American Poet Laureate from 1997-2000
Essayist, Literary Critic, Professor and Translator
I can't really lament nostalgically for some time when we were nobler or better on the subject of art or any other subject. People act like jerks most of the time. Most of us do.
Interview by Heidi Legg
I went to hear Mr. Robert Pinsky, former American Poet Laureate who founded favoritepoem.org, read from his latest work at Harvard's Sackler Museum. I went to hear his verses and see him perform live, both in preparation for this interview and as yet another privilege of living in this community. The room was filled with Pinsky followers. He read from his new book Singing School, and it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop as his baritone voice with a husky hint of someone who'd grown up near New York reverberated inside the cavernous space. Poets have long fascinated us with their parsing of words, morsels of thoughts and emotions strung together by a rhythmic beat. In my opinion, the anguish or gift that comes from choosing each particular word makes them the greatest artists of the written word. And in that spirit, during the close of National Poetry Month, I have agreed to Mr. Pinsky's request to write out some of his answers. Those he penned are in plain text, those spoken in his living room during our live interview are in italics. I hope there is some playfulness and insight in seeing the two styles of communication side by side. I was starstruck, I'll admit, and delighted in both reading his written words and then listening to his spoken words when we met in person.
What is the most important project, for you, on your desk today?
A draft of a poem, possibly called “Chorus” where I combine words spoken by (among others) the Roman poet Horace (whose father had been a slave), the American immigrant Irving Berlin, and W.E.B. DuBois.
You often mention Long Branch, New Jersey in your work. How does one’s childhood home and local color of youth define one’s art and is it the most powerful influence? Or does it simply linger?
Long Branch is an historic town: painted by Winslow Homer, the summer capital of Grant and Garfield, visited by Lincoln and by Diamond Jim Brady. The town motto: “America’s First Seashore Resort.” It is in its way the place where the idea of celebrity was invented—replacing the old idea of High Society. That old-style social elite went to Newport, Rhode Island and Saratoga Springs, New York. The new elite of show business people, patent medicine millionaires and gamblers went to Long Branch.
Are an artist's early years the most influential to their work?
I think for writers, maybe for filmmakers or visual artists as well, a lot is formed in the toddler years. You already have learned the cadences of the language of your family and friends. You already have things you want to compensate for, have had experiences you're drawn to or repelled by. A lot of the core probably is established before you're five years old.
So you think it is sound-based?
For me, yes. I grew up amid a lot of expert arguing and complaining, a lot of laughing. Those cadences and styles of complaining, admonishing, contradicting, joke telling, parodying, probably did a lot to form me as an artist.
From which surroundings do you pull from for imagery?
The ocean. And more beachside resort town than fisher folk. I like bars. I like boardwalks. I like to eat the things that live in the ocean. That idea of pleasure-seeking—and also hurricanes—of the New Jersey Shore. Also, the allure and romance of New York: after the ocean, I'd probably say the images and atmosphere of New York and its neighborhoods: that somewhat distant but powerful allure of the metropolis is probably second.
When did you realize you were onto something and recognize that you had a role to play in greatly influencing and chronicling American culture as you have today?
I am proud of the Favorite Poem Project, with the videos and the Poetry Institute for K-12 teachers.
Verbs I may prefer somehow to “influence” and that I guess feel more like what I want to do than “chronicle” might be “see,” “hear,” “remember” “understand,” “make,” “foster,” “encourage,” “understand” and “teach.”
What public opinion would you most like to change?
Arts education, in our public schools— I wish I could foster that. In my judgment, poetry and music are not ornamental activities on the outskirts of human intelligence: they are at its core.
There is a great City of Boston public high school near BU—the Boston Arts Academy, just behind Fenway Park. The students audition to get in—they sing, act, dance, play an instrument, show their visual art. Admission is academic blind. By using art as a model of focus, using one’s talents, working hard, BAA sends more than 90% of those children to some form of higher education.
Our Boston University MFA students staff a Creative Writing elective at BAA. Both they and the high school students get a lot from the relationship. I think BAA, and our work there, should be a model for the whole country.
Is there something broader beyond that specific school?
As I say in the written answer, I think art is at the center of human intelligence. The animal is not a very impressive animal. It's skin and its claws and its teeth are not very good for protection or fighting. It's not that fast or powerful. The human animal seems to have survived and thrived and, indeed, threatened the entire planet, because it has this ability to remember from its ancestors and to preserve information for its descendants so that the best marriage customs, the best funeral customs, the best property arrangements, the best kind of government, where the best food is found and what time of year: such things are passed on by some means of trans-generational memory. That kind of memory beyond a lifetime didn't begin with digital records, nor written records. It must have begun with what we now call art: some combination of what we now call poetry, music and dancing, some kind of rhythmical grunting and movement. We have evolved to need it. We surround ourselves with music, almost constantly. Also images. We're alert little mammals responsive to things like music and video. We can't look away from the TV. This, to me, suggests that poetry, music, and dance are central to education, central to the future.
Do you think we have lost sight of the value of art?
I'm not sure we've lost it. I think stupidity is the norm in every period of history.
Really, do you believe this for every period in time?
Well we do seem to have abandoned, in large measure, at least in much of the West, the principles of The Inquisition. We mostly do not still stone people and burn them for sexual activity that scares the elders. Still, stupidity and brutality are normal, I'm afraid. So, I can't really lament nostalgically for some time when we were nobler or better on the subject of art or any other subject. People act like jerks most of the time. Most of us do.
We are trying to focus on people who are doing something valuable with these interviews. Should we bother?
In every period, there are always some people who are trying to understand the truth and respect it and try to understand art and beauty and respect them. That's always an uphill or against-the-current effort. It's important and it was never easy, and we mustn’t assume we are always on the right side.
How would you define Contemporary American Poetry?
Poetry itself, in my personal definition, is making works of art from the sounds of a language. More publically, I guess I’d accept J.V. Cunningham’s social definition: he says something like, “In this book by ‘poetry ‘I mean what a man means when he goes into a bookstore and says ‘I’d like a book of poetry for a graduation present.”
As to “contemporary” . . . well, the contemporary is interesting as part of the past and part of the future, for me. Not so much in itself.
Is there a distinctly American vein that runs through poetry from Longfellow to Robert Frost to you and even rap artists today? And if so, how will people recognize American poetry?
Jazz and the American feature film, from Keaton to Sturgis, would be my hints about this.
Do you think we can recognize the contemporary while we're in it?
I don't spend a lot of time thinking about contemporary American poetry. I do spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm going to write tomorrow, what my students might write tomorrow. I think plenty about what Frank O' Hara and William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore and Ben Jonson and John Dryden wrote a long time ago.
I'm not a good “keeper up” with what's important this week or this year. I prefer to keep up with the past and the future. Contrary to the the wisdom-formula urging people to ‘live in the present moment,’ I tend to think of the present moment as a kind of illusion. It's just passing. It's like a theoretical or abstract needle moving along between two realities: the past and the future. Anyway, I don't think a whole lot about contemporary American poetry.
Why then do poetry critics use that term?
I don’t know. Maybe there’s some influence of the visual art world, which has become so market-dominated, Maybe that has a malign influence on other arts, which I resist. I mean the idea that a gallery owner or show curator tells you ‘oh, go back to doing this, Robert, because that's what they want. We're selling this and collectors have investment in this.’ Maybe that mentality does have an influence on poetry . . . but I try to put my head in the sand and ignore it.
Another example, I am disappointed that regularly, in the entertainment section of the newspaper, where it says which films are making the most money that week. I tend to say aloud to myself ‘that belongs in the fucking business pages.’ Not in the Arts & Entertainment pages. I don't need to know that. I don't care which blockbuster is or isn't making as much money as the investors wanted it to make. Put that in the financial pages or a trade publication and just write about the movies.
When did we move from structured poetry to free verse and does this reflect anything about society to you?
For me, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams both are masters of structure and idiom. They are both not far from music. Same goes for H.D., Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Mark Strand . . . et cetera!
I have read that you believe poetry is a vocal form but do you think it lends itself better than other forms in this modern age of Twitter, and Buzz Feed and limited attention? Is Social Media poetry’s friend?
Poetry is vocal, but not necessarily performative. The best illustration of that is in the videos at www.favoritepoem.org. The people in those videos are not actors or poets or professors of poetry: they are readers giving voice to poems they love: the glassblower reading a poem by Frank O’Hara, the construction worker reading poetry by Walt Whitman, the Cambodian immigrant student, in California, reading Langston Hughes’ “Minstrel Man” and relating it to her family’s ordeal in Cambodia.
I don’t know much about Social Media, but I do think the audio component of the Web is poetry’s friend.
How does it feel to be collaborating on musical compositions given you always wanted to be a musician?
What the musicians and I make is music, I think. It is the fulfillment of my desire to be a musician. The joy of working with other musicians — I thought it was over for me, in my past. Then that joy, unexpectedly was restored to me— through poetry!
What is your favorite movie this year?
In fact, the DVD just arrived. Twenty Feet From Stardom. It's a wonderful movie about art. The main figures are backup singers. It's a documentary about Darlene Love and melody; it's about the people who sing the hooks. You glimpse their lives and witness their talents. You see Sting and Bruce Springsteen talking about these people. most of them have recorded at least one solo album but didn't much go anywhere. The meaning of that is left open. It's a very engaging movie.
How and where do you get your news?
The Boston Globe, the New York Times, The Daily Show with John Stuart, The Colbert Report.
What are you favorite spots in Cambridge?
To dine, East Coast Grill and Mu Lan. To sit and meet others, the 1369 Coffee House in Inman Square and Dwelltime, on Broadway near Prospect. To sit, at home or with the wonderful students and colleagues in the BU Creative Writing Program, 236 Bay State Road, Boston MA 02215.