Robert Pinsky by Tom Sleigh

BOMB 68 Summer 1999
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Robert Pinsky. Photos by Star Black and Ellen Bailey. Images courtesy the Academy of American Poets.

I caught Robert Pinsky, our current poet laureate, on the fly between speaking and reading engagements. We met at his home, in his study, which is dominated by his two great artistic interests, poetry and music. There was an electric piano and a saxophone by a music stand with sheet music on it (jazz standard, “How High the Moon”), while a Fake Book lay on the floor next to a poetry manuscript of X’s or Y’s most recent book of poems. After running through the latest jokes we’d heard—a ritual of our friendship of 20 years—we talked about poetry’s place in American life at the end of the century.

Tom Sleigh Robert, early in your career you published a highly influential critical book called The Situation of Poetry. Could you sketch out where poetry was when you wrote that book, and compare it to the situation now?

Robert Pinsky I suppose I had a double meaning in mind with the title; not only the condition of poetry, but where poetry is by its nature. Poetry in its own terms is always situated between the human voice and the human intelligence. Socially and culturally, there’s a lot of evidence that poetry is a little more prominent in American culture now. Sales of books of poems are up. And the number of people reading and writing poetry seems greater. On the other hand, this doesn’t have much to do with the academy. I would say that (as far as scholarship is concerned), poetry’s place in the university, along with the place of art in general in universities, is probably more to the margin. Oddly, poetry is probably more to the center of culture and more to the fringe of university English departments.

TS When you wrote The Situation of Poetry what were you hoping its effect would be?

RP I was a young poet struggling to be noticed, to make a space for the work I was writing and admired. No one had heard of Frank Bidart. Frank and I had published or were about to publish our first books. I can’t remember whether C.K. Williams had published a book or two, but he wasn’t very well known. I think The Situation of Poetry was written from the outside of what seemed central at the time. I was writing as somebody who had never been part of a creative writing program as a student or as a teacher.

TS The ongoing question you raise in that book was the place of abstraction in poems.

RP My perception of the fashionable style of the time, rightly or wrongly, had to do with a monosyllabic vocabulary that in its most extreme form referred to monolithic, monumental substances; stone, earth, blood, air, and in the poems by Bidart and Williams there was a different vocabulary as well as ambitious intelligence and long sentences. This was before the ascendancy of Ashbery, who uses a lot of abstractions and does write quite long sentences. The more clipped and enigmatic manner of, let’s say, James Tate or early-to-middle-period Robert Bly, seemed closer to the reigning style at the time.

TS You said you were looking to clear some ground for yourself; but were there modernist poets who had cleared some of that ground for you, who you were trying to take up from?

RP Well, the slogan that I derived from William Carlos Williams, among others, was “all of the above.” Williams uses abstract language, he makes lots of discursive propositions, and my understanding of his attitude toward vocabulary is that nothing is forbidden. Any system that values or includes some kinds of language more than others is to be teased and defied and violated. So it is not so much letting in abstraction, as letting in “all of the above.”

TS Do you think the modernists are still a vital influence for younger writers?

RP The gifted poets that I read are very aware, not only of Williams and Stevens, but of Eliot and Pound.

TS Anything poets ought to be wary of in learning from these writers?

RP I don’t think one has to be wary about any influences. It’s like hearing as many types of music as possible if you’re a musician. If you can really take it in, if you’re not just imitating the mannerisms of it, in the long run any influence will be good. By definition, imitating mannerisms always is going to be shallow. Just as there may have been a fashionable style based on monosyllabic, monumental words when I wrote The Situation of Poetry in the ’70s, now there’s a readily available style for younger poets that’s somewhat nonreferential and dazzling and has a voice that seems freed of subject. And that can be as superficial or as deep as any other mode. Any influence is good as long as you go beyond couture. (laughter)

TS In these Favorite Poem readings that you’ve been conducting as poet laureate in which mainly nonpoets read their favorite poems, you said that people tend to gravitate toward Stevens and Frost?

RP I have over 10,000 letters now from people in all 50 states, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and the last time I looked, the two poets cited most often were Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.

TS Why those two?

RP Partly for formal reasons, maybe. I’m not sure, but they have penetrated the culture outside of the poetry microcosm more than others have.

TS I would have thought that Williams would have been in there.

RP I could answer this better after I’ve gone into the database and started selecting the people who’ll be included in the video and audio recordings. The last time I looked there was plenty of Williams and Stevens, but the leaders were Frost and Dickinson. I believe there was quite a lot of Shakespeare. But there’s also quite a lot of contemporary poetry. People choose poems by Bob Hass or James Tate or Louise Glück, as well.

TS Since we’re talking about audience, what about poetry’s moral and social responsibilities? During the Cold War I think there was the perception that poetry occupied a central place (in Soviet society) in the moral imagination of readers and that this fostered a large, committed audience. What’s the situation now in the wake of the Cold War?

RP I think there was a great sentimentalization of Soviet society on the part of American poets. Eastern European culture gave a certain snob value and genuine and superficial attention to poetry because of the role poetry plays in those cultures. We confused that with some sort of significant political presence. We confused state-promoted poets with the poets that were genuinely rebellious against the regime. It also turns out that the deprivation of other kinds of abundance—including electronic forms of entertainment—made books and poetry more popular in those countries than they were after people got access to TV.

TS What do you think poetry’s place in American civic life is now, compared to the Vietnam era? That was perhaps the point of comparison between Eastern Europe and here in terms of poetry’s social relevance.

RP I think that as American mass culture becomes increasingly efficient and massive and marketed and designed and distributed with increasing expertise and slickness, the craving for an art on an individual scale, like the art of poetry, becomes greater in response. A lot of things that are called popular art, are not popular art at all. Take a sitcom designed by, written and photographed by experts, and then marketed by other experts, there’s nothing popular about it—in fact, it might not even become popular in the sense that not that many people watch it. If it’s a flop, it never was popular. My interest in poetry as expressed in the Favorite Poem Project has to do with the notion that the medium for a poem is inherently individual and therefore by its nature on a human scale, because a poem’s medium is one human voice.

TS Your interest in the efficiency of mass culture is something the Italian poet Eugenio Montale talked about in a book called The Second Life of Art.

RP Yes.

TS The “second life” meant how a work was received. But what is the relationship between the first life of art—that is, the actual making of it—and the reception of it?

RP The poetry I love is written with someone’s voice and I believe its proper culmination is to be read with someone’s voice. And the human voice in that sense is not electronically reproduced or amplified; it’s the actual living breath inside a body—not necessarily the second life of reception—not necessarily the expert’s body or the artist’s body. Whoever reads the poem aloud becomes the proper medium for the poem.

TS If we’re going to talk about a second life—as poet laureate you’ve had a lot of opportunity to observe where literary culture occurs: universities, bookstores, community centers, art clubs, and the like.

RP A nice thing about the Favorite Poem readings is that they often take place in public libraries. To see people from different professions, economic classes and different kinds of education and ethnicity come together recalls the importance of the word public in “public library.”

TS Before you became engaged with the second life of art, what were some of the aesthetic values that shaped your writing?

RP Without knowing it, when I was a child I wanted to be an artist though I didn’t have any word for it. I was attracted by the idea of being an actor or a dancer or a filmmaker or a musician. And all along, I had this preoccupation with the rhythm of sentences and the sounds of words. The revelation was when I discovered that there was a whole art based on the cadences of sentences and the sounds of words. My career as a writer has been about trying to understand the relation of the system of communicative grunts to human emotion. (laughter) And my recent book, The Sounds of Poetry, is a kind of summing up of everything I’ve thought about in that regard for the last 30 years.

TS What made you write that book, and how would you like to see it affect the way poets write?

RP I’d like to see it enhance the way people read. I think the connections between the history of poetry and the present of poetry, between traditional verse and free verse, should be vital and organic. I don’t believe that what Whitman and then Allen Ginsberg were doing is totally different from what Shakespeare was doing, formally, or in any other way. If the older person who still suspects that only metrical poems with end rhyme are really poems could be encouraged to read in such a way as to understand the formal qualities in Williams and Stevens, that’s good. And if somebody else, likely to be much younger, cannot hear the sophistication and the beauty in the poems of Frost, Yeats, Dickinson, or, for that matter, Cavafy or Rilke, if that person can learn to better hear the principles that are the same between older metrical verse and free verse, that also is a gain. So the book was written to encourage an appreciation of the physical part of poetry, the bodily part, and it’s an attempt to do that with a minimum of codification, jargon, or dogmatism.

TS The body of the poem as the sound of it.

RP Yes.

TS I know that you started off as a musician playing the saxophone. I’m wondering how that may have affected the way you’ve written or the way you think about rhythm.

RP If I could play the horn the way I wanted to, I wouldn’t be a writer today.

TS (laughter)

RP Very often what I’m trying to do in my poems is achieve the kind of emotion and beauty I hear somebody like Dexter Gordon achieving.

TS Is that because of the physical immediacy or the improvisatory quality of jazz? When you’re doing a jazz solo, you think about it as a kind of revision because you’ve played the standard a million times and you’re improvising on top of that. But, at the same time, you do it for that moment and then it’s gone … then you have to do it again.

RP Yes, all of the above. The physical immediacy, improvisation and also the sense that a lifetime of suffering and study and thought and emotion is behind some single phrase. So it’s not as though Dexter Gordon picks up the saxophone and improvises being Dexter Gordon, or improvises his knowledge of music in general, or of “How High the Moon.” It’s that Dexter Gordon has been studying, thinking and mastering the physical instrument, and mastering the principle harmony. All his experience goes into that moment when he gives you an emotion.

TS Let me shift to another possible influence on you. You’ve been involved with computers and information technology for a long time, including the development of a sort of hyper-text called Mindwheel, which in some ways seems like a kind of precursor to your interest in Dante. Can you say something about that connection and how cyberspace has affected your notion of poetry?

RP Mindwheel was a computer entertainment marketed in the mid ’80s as an electronic novel. Many of the reviews of Mindwheel said that it reminded the reviewers of Dante’s Inferno. I can remember one of the testers at Synapse, the company I wrote the game for, saying, “I’ve got to read this Dante’s Inferno. Everybody keeps comparing it to Mindwheel.” (laughter) So, in a sense, Mindwheel was a preparation for doing the translation, though at the time I thought I was just raiding images out of Dante. As a reader of Mindwheel, you’re the adventurer, and the scientist who sends you off on the adventure is called Dr. Virgil. (laughter)

As to the computer itself, it’s just another inheritor of the many technologies the human animal has devised in order to deploy memory and speed of perception as supplement to its own physical puniness. And the first of these technologies must have been a kind of combination of what we now call dance, song and poetry: ways to preserve knowledge from our predecessors and transmit knowledge to our successors; ways to communicate knowledge rapidly to peers and companions who are physically distant from us. Cadence, and rhyme and rhythm and song and dance must’ve performed that role; they are the ancestors as I understand it. Just as writing is an ancestor of print, and writing and printing are ancestors of the digital computer.

TS Certain people have serious reservations about what happens to the prior technologies when the new technology comes along. Do you think of it as more of a continuum?

RP The same person who reads a video game and reads her e-mail and listens to a CD on headphones while typing on a keyboard also reads a book or newspaper that day and perhaps recites a poem to herself that day and may even dance and sing in the course of that day too and watch television and still feel desirous of more. We are image-making and image-consuming and art-making and art-consuming animals that seem to have no bottom to our appetite to consume or our desire to create.

TS So take that, Sven Birkerts. (laughter)

RP There’s room for all, including technology.

TS Another influence on you has been jokes, as in your poem “Impossible to Tell.”

RP I am interested in the social aspect of jokes. That poem was influenced by Bob Hass’s haiku book. I had always been rather haiku-deaf. Bob explained that haiku was really only a component, a kind of stanza in this long collaborative form called the renga, done in a group following certain rules. The poets coordinate what they’re doing so that as you rotate through the seasons of the year—the images having to do with the seasons of the year—you pick up an image from the person who went before you. So if I say “Winter’s coming and I put the bright, pink Styrofoam insulation squeaking into the window between the air conditioner and the sill,” That’s my December poem. Then you do your May poem, and say, “Among the bright, pink blossoms of the cherry, I hear the squeaking of the little baby sparrows.” Or something. You’ve picked up a motif and somebody else will have to get “pink” and “squeaking” into their summer poem. And this is what people who like to tell jokes do. Somebody tells a joke about an optometrist and death. And then somebody else will think of a poem with death and a dentist in it. (laughter) And if the dentist was an Italian dentist then somebody else will think of a joke that has death and an Italian pope in it. And these motifs will circulate and people are stimulated to recall jokes according to the pattern of the evening—the whole evening is like a renga. That divagating but purposeful structure was the model for the structure of the poem “Impossible to Tell.”

TS You say that one of the things you’re doing with the new book of poems you’re writing is to try to have some kind of element repeat from poem to poem. What’s the emotional impulse to make that kind of connection?

RP The circle and the idea of circularity have always been powerful for me. It’s partly a despairing idea because the circle is an image of tautology. There’s the despairing thought that all human emotion, all human statement, all striving, comes down to the idea that X equals X. On the other hand, the circle is also an image of perfection and strength and artifice and of closure and resolution. The idea that each thing will help explain the thing before it, even if they’re quite different, is consistent with something I feel about how the world is put together. I guess, for me, the circle is an image of creation and possibility, and of zero and space.

TS Well, in the spirit of circling back, is there any joke you’d like to tell us now?

RP My father at the age of 82 has started sending me Jewish jokes from a Jewish joke service on the Internet. And he sent me one where Abe runs into Solly on the street and Solly says, “Abe, I got a great deal for you. I can sell you an elephant for a hundred dollars.” And Abe says, “Sol, I don’t need no elephant. I got a little apartment. I couldn’t deal with the poopies, I couldn’t deal with the food.” And Solly says, “You don’t understand, Abe, this elephant can dance. She dances like a ballerina. She’s a wonderful dancer, you’ll love it.” “Solly, you’re just not listening to me, I don’t want an elephant. I don’t have room for it.” He says, “Abe, you don’t understand, this elephant doesn’t only dance, she sings. She lifts up her trunk and she sings like a canary. She can sing popular and classical and show tunes, rock and roll. Anything you want, she can sing it. She hears a tune once, she can sing it.” “Solly, do I have to yell at you? I can’t deal with the poopies, I can’t deal with the food. I don’t need no elephant.” “Abe, she’s not only a singer and a dancer, this elephant is an interior decorator. She can pick out upholstery, she can pick out wallpaper, she can pick out colors for your house.” “Solly! I got no room and I got no use for an elephant.” “All right Abe, I tell you what I do. I got also the male. I can give you the two elephants. I’ll give you the male and the female. I can give you the two elephants for a hundred dollars.” “Now we’re talking!” (laughter) For another joke, send a self-addressed stamped envelope.

TS Oh well, there’s a method to my madness. You once said you studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford, and you could make Winters laugh.

RP He fancied himself a great expert in boxing. He had taught boxing in a mining town in New Mexico and considered himself a great student of the art of boxing. My grandfather had fought, my dad loved boxing. I remember Winters laughing hard at me when I kept insisting that the then Cassius Clay was going to defeat Sonny Liston—a prediction I made only because Winters was chuckling about how Liston was going to make mincemeat out of Cassius Clay. I just said it for the hell of it. I was probably even more surprised than Winters when Cassius did beat the living shit out of Sonny Liston. (laughter) And I remember running to see Winters, who chuckled and said, “Well, all the experts were wrong—which proves that I’m an expert.”

TS That little contradictory flip Winters did brings me to my next point. One of the things about you that I have always been intrigued by is that your poems don’t seem Wintersian to me at all. Because they unabashedly mix lots of different registers of speech. They’re equally at home with highbrow culture as they are with pop culture, they approach form in a much more improvisiatory way than Winters would allow for, and include as many different kinds of poetic impulses as possible—like the lyric, discursive, metaphysical, even satiric. So what did you learn from Winters and what did you resist?

RP I learned not to pay attention to what the majority of poets and critics and academics were saying was good poetry or what were good principles. He genuinely had contempt for the people who handed out prizes and book reviews and all that. And up to a point I think his contempt was quite sensible. On the other hand, he attempted to create disciples out of his students and to hold a doctrine that his disciples could then follow. It was clear to me, young though I was, that this was self-defeating, and I resisted it, resisted mouthing his opinions and his taste. And I think it’s true that the people who never did become disciples, like Thom Gunn and Bob Hass and me, have tried to learn something from him, to honor his memory and keep his work alive more than his disciples did. We probably benefited more from Winters than either the disciples or those who rejected him all together. I’ll always be grateful to him for opening up the English 16th and 17th centuries to me. I don’t think there was another teacher in any university anywhere who would have been capable of making me see people like George Gascoigne and Walter Raleigh as models for a young American setting out to write a poem. Winters was part of a great generation of literary critics in the American academy: Winters, Tate, Ransom, Blackmur, and in a younger generation, Jarrell. There have not been critics of that kind of power and insight since.

TS One of the things that interests me about John Crowe Ransom is that when you read his criticism it feels like an extension of his poems. And that’s certainly the way I feel when I read your poems.

RP But there were great scholars of literature in those days, too. I think that for cultural reasons I can’t quite figure out, in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, literary criticism and the professional study of literature was very powerful, and then it went into a slight decline. Not that there aren’t exceptions—Stephen Greenblatt is thrilling to read—but there’s an awful lot of mediocrity.

TS You and Frank Bidart and Charlie Williams and Anne Winters and Alan Williamson, Louise Glück and Jim McMichael, you all seem to be in an active conversation about what poetry is.

RP I’ve learned an immense amount from my peers, including those people you named and others. These people have not been particularly interested in signing up for a school, or a gang, or striking an attitude or posture.

TS What are the kinds of subjects or formal challenges that interest you as a poet today as opposed to when you were starting out? I know you’ve been experimenting with the autobiography.

RP I’m not sure I can explain it, but I seem to be reversing the usual pattern, which is that people write about their own life early in their career, perhaps especially in my generation. I didn’t write about my own life when I was younger. When I was ten or 11 years old, my mother, who had always been sort of an eccentric person, fell on her head, receiving a severe concussion. She suffered the effects of that head injury for about three years, maybe more. It changed my family’s life forever. She spent a very long time in the bedroom, in a darkened room because lights and sounds were painful to her. That’s something I never wrote about, or touched on—maybe a little in “History of My Heart.” She wasn’t sick in any conventional way. She acted weird. She went downstairs backwards. There were forms of behavior that made it seem like she was just crazy, which perhaps she was. I think some kind of unconscious, left-over, juvenile and lower-middle-class embarrassment on my part may have been working to preclude this sanity disaster as subject matter. But it has begun to trickle into the poems now and then. Disclosure in itself is not interesting. It’s like the difference between disrobing and being a stripper, the difference between disclosure and art.

TS I know you’ve done a lot of translating. What have you learned as a poet from translating the Inferno or the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz?

RP In both cases I think there was an enhanced respect for how much you can do with sound because the translator is always trying to create some equivalent sound that will make a work of art. In both cases, there was a kind of refreshed desire to stretch what was allowed in a poem, a feeling that one could be more reckless, break more boundaries, put more kinds of things in that someone might not expect in a poem. The respect for the unconventionality of both minds.

TS You’ve just published an anthology called The Handbook of Heartbreak. Some of the aesthetic qualities I think the poems share are formal clarity, direct treatment of the subject, a voice that’s colloquial, but also capable of rhetorical flourish.

RP It’s a book that was meant to have a wide readership. As a result I chose poems that approach their subject in a rather frontal way, and I tried to get as much variety as possible among the poems, increasing the variety as you go through the book in how the poet defines the implicit notion of heartbreak.

TS What about heartbreak as an influence?

RP I have oscillated between the two coasts more than anybody else I know. Each time I moved, I found it painful to leave behind a kind of aesthetic community, the reigning ideas, to get used to new reigning ideas, a new implicit canon, a new set of writers and predispositions. The pain was more than compensated for by a feeling that if I didn’t panic, I could hold onto the old while learning the new. So if you left a place where people were reading Robert Lowell earnestly to arrive at a place where they were reading Robert Duncan earnestly, you could learn from putting both tastes together. The first thing we hear about Odysseus in the Odyssey is that he traveled to many different lands and experienced the ways of people in all those different places. Implicit in that is that he is the most resourceful and ingenious and enduring of all the heroes. And I associate those qualities of endurance and perseverance, resourcefulness and ingenuity, with the fact that he went from place to place and that often caused him pain and loss and sorrow. Going from place to place also gave him a lot of savvy and understanding, witnessing the way things were done in many different places.  

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Originally published in

BOMB 68, Summer 1999

Featuring interviews with Robert Altman, Ida Applebroog, Chuck D, Alvaro Siza, Joseph Chaikin, Peter Campus, Robert Pinksky, and Maryse Conde. 

Read the issue
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