry’s practice, writers like Frank Bidart, Louis Gl?ck, James
McMichael, Mark Strand, C.K. Williams, and Anne Winters have produced amazing work,
despite the deplorable state of much reviewing and of much academic criticism.
from The Cortland Review (March
1998). Copyright ? 1999 The Cortland Review. Online Source
Maura Kelly for FEED magazine
FEED: Tell me about how you came up with
the idea for the Favorite Poem Project.
PINSKY: The project is so much an
extension of what I’ve been doing all my life that it’s hard for me to think of it as an
"idea." Poems are meant for people’s voices. The art is vocal, but not
necessarily performative. The appeal of cadenced language is as universal as voice. It’s
not much of an "idea" to go from those basic notions on to the idea of asking as
many people as possible, of as many kinds as possible, to say a poem they love, and to
explain a little bit about why.
Most attachments are based on a physical
encounter, or begin with a physical encounter. That is why the teacher must read aloud
things he or she loves to the children, and the children must read aloud to one another
things that they have chosen, that they love. Analysis and interpretation are good, but
the appetite for them comes after that physical encounter and the attraction. First you
like the cuisine, the sport, the person, the animal… then, later, the craving comes for
information, analysis, interpretation.
FEED: So that’s why it’s important to read
poetry out loud, for the physical encounter?
PINSKY: Poetry is a bodily medium. Its
intimacy and universality depend on the medium of the reader’s voice. It must be heard to
be appreciated and to work.
FEED: What was the FPP submission that
most stood out in your mind?
PINSKY: Probably the only anonymous one in
the anthology (Americans’ Favorite Poems), about Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem
FEED: Right. "What fated her to
choose him;/She meets in his engaging mask/All reasons to refuse him…" Like most
of Robinson’s work, that poem is haunting, tragic. What explanation did the anonymous
person give for why he or she submitted it?
PINSKY: The letter is quoted on page 235
of "Americans’ Favorite Poems."
FEED: A poetry cliff-hanger! All right.
So, do you have a favorite poem? Was there a poem that you read that made you say to
yourself, "Okay, I’m becoming a poet"?
PINSKY: The list is long, perhaps
beginning with and certainly including "Sailing to Byzantium," which I typed up
and hung on the wall when I was 17 years old.
FEED: Who turned you on to "Sailing
to Byzantium"? What was it about that poem that captured your imagination?
PINSKY: My freshman English teacher Paul
Fussell first showed it to me, I think. A great teacher. I may have been attracted by the
poem’s spiritual power, entirely apart from, and as it seemed to me, above any religion
such as Christianity or Judaism. The religion of art, I suppose.
FEED: How important is the oral tradition
to you in writing poems? Telling stories used to be a popular entertainment because there
weren’t many other options. But television, and, more recently, the internet, are much
easier forms of entertainment than storytelling. Do you think poets growing up today are
missing out to some extent because they are not verbally sharing stories with their elders
PINSKY: I don’t think the appetite for TV
or the web exhausts or diminishes our appetite for personal contact, or the vocal arts. I
think people still tell and hear stories, as much as ever. What may be unusual about my
childhood and youth is that my town was a close-knit microcosm. Maybe that kind of
experience is increasingly rare. It was the New Jersey Shore as a small Southern town, in
FEED: Why are you working to keep poetry
active in American life?
PINSKY: In an age of dazzling, gorgeous,
mass media, highly duplicable and inherently on a mass scale, there is profound value in
an art whose medium is one individual’s voice — and the audience’s voice, not necessarily
the artist’s! Because poetry is inherently, and by its nature, on an individual, intimate
scale, we value it.
FEED: By that, do you mean that the voice
of any given poem is the voice of the reader more than it is the voice of the writer?
PINSKY: Not "more than,"
necessarily. A poem is a reality. That reality inheres not on a page or in an expert
performance but in the sounds of the words of the poem, realized in a voice, actual or
imagined. That reality is not bound to the poet’s voice, or to an actor’s.
FEED: Is storytelling, or the idea of
poetry sharing, necessary to sustain poetry as a viable, cultural force?
PINSKY: Sharing goods is more or less a
definition of culture, I think. It is "natural," in the way that culture is
natural. Such sharing may have more to do with the health and survival of an art than the
official world of grants, prizes, curricula, and so on.
FEED: A friend told me about an exhibition
that she saw at one of the Harvard libraries a few years ago in which your notes for your
translation of Dante’s Inferno were shown. They were covered with comments from
poet-friends of yours like Tom Sleigh and Seamus Heaney. Do you think collaboration is
important to the translating process? What are the similarities between the translation
process and the act of writing original verse?
PINSKY: I needed and used a lot of help –
more friends than it is easy to name helped out, besides Seamus and Tom, including Rosanna
Warren, Frank Bidart, Bob Hass, and many, many others. Steve Greenblatt. David Ferry. Mike
Mazur, Gail Mazur, Peter Sacks. For me, the only difference between translating and
writing a poem is that in translation one doesn’t have to think what to say next.
FEED: Are Creative Writing programs — the
Creative Writing poetry "track" — helping or hindering modern poets and poetry?
Have they narrowed the audience? Or were such programs necessary for the survival of
poetry in the second half of this century?
PINSKY: America, without the single
unifying folk tradition or the aristocratic tradition of some other cultures, has relied
on school to care for many things. Even jazz and the films of Keaton and Hitchcock now
find a harbor in universities. Creative writing becomes obnoxious when it becomes a guild.
But it is valuable in other ways: To the extent that English departments have abandoned
literature, creative writing programs have inherited it.
FEED: When does creative writing become a
PINSKY: A guild is an organization that
requires membership in order for a person to practice a craft. For instance, the
silversmiths or shoemakers allow only guild members to make silver candlesticks or leather
brogans. It would be obnoxious to limit the art of poetry to accredited members of the
creative writing guild.
FEED: You’re a great jazz lover. How is
jazz like poetry? Any favorite poems about jazz? (One of mine is Levin’s "I Remember
PINSKY: Like poetry, jazz is based on
contrasting recurrence and surprise. Most poems I like are not "about" topics in
this way; "Ode to a Nightingale" is not about a bird, and "Sailing to
Byzantium" is not about sailing or a city or sages. A wonderful poem that includes
jazz references, that comes to mind, is O’Hara’s "The Day Lady Died," which is
about different kinds and levels of being alive.
FEED: Are the bookstores and publishing
houses so inundated with poetry books that the "bad stuff" is weakening the
market and distracting readers from the "good stuff"? Or are poetry lovers
becoming overwhelmed by the plethora of choices? Or are poetry lovers damn happy to have
so much choice?
PINSKY: I think these are serious
questions: The bad driving out the good is a disturbing thought. My tendency is toward the
theory that the cream rises to the top, in the long run. Thank god for boredom! It insures
that inflated writing or coterie writing — whether the coterie is avant garde or academic
or ethnic or whatever — quietly sinks.
FEED: Is the internet helping to
disseminate poetry to a wider audience?
PINSKY: I think so — the number of poetry
sites, and the amount of poetry on them, both old and new, canonical and not, is
remarkable. And as with the poems in Slate, some of it is audible.
FEED: Which poems would you recommend as
an introduction to your work?
PINSKY: Maybe "Shirt" or
"The Figured Wheel." Maybe "The Want Bone" or "History of My
Heart." Maybe a section from "An Explanation of America." Maybe "From
the Childhood of Jesus" or "Immortal Longings." But this [choosing one of
my poems] is, as the old line has it, like choosing a favorite child. And each different
reader in each different mood will want something different.
FEED: Finally, who do you write for? Do
you have one person in mind?
PINSKY: I write for a person like me, but
who did not write this poem. To put it another way, I try to write things that would
attract and move me, if someone else had written them. I try to write something that would
make me feel something like what I feel when I read "At the Fishhouses" or
"The Snow Man" or "Eros Turannos."
Or to put it yet another way, I write for
Ben Jonson or Emily Dickinson if they were me.
from FEED Magazine. ? FEED Inc. Online Source
Interview with Ted Genoways for Meridian
How did you find out you had been named Poet Laureate?
I came home from giving a poetry reading, and there were three messages on my answering
machine from the Library of Congress. I thought it probably wasn’t an overdue book.
One of the things the Library of Congress mentioned that appealed to them was your
effort to make poetry accessible to a broader audience by putting it on-line and seeing
the web as an asset rather than a liability.
Like print and writing, the computer is just a kind of representation of what is the
actual medium of poetry, which is the human voice. I’m the poetry editor of a weekly
magazine published on the web by Microsoft; the magazine is called Slate. We have a poem in Slate every week
and readers can click on the poem and hear it read aloud. There’s a lot of poetry on the
What would you say to the people who complain that there’s no system on the web for
people to divide what’s good from bad beyond their own critical faculties?
I think that’s true, but it’s also true when you walk into Grolier Poetry Bookshop [in
Boston]. It’s also true when you pick up a literary magazine. I don’t think there’s any
guarantee of quality.
Another thing the Library of Congress cited was your other work in poetry. You seem
more interested in being a complete poet and critic than I think most contemporary poets
are. I think it was The Nation that drew the comparison to Robert Lowell. How do
you see the interaction between those different disciplines, or do you see them as
I grew up with the idea that to practice an art was to be involved in every part of it and
to try to involve art in every part of life. I never took a creative writing course, so I
don’t have a creative writing degree. I never specialized in an academic way. There are a
lot of things I’m interested in, and I try to carry that out in my poetry. The generation
of T.S. Eliot and people influenced by Eliot, I think those people as a matter of course
wrote in many different forms, were interested in translation, and it’s never occurred to
me to be any other way.
How would you remedy what seems to be a growing distance between the writer — as
artist — and the critic?
William Butler Yeats says, "Nor is there singing school but studying / monuments of
its own magnificence" [in "Sailing to Byzantium"]. That is, there’s no way
to learn to be better or to learn to do an art other than to study monumental examples of
the art. Ezra Pound says, "The highest form of criticism is actual composition."
That is, the poet must choose — the word "critic" is based on
"krinos," which means "to choose" — and critics today get away
with not choosing or not selecting but a poet every moment must choose: whether to use a
long word or a short one, this adjective or that one or none. This constant process of
criticism is part of the work of composition.
Is it a spider’s web in that way?
Everything breaks off from the matrix; the decisions may not be conscious ones, but one is
choosing at all times. With each step tens of thousands of new possibilites appear.
Which has implications especially in translation, because it’s not only your own
intentions you’re trying to forward but also someone else’s.
Yes, it’s interesting.
Especially because you, in your introduction to Dante’s Inferno, and John Ciardi
[in the introduction to his 1954 translation] say almost identical things about the
limitations of rhyme in English but come to the opposite conclusion. Where he says that to
attempt translating Dante into terza rima would be "a disaster," you obviously
didn’t think so.
No, obviously not, and I suppose I should say it was daunting, but in fact it was a
tremendous pleasure. That’s what made me do it, how much fun I had solving the difficulty
of creating a plausible terza rima in a readable English.
You employ a lot of unusual word combinations, similar to Old English kennings. For
example, from the beginning of Canto XIII: "The leaves not green, earth-hued; / The
boughs not smooth, knotted and crooked-forked."
Yes, it’s so much fun to use all those Germanic roots, particularly when you’re
translating from a Romance language. Walter Benjamin says a wonderful thing about
translation, that a restrung translation "records the change in the new
language," brought about by the work that’s being brought into it. I’m partly trying
to record the impact upon English of The Inferno.
And it must not only have an impact upon English, but also upon your poetry.
Well, translating is a wonderful form of reading; it may be the most intense form of
reading, and whenever you read a great work, it’s going to affect your own work. I think
working on this translation brought me a new intimacy with and appreciation of the
physicality of poetry. Dante is so tactile, so sensuous a writer, and trying to get some
of those effects in a parallel way or a simulacrum or an equivalent way in English gave me
a heightened sense of the importance of physical sounds, like going to all those Germanic
roots or the Old English roots in the passage you mentioned.
And I’ve noticed some of those appearing in the new poems in The Figured Wheel…
Yes, I think so, and…wait, excuse me a minute. [A brief pause] Excuse me, I had some
It’s all right; I’m sure your schedule must be constrained at all times.
Well, I do find that everything has to be written down, so it doesn’t get completely
crazy. Some guys were here taking my picture; I thought they were going to be gone when
you called. They were finished, but they were still packing up.
You must have far more requests than you can handle. How do you make those decisions?
It’s a great question. There are some things that just seem, to use my booking agent’s
expression — he will say, "This is just a good Poet Laureate thing to do."
There will be some things that just seem as though this is what the post was created for,
something that involves encouraging somebody who’s doing a very good job, bringing poetry
into schools or something where you what to enourage and support something that’s very
worthy. And sometimes it’s a personal connection. Or if it’s something that seems to
involve some national thing, like I was invited to go to the birthday party of Old
Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution here in Boston, which happens to be a ship that was
saved by a poem. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that poem [after a newspaper article in 1830
proposed dismantling the ship], and it seemed like that was something one ought to do.
A few years ago, Rita Dove did a lot to help redefine what a Laureate "ought to
do." How do you think the role of the Laureate has changed?
I think it has changed in response to the change in the times. I think that there’s been a
notable upsurge of interest in poetry and the practice of poetry, and in response to that
change in the culture the office of Laureate in a typically American way has sort of
improvised itself into something somewhat different.
So what are you hoping will be your trademark or your legacy?
I have a project that I hope to complete, which is to create an audio and video archive of
many, many Americans saying aloud a poem that person loves. I hope to have a very wide
range of regional accents, a range of ages, professions, kinds of education, and it will
not concentrate on poets or critics or experts. The idea will be to establish a record at
the millenium of the life of poetry in the United States, outside of any professional
microcosm of poetry. This project will be sponsored by the Library of Congress, as part of
their bicentennial celebration, and I hope it will also be part of the country’s millenial
from Meridian (Spring 1998). Online Source
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