Robert Pinsky – Interview


Robert Pinsky
An interview with Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinksy is one of America’s foremost poets. Alongside a large body of award-winning original poetry, he has published celebrated books of essays and criticism, as well as a much lauded translation of the Inferno. He has also written the libretto for an opera (Tod Machover’s 2010 Death and the Powers) and the script for an interactive PC adventure game (Mindwheel – 1984), and has edited various anthologies of poetry, including Americans’ Favorite Poems, the anthology of the Favorite Poems Project – a nationwide conversation about poetry initiated by Pinsky during his tenure as Poet Laureate of the United States, from 1997-2000. His most recent publication is Singing School (subtitle: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters), which he described to the Harlequin as “an anthology, but also a kind of autobiography and maybe a bit of a manifesto.”

The Harlequin spoke to him via email about the book, and about the study and practice of poetry in general.

Harlequin: You took the interesting decision not to include contemporary poets in Singing School, not because of the difficulty of choosing from among living peers, but because of the more fundamental notion that one is less likely to simply ape (consciously or unconsciously) earlier poets. You mention the example of language – because poets like Milton or Chaucer wrote in what is essentially a different incarnation of our language, it wouldn’t make sense to copy them. But what of more recent poets? What is it about the ‘new’ that makes it harder to assimilate?

Robert Pinsky: The new is too easy to assimilate. A crucial moment, a moment of commitment, is when one reaches beyond the first models to hand. It’s the moment in my imagination of John Ashbery’s life in poetry when he read Beddoes, Peacock, Clare and thought about them. Like the French Symbolists, they might have represented a way out of standard expectations. It’s the moment when I imagine John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock thinking about focus and composition in the German Expressionist directors. If you never get beyond the immediate, you risk making standard cowboy movies, or standard poems of your period. As I say in the introductory parts of Singing School, Ginsberg studied Milton and Shakespeare hard: not in order to write like them, but in order to write like himself, and not his classmates at Columbia.

H: You speak of Dexter Gordon discussing his influences (Lester Young, Billie Holiday), and it calls to mind Coltrane, how it took a long time for other jazz musicians to take what he did and make use of it in a way that wasn’t just dead-ending into what he’d already done. This seems different to the merely contemporary in that Coltrane was one of those rare geniuses who really break through an art-form and are able to rearrange it for their own needs. In terms of the sheer innovation or self-directedness of his art there are various figures in literature you could compare him to – Berryman is one, or someone like Barthelme – these kind of single-minded virtuosos who craft something new that’s unmistakably and uniquely theirs. Is there a sense in which it is dangerous for a young artist to get too enamoured of these types of figures?

RP: When Berryman and Barthelme were in their prime, there were people who simply aped their mannerisms. That was pretty dull because it was predictable and external: just a trend. Now, after the wheel of culture has turned a few times, new writers might find avenues and possibilities in their work: avenues and possibilities different from whatever writing is most available and talked about today, in a predictable, external way.

But let’s not overdo this! It’s great to read contemporaries, it’s good and natural to look at the present. When I was putting together Singing School, I was also editing the 25th anniversary edition, The Best of the Best American Poetry, and I’m proud of that book, too! I hope both books might be helpful to a poet hoping to get better, to learn more.

H: Clearly the anthology is recommending a close relationship between writing and appreciating poems. If having a broad and deep familiarization with the canon is something you’d encourage an aspiring poet to cultivate, would you like to see a return to the days before literary criticism was an academic field wherein the majority of critics – Johnson, Coleridge, Sydney – were themselves poets? As a poet-critic yourself, what is it like to straddle the perceived divide between poetry and criticism in the age of increasing specialization?

RP: “The canon” – I guess I’d revise that to “a canon.” But it’s not a word I use, articles aside. It means “a rule” and comes from the Church, doesn’t it? One of the things I intend by “there are no rules” is that each serious person ought to compile an ever-evolving body of admired or important works.

As to criticism, Pound says that word comes from the Greek krinos: “to choose.” And the poet must choose at every moment: what to say next, and how. No luxury of not choosing, or hedging. Scholarship is valuable. I’m grateful that at Stanford I was required to learn a little Old English, to study the history of the language. I was never a good student of Latin, but I’m grateful to have learned a little from trying. The point of Singing School is for each reader to become a critic and an anthologist. My choices and my remarks about them are a kind of autobiography: an example, I hope, for each reader.

For that reason, “there are no rules” is not sentimental or lax – it’s the opposite: a stringent, challenging demand.

H: You mention the term ‘literary’ being used as a pejorative – presumably this use of the word refers to the idea of ‘literary’ writing being ‘bookish’, or not having a strong enough relationship with the real, immediate, world. Does this perception contribute to the way young poets approach poetry, do you think? And how necessary is this reaction – this pushing back against established modes?

RP: Whatever is going on, whatever is in fashion, deserves to be questioned and challenged. Schools and groups and canons and manifestoes and experts deserve to be questioned and challenged. I hope my books and I deserve to be questioned and challenged. “Literary” can be an honorific word. Like “athletic” or “musical” it can denote the power of something done right, within a discipline.

H: Are there any particular poems that you love, but that you decided to leave out of the book for pedagogical reasons? If so, what was it about them that stopped you from including them?

RP: No, whatever I felt like putting in, I put in. A sterling example of that is Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” – all 97 stanzas, page after page. Not an anthology poem, and I hope its presence is startling to some readers. But I love the poem, I think it resembles a really great party. And though “pedagogical reasons” might suggest it’s too long for a short anthology, I am glad to defy that idea.

H: There is in interesting passage in the section on listening where you talk of technique, when developed, being something akin to muscle memory in athletes – a process so ingrained from study and practice that it happens subconsciously. Yet students of poetry are often reminded of how much work goes into a poem, and how much editing and rewriting and conscious thought it takes to create an impression of fluency. This comes up in Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”, which you have included in the book: “A line will take us hours maybe; / yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” To what extent should a poet trust her subconscious over conscious or reasoned-out decision-making?

RP: Athletes, too, work hard. Athletes do the equivalent of editing and revising. In sports and music, too, conscious thought precedes and enables muscle memory. Yeats can write those fluent, idiomatic, effortless-seeming couplets because he had worked out and done drills, compulsively, for years. Like someone flipping the altered scales in every key, or refining the release point of a pitch in baseball.

H: Have you noticed this in your own practice – a subconscious fluency that has grown over the years?

RP: Fluency can be a problem, an opponent. In a way, you are playing something like a chess game or hand-to-hand combat, opposed by the things you know how to do. Ideally, they help you do new things. I guess each person’s life in art sort of recapitulates that process in the entire art: the Sumo match between tradition and the future.

H: Part of this is presumably having the experience and the sympathy to know when a line should subvert or break away from an established form (either one historically established, or one established by the poem itself) – the idea of the poem defining its own shape. To what extent in your own writing is this a conscious decision or process – both in terms of the moment of subversion, and of the shaping of a poem in general?

RP: There is a point – a kind of sweet spot, maybe? – where “conscious” and “unconscious” overlaps, or the terms evaporate: a fast break well executed in basketball, a new way of improvising to the changes in the tune “Cherokee,” an actor’s phrasing or walk. Without conscious effort and study you couldn’t execute it so fluidly or intuitively. We try to describe it with terms like “second nature.” In Saturday Night Fever the character says of a dance step: “I saw it on television, and then I made it up.” There’s a truth in that, hard to express. As Milosz says in “Incantation,” a poem that celebrates the traditions of reason, poetry, philosophy, knowledge, learning, books: “everything is new under the sun.”

H: The assignments and prompts that you set in relation to your chosen poems are interesting, and seem useful, as well as being good fun. Do you still assign yourself challenges or set yourself prompts as a way to find inspiration?

RP: In a kind of idiosyncratic, exception-loaded, quizzical and ornery way, yes.

Something in me shies away, irrationally, from the term “assignment”   I can only use it ironically. Maybe that has to do with my career as a bad, recalcitrant student in adolescence. For some reason, I don’t use the perfectly fine term “prompt” either. As my students can tell you, I kind of spur them to make up their own assignments.

I guess your word “fun” is central. School is school, but we should feel free to tease it, test it and occasionally (is this an obsolete term?) play hooky from it.

H: What are the poems which most assisted your own writing? Are there individual relationships between poems you have read and those you have written, or has “influence” been a more holistic process?

RP: Direct, one-to-one, this-inspired-that relationship between something I write and something I’ve read? That doesn’t feel like how I work, or think. Trying to come up with an exception, thinking about your question, I considered saying that the title poem of Sadness And Happiness is an imitation of George Gascoigne’s great poem about himself in the world, “Gascoigne’s Woodmanship.” But then I remembered that a large element in the same poem is inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”.

(And having typed that just now, I remembered that I pair Gascoigne and Ginsberg in The Situation of Poetry. So maybe I’m making the whole thing up, about either or both of those poets as behind “Sadness And Happiness”?)

H: While Singing School is intended primarily for those who have ambitions of writing poetry (or is at least packaged as such) it also seems very useful as a guide for appreciation – for those who would like to learn how better to read a poem. This seems an important aspect of the book to consider. What can we learn from poetry, do you think, beyond poetics?

RP: In general, poetry is the supreme art that mediates between the human body and the human soul, the body producing the actual sound of the poem, in relation to the feelings and ideas and movements of the soul. In particular, here’s an example I’ve been thinking about lately: politicians and their speechwriters often strain, like inept writing students, for fancy metaphors or anecdotes. Poetry – for example Wallace Stevens in “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” or Elizabeth Bishop in “One Art” or Ben Jonson in “On His First Son” – provides a model of how powerful language can be plain, as well as fancy.