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Robert Pinsky

The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress

Robert Pinsky is the U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, 1997-98. Pinsky's verse translation, The Inferno of Dante, was published in 1995. He teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University. He is the author of five books of poetry: Sadness and Happiness (1975), An Explanation of America (1979), History of My Heart (1983), and The Want Bone (1990). The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems was published in 1996.

This program was recorded while Mr. Pinsky visited the Library of Congress as a guest poet, 1995-96 season, the year prior to his appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate. It was broadcast via NPR satellite to public radio stations nationwide, and was aired in Washington D.C. on WPFW-FM on Grace Cavalieri's program, THE POET AND THE POEM.

Grace:
Poet/critic Robert Pinsky is enjoying celebration of a new book, a verse translation of The Inferno of Dante,a beautiful book. It is being heralded by the literary world, and recently won the Los Angeles book award which is ...

Robert:
The award is "The Los Angeles Time Book Prize in Poetry."

Grace:
I want to stay with your Dante for a moment because it is an occasion in literature. And the first thing I want to know is: how did you get the idea that you wanted to do this. At what point in your life did you know that you were going to do this.

Robert:
Well it started with an assignment. It would be nice to tell you I had a profound attachment to The Inferno and I did have a great teacher, one of the great critics of the 20th Century when I was in college, Francis Ferguson, author of Idea of the Theatre. He wrote a book about purgatory, The Purgatorio I read it. He introduced me to Dante but it was what about 20 or 25 years later that my then publisher put together a book with 20 different poets, each doing a canto or two and I fell in love with the technical challenge, the technical problem of doing an English Terza Rima which was supposed to be impossible, and there is something attractive about it so I did Canto 28 for that assignment, and somebody couldnít do Canto 20 and I did Canto 20 -- and sort of secretly to amuse myself the way people play computer games or do crossword puzzles -- I started to do Canto 1 because it was hard to stop and when I finished Canto 1, I realized I was starting something. I started thinking about the math. Well three cantos, thatís a tenth of a road almost and then I sat down with some friends, sat down with my friend Seamus Heaney who had already done a couple of them and talked about it and decided I would go ahead and do it all, so on some level it was chance, and a kind of technical, I donít know the word to use for it, "puzzle-solving appeal" . I think the more profound aspects of the project may have been working on me unconsciously, but consciously it was the combination of chance -- and the love of difficulty that makes people do things. Everybody loves difficulty. You know people make a lot of money in this country. Athletes, football or basketball stars, for instance, the first thing they do is learn how to play golf, or kids compete in video arcades, and that fascination with whatís difficult really was the beginning of the project.

Grace:
Let us talk about your use of American History. I'm thinking of your poem about the Triangle Fire, "Shirt". Using history as poetry. What made you decide to separate the poem into its elements like cloth -- as a fabric itself which would come apart. What possessed you? How did that fall?

Robert:
Well the poem began as poems often do with the sounds of the words. I was really just thinking about old sewing machines, treadle-operated sewing machines and how beautiful they are, you know the gilt engraving on the arm, the black arm with gold engraving on it and the wrought-iron treadle and the wooden platform with the black steel that fits into sort of neatly and it was the sound of needle, bobbin, treadle, union, those parts of the thing. But the time I wrote the poem I was thinking a lot about creation which is one of the subjects of this book, The Want Bone. Itís largely about making, which is also destroying. Civilization in all of its horror and ugliness and its beauty consists of, you know, itís really all the work of Shiva, the Hindu god with the hammer who makes and breaks any artifact you look at. I was thinking at the time I wrote this poem about the idea that any artifact you look at -- could one understand its history, even a word if you think of a word as an artifact -- could one understand its history and all the human ingenuity and resourcefulness and suffering and agony that went into it, you could recreate the history of the whole world from it, if you could understand it. And the poem flowed out of the sounds of those words, and in its flowing it went into the channels of the conscious thinking Iíd been doing about creation. Iíd been thinking a lot about religion; Iím not a practicing 'anything.' I donít practice any but Iím interested in religion and certain religions, as one of the great, great episodes in the history of creativity or creation. The Shirt:

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seam,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes-

Grace:
At the Library of Congress. Talking to Robert Pinsky. About The Want Bone. You have been called "anecdotal,"youíve been called "discursive," youíve been called "august," youíve been called "neoclassic." You have been called "narrative," "natural." I see all this very much balanced within your work. But Iím curious about how you describe yourself. Of course weíre all many things so why canít you be those many things. But if someone were to say: 'well, just what kind of poetry do you write,' how would you describe your voice?

Robert:
I think the kind of poetry I write is, I think, about the whole range of things that people call poetry or work. I suppose that more than most Iím very attached to the old old roots of poetry as a body art, as a bodily art, that Iím very given to the old old traditions of the sounds of poetry. And that I think of it as the most bodily of all the arts. Even more bodily than dance, because in dance the medium is the body of an expert, of an artist, but in poetry the medium is the body of the audience, the medium is the column of air shaped into meaning-sounds in the mouth of anybody at all. And thatís probably kind of archaic and ancient an idea of poetry. There are people who are interested in other things, but for me the core of it is that air inside a body. Iím very interested in memorization which is the process of incorporating a poem, so, I would say the kind of poetry I write is the kind that emphasizes the physical qualities of the words.

Grace:
Youíve just changed my mind. I was thinking that poetry wasnít able to do what Cleo Laine did yesterday. I heard her hit a G above a high C and I thought, now we just never can get that high. We just can never belt it out quite like that. Itís just on the page and a poem doesnít do that. And youíre saying "oh yes, it comes through the body, oh yes." You can do a G above high C and you donít have to be schooled in a conservatory. So Iím taking what you say now as true, and happy about it , because I was just thinking a little about limitations yesterday. So you make the poem everybody's property.

Robert:
Well a great singer or a great dancer is an artist and an athlete and that art is physical or bodily in that sense, but if I recite a poem by Yeats or Frost to myself or an Emily Dickinson, Iím not a great athlete. I didnít write the words. But the actual physical forming of the words that was choreographed and determined by that now dead artist inhabits my body. If I say once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing, such a form is (that)Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enameling to keep a drowsy emperor awake, etcetera. If I do a long sentence like that. Itís not an athletic feat like hitting a high G. Not to say that hitting a high G is only an athletic feat. I hope it was a feat of expression by Cleo Laine as well. But the feat is the feat of Yeats or Dickinson or, God knows, of Chaucer, inhabiting a body that is perhaps hundreds of years in the future or is thousands of miles distant and that is a body art. Itís a bodily feat. You know my lips and my tongue and my teeth and my breath are performing that work of art. 'While that my soul repairs to her devotions here I entomb my flesh. While that my soul repairs to her devotions here I entomb my flesh that it may take acquaintance of these heaps of dust to which the blast of deathís incessant motion fed by the exhalation of our crimes drives all at last.' That was a little bit of the bodily configuration of sounds determined by George Herbert in the 17th century in England and that refined and aristocratic Englishman actually determined what the body of the grandchild of Jewish immigrants speaking the English of 20th century America would do, you know, 250 years later. Itís extraordinary and itís not physical in the way that the high G is physical but itís physical in the way thatís more intimate, you know itís less of an athletic feat. But itís a more remarkable possession by the dead intimate kind of a feat.

Grace:
Now there is a new book before us which will be coming out very soon and it is New and Collected Poems. Poems from 1965 to 1995. (since this interview changed to1966-96)

Grace:
The Want Bone you describe as having a theme, maybe a premise, which is creation and destruction. Would you say that even though these are disparate poems put together, there is something you see that is alike about all of them?

Robert:
Yeah, Iím very interested in a subject that I donít know the name for, civilization or culture or history ... all have some kind of drawback to them. But Iím interested in the way we dress and the movies we watch and crimes we commit. The nicknames that torturers have for different kinds of torture. The heroic couplet, jazz choruses, what musicians call the rhythm changes. Iíve got rhythm changes, all these makings, and it's how they fit together. As I look back on my work or think about my childhood, Iíve always been interested in how people do that. I can remember in grade school watching movies about the glass-making industry or the paper industry or oil refining, I guess corporations used to give them to the schools for free, I can remember watching those complicated machines make those things and think, you know when all the grownups die off and itís our turn, we are not going to be able to work, nobodyís going to learn how to do that. I know these kids can't do that. These kids are not going to learn how to do all that. I would get anxious that we certainly were not going to have paper after a while because those machines were clearly too complicated for anybody to learn how to work them, amongst the people I knew, the kids I knew. And that may have been stupid, as it was. As a thought, it may have been a premature aspect of my wonder at the way all these things do fit together or fail to fit together. I mean to some extent thatís true. If you look at what a downtown in a typical American small city or town was in 1950 when I was having that thought and what it is today, you would say a certain number of things have fallen apart. We have forgotten how to do some things.

Grace:
So your theme is the stuff of the world. All the stuff, all the stuff and how it fits together. And please take us further into this book. This is The Figured Wheel, just out, New and Collected Poems, 1965 to 1995. How many pages does that come to?

Robert:
Well itís all the books I ever wrote so itís four books of poems plus a new book of poems, so itís about, with some translations, itís about 300 pages.

Grace:
They are the books in total?

Robert:
Yes, itís all thatís collected. Itís everything

Grace:
You can get the complete Robert Pinsky all under one cover. That is what it should be. You know sometimes with collected poems they just are selected out and

Robert:
And then itís called the selected poems.

Grace:
But you went for the gold. Do you like the new poems in this.

Robert:
I didnít find that there was anything I wanted to cut. I found in putting it together I was as happy with one as with another.

Grace:
That is really nice to look back at your lifeís work and say "Iím not ashamed of that one." What are you going to read which is new tonight.

Robert:
I have what seems an appropriate poem to read because this evening Iím going to be at an event presided over by my friend Bob Haas, the Poet Laureate and this poem is dedicated to Bob and to our friend Elliot Gilbert who died a few years ago. His wife Sandra Gilbert, the very distinguished critic and poet, has written a beautiful book of poems and a wonderful book call Wrongful Death, about Elliotís death through the mistakes of doctors, doctors who blundered during a routine operation and they covered up their blunder and lied about the cover-up. Elliot loved jokes very much. I like jokes too. This is a kind of an elegy but itís an elegy with a couple of jokes in it. It was written while Bob was working on his haiku book. I guess I had just gotten a first copy of it. one poem I'll read tonight is " Impossible To Tell" to Robert Haas and in Memory of Elliot Gilbert.

Grace:
Humor is important in this poem about death

Robert:
You certainly donít get many elegies with two jokes in them.

Grace:
Not really. Thatís really alive, the things that you put together: the haiku, the content of the haiku, the petals, the characters, the event, the situation. Howard Nimerov loved to put jokes in poems too. But this poem is especially masterful in just its ambition, in its length.

Robert:
When Bob explained to me... I have never really quite gotten haiku. Sometimes Bob would quote them and beam and grin with pleasure and I would feel like I had to be polite and didnít quite understand why it was so wonderful. And I read the introductory material and the notes in his book and I began to get it, and he describes haiku as really part of these larger forms including renga which, as I get it, you say a stanza that has falling leaves or comparative confetti at a parade in autumn -- thatís an autumn stanza --and then a certain number of stanzas later, when itís my turn, I have to say that the colors of the people in their summer bathing suits are like confetti so I pick up something from you, but in a different season, and thatís the way a group of very elegant learned friends will spend an evening together, doing a renga, a collaborative poem. There needs to be a master who knows the very intricate rules of change and repetition and, in my own culture I realize that the thing most like that is when people who like to tell jokes, tell jokes. And if somebody tells one about a doctor, then there is a second one about a doctor. Somebody has one about a dentist and that segues that the dentist had an Irish or a Jewish accent and that segues into some ethnic vein and then another theme is picked up and you collaborate in the evening with a certain sequence of poems or jokes.

Grace:
That particular piece, about Elliot Gilbert -what was the title again.

Robert:
Impossible to Tell.

Grace:
We have to comment on its style because when you read it aloud, I thought, well Iím going to hear all the transitions he makes as he does this. I couldnít do it. I couldnít pick out your transitions and I think that means itís pretty seamless. Now, of another poetís work, you once used the phrase 'perfected by style' I think. And I canít remember the circumstance, but I thought then that style was very important to you, in that it is your high balancing act. I mean, rather, that it's your safety net. You do everything, you do anything, in a poem, but your style pulls it off and I think you are quite impatient, perhaps, of others who may not do that.

Robert:
Iíll plead guilty to impatience as a deep character trait. I think what holds a poem like this together for me, if itís held together, is largely meter; this one is in iambic pentameter and iambic pentameter whatever else it is, can be a very good glue. It is a very good way to hold things together. Itís like 4:4 you know.

Grace:
You can do a lot of things in it. Did Sandra like that poem?

Robert:
Before I published it I did in fact (before I showed it to Sandra) send it to her son Roger to see how he thought Sandra would feel, and then I sent it to Sandra and they both liked it quite well. My friend Peter Sachs, the poet, has written a great critical book about the English elegy and I told him first about sending it to Roger and then to Sandra and he said "what were you worried about?" I said well you know if youíve lost a beloved spouse, then read a poem in which there are the words "really dead" and theyíre a laugh line -- I said it gave me some trepidation and Peter who had written a book about, a great book about, elegy said a wonderful thing. He said 'really dead,' thatís the point of all elegy.

Grace:
A wonderful thing. That's from The Figured Wheel just out. The Want Bone is still in print?

Robert:
The Want Bone is still in print and the contents, in entirety, are included in the collected poems.

Grace:
What of your autobiographical poetry, Robert Pinsky. I'm thinking of your poem "Night Game." Do they have a high school named for your in Long Branch yet?

Robert:
There are two or three Robert Pinsky schools in Long Branch. Theyíre all reform schools.

Grace:
You were born in Long Branch

Robert:
Yes.

Grace:
And then

Robert:
I mean, Long Branch is the birthplace of many interesting people. There was a bunch of Jewish storekeepers in downtown Long Branch on Broadway and I think the grocery store was the Grocel's, and they had a son who grew up to be Jeff Chandler and I think it was the hardware store where the son became Myer Abrahams, M. H. Abrams, the literary critic and it was another store where the pianist Julian Katchin was the son, and the dress shop was call Estelleís and that was Norman Mailerís aunt. And my grandfather had the bar.

Grace:
And how long did you live in New Jersey

Robert:
I lived in New Jersey really until I was 21.

Grace:
So you went to school, high school

Robert:
I went to high school there.

Grace:
Elementary school, all the way

Robert:
I had the same homeroom teacher as my Dad.

Grace:
Same house? You lived in the same house?

Robert:
No, we lived originally in a kind of apartment.We lived in a largely black part of town in an apartment in a two-family house until I was around 13. When I was 13 we moved to a more, slightly up-to-the middle class more respectable part of town.

Grace:
How many Pinskyís were there.

Robert:
I had a brother and a sister as well as a mom and dad.

Grace:
These are little-known facts you know. They are not in your Contemporary Authors Iím sure. And then you went to college. Where?

Robert:
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey where I mentioned I was fortunate to study with Francis Ferguson and my freshman English teacher was Paul Fussel.

Grace:
And at the moment you felt things exploding, had you always known that you were a poet?

Robert:
I was ambitious to be a musician when I was in high school. I was a saxophone player. That was my dream.

Grace:
Do you still do that?

Robert:
I do it again. I started around four years ago, I started playing again. But I had a 25 year hiatus in between when I didnít play.

Grace:
So from Rutgers...

Robert:
Then I went to California.

Grace:
And you started writing in the 50's actually, didnít you. No let me see, the first book was in 1976

Robert:
I was a freshman at college, I graduated from high school in 1958 and I guess I

Grace:
started writing

Robert:
Iíd written songs in high school but I think I started calling them poems in my freshman year. I graduated from college in 1962.

Grace:
And your first book came out at what date.

Robert:
Not until 1974 I guess.

Grace:
And that was Sadness and Happiness. At that time could you imagine that you would be translating Dante?

Robert:
No because I didnít know Italian. So it didnít occur to me. Later at Stanford I did pass an exam in Italian on the basis of having studied Latin and Spanish. No I didnít think of myself, and still donít think of myself, as a translator. And this project, I say some of my friends say itís a joke theyíre tired of, but really Iím a metrical engineer. Iím an extremely good metrical engineer.

Grace:
I understand that. I think thatís clear, but I think youíre a little too modest about that and we know itís a little bit more than cogs in wheels. You were once called "the best young poet under fifty years of age."

Robert:
They canít say that any more.

Grace:
Are they going to say that every decade?

Robert:
They canít say that any more.

Grace:
I mean, do you think that will go on and on - "under 60," "under 70''

Robert:
Itís easier to be the best one in the 90's. All you have to do is live a long time.

Grace:
Well Stanley Kunitz just won the National Book Award.

Robert:
Stanleyís a wonderful poet.

Grace:
And you know who was up with him? The venerable Josephine Jackobson who is 88. So the two contenders were 88 years old and 90.

Robert:
Something to shoot for

Grace:
In 1983 you wrote History of My Heart. Thatís a pretty brave title. You know it was like baiting the people to come at you. Itís almost like AR Ammons writing Garbage.

Robert:
Yes. Amons picked a wonderful title.

Grace:
Come and get me.

Robert:
I think at the time An Explanation of America, and Sadness and Happiness, and History of My Heart were written, a lot of books were given names that were images, physical images, and using the abstract words in a way was a kind of gesture of defiance or contrariety - if there is such a word as "contrariety." It was an attempt to be contrary, partly.

Grace:
Youíre a pretty rebellious guy.

Robert:
What a sentence to say. Yeah, I am pretty rebellious. You could say that in some ways. In other ways, Iím a professor.

Grace:
Thatís true. And remember they say "Heís neoclassic." Also, no one talks better about poetry than you do and so I was just wondering if you would illuminate all these airwaves and just answer a couple of basic questions. For example, you have been called a "modernist." What do you think a modernist poet is, and would you just name a few of them who are your favorites.

Robert:
Well the fashionable word now is to be post-modern.

Grace:
Weíll get to that.

Robert:
I guess I am loyal to the modernist, the classic modernist -- who Iím not saying a post-modernist wouldnít be, I donít know. Terminology is not my great strong point as a critic, by the way. Iíve never been very good at terminology. "Modernist" for me first of all just means a bunch of people.

Grace:
Who are they?

Robert:
Pound, Eliot and William Carlos Williams. And for me, Yeats and Frost. A lot of people would disagree. And it has to do with a generation of writers I guess born largely in the 1880's and 1890's, maybe as far back as the 1870's who can only be compared with the generation -- I think the generation of people who were writing in 1590 and the early 17th century for the just brilliance in innovation and ebullience and discovery of how they change ways of making poems. They just happen to be two great periods.

Grace:
Wallace Stevens is one of your ghosts, would you say? Influencing you?

Robert:
Yes, certainly, absolutely.

Grace:
I ask you these things because over the years you have been called a little bit of everything. And one person compared you to Richard Wilbur in your writing. I bet you donít remember that, do you?

Robert:
I donít.

Grace:
Well there are some passages of yours that are rather elegant and classic and so I can see that too. So Iím sure you donít get hung up on how you are described over the years. Obviously you hardly remember it.

Robert:
I think youíve been reading critics that describe me as being a much more cool and classical and orderly figure than I am. I mean Iím delighted. To be compared to Richard Wilbur is an honor. Iím not complaining about it exactly.

Grace:
I know. I do actually think that it is true, that critics describe you in a way which is very formal. Their descriptions are very formal and then when one meets you, you are like a person who can take popular culture and put a spin on it and itís really very different from the way you're described

Robert:
You make me realize that my career has been a tremendous failure

Grace:
A fraud

Robert:
You make me realize that Iíve been making a joke and no one has been getting it.

Grace:
They thought that it was all just a marble column

Robert:
If I destroy myself on the way back to the hotel, it will be your fault.

Grace:
I donít think so. Letís talk about another poem just to save the mood, your translations

Robert:
How about a semi- translation from a language I really donít know at all. There is a poem in The Want Bone called "An Old Man" subtitled "After Cafavy." Since I donít know Greek at all but I have read the wonderful Sheridan Keeley and Ray Dalban's translation of this poem for years I do know that it is in a rhyme scheme similar to the one I use.. I think I still have the Wilbur notion on my mind... saying how often have I written in a certain kind of rhyme... These rhymes are pretty approximate. So it is with my poem, "An Old Man." There's a case of translating from Greek without knowing the language.

Grace:
Robert Pinsky, your poems always tell a wonderful story. You are a master storyteller. And in that poem, especially. There are far worse things to do in this world than bring a character to life on the page. Thank you. I hope we see you back here at The Library of Congress soon again. . ( Robert Pinsky was named the Poet Laureate of the United States for the coming year, 1997- 1998)


Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright."The Poet and the Poem" enjoys its 30th year on public radio, 2007.