Robert Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1940. He is the author of five books of poetry: The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), which won the 1997 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee; The Want Bone (1990); History of My Heart (1984); An Explanation of America (1980); and Sadness And Happiness (1975). He has also published four books of criticism, including The Sounds of Poetry (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), which is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Poetry and the World (1988) and The Situation of Poetry (1977); two books of translation: The Inferno of Dante (1994), which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, and The Separate Notebooks by Czeslaw Milosz (with Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass); and a computerized novel, Mindwheel (1985). His honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, Poetry Magazine’s Oscar Blumenthal prize, the William Carlos Williams Award, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate. Mr. Pinsky teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University, and in 1997 was named the United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This interview took place during August 1999.
Resonance: What makes a poem, a poem? Is it a poem because it is written with a certain style?
Pinsky: It has to do with the vocal, physical nature of the language, the vowels and consonants and cadences and grammatical arrangements. As a painting is a work of art made out of paint, a poem is a work of art made out of the sounds of a language.
Resonance: Are poems of a more abstract nature than other forms of writing, such as short stories or novels? What kinds of personalities are drawn to writing poetry than to other literary forms?
Pinsky: The opposite: poems are more physical than fictions, more grounded in the body. Verse is a technology based on the grunts made by a human body. Fiction as we know it arose along with the Industrial Revolution technology of the printing press, the rectangular blocks of marks on a page.
Resonance: At what point in your life did you start writing poetry?
Pinsky: I began thinking about the sounds of words as I began thinking, as far as I can remember.
Resonance: Did you start writing poetry for your own enjoyment, or for other reasons?
Pinsky: There were no reasons; it was a habit or tic that came from somewhere.
Resonance: Did your family support you in your decision to become a poet and writer?
Resonance: Do poets work on many poems at one time? What is your work style?
Pinsky: Everyone is different. Some work on many at a time, some on one or fewer. Some have routines, some do not. I tend toward the workers-on-one-at-a-time. And I am most definitely one of those who do not have routines. I am not consistent in my ways of working.
Resonance: What societal needs do poems fulfill?
Pinsky: One of the essential human qualities is the tendency to make things–for instance, tools, tunes, social arrangements, market areas, cuisines, chants, trouble, rules, weapons, religions–and one of the greatest human appetites or needs is the craving for such made things. Poems are makings based on one of our most fundamental activities: vocal language. Our need for art seems to be bottomlessly immense. That is why they put radios in cars. Poetry is an art that takes its materials from the human body: its breath.
Resonance: Who are your favorite writers and poets? Currently, what is your favorite poem?
Pinsky: Emily Dickinson, Ben Jonson, William Butler Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, George Herbert, Thomas Hardy, John Keats, William Carlos Williams, Fulke Greville, Hart Crane, Edwin Arlington Robinson and many, many others. Favorites include Herbert’s “Church Monuments,” Jonson’s “My Picture Left in Scotland,” Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” Robinson’s “Eros Turannos,” Dickinson’s “Further in Summer than the Birds,” Greville’s “Down in the Depths of My Iniquity,” Keat’s “To Autumn,” Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” And others.
Resonance: What are some of your skills that permitted you to succeed as a poet and a writer?
Pinsky: I can hear the sounds of the English language accurately and subtly. By nature and training and lifelong habit I am alert to nuances of quantity, pitch, syntax, like and unlike vowels & consonants etc.
Resonance: What are you currently reading? What writing project are you now working on?Pinsky: I am reading the correspondence between William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. I am working on the page proofs for the Favorite Poem Project anthology, Americans’ Favorite Poems, which will be published by Norton in November. The anthology prints poems along with quotations from the readers who volunteered to read them for the FPP archive.
My next book of poems, Jersey Rain, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux next April.
Resonance: Your poetry draws from many areas of learning: Judaism, classical studies, philosophy, politics, and even the sciences. Then, we should consider poetry as a vehicle for communication about all aspects of our environment. Do you feel that poetry can add a unique perspective on our existence? What is the poet’s view of science? Of technology?
Pinsky: Nothing is outside the realm of poetry. All subjects are included. Similarly, all possible human views are potentially “poetic.” There is no one “poet’s” view of science or of anything else.
Resonance: What are the roles of art in society? Does art do something for society that cannot be done by anything else? How are art and science intertwined? Does science have a role in art? And what about the role of art in science?
Pinsky: Art and science are categories of making and the two categories sometimes blur and overlap. Making and knowing are part of an act of mind. The human appetite for making, as I have said, is profound, so profound and universal and irrepressible that you could almost say that art doesn’t so much have a “role” in society as that it is society. Our social arrangements and customs and governments are all expressions of our relentless tendency to make. That tendency to make, when it approaches perfection, we call “art.” All we do, in this sense, aspires to be “art.”
The phenomenon is so basic and pervasive that I don’t know how to describe or explain it. It is the main subject of my poetry.
Resonance: Where does poetry fit within the artistic world?
Pinsky: Poetry is the art of the marketplace, of the public square: it is made out of spoken words, which we use all day to deal with one another, the material of love affairs and business deals and shopping and school and family life, etc. It does not need equipment other than our lungs, voiceboxes, mouths.
Resonance: Millions of Americans have seen and heard you on the PBS NewsHour. How did you come to this role?
Pinsky: They asked me to do it. I think it was the idea of Jim Lehrer, himself a writer—though I don’t really know. Maybe it was the idea of Jeff Brown, the producer I work with for those appearances.
Resonance: Your term as the United States Poet Laureate has been extended to a third unprecedented year. Please tell us what your responsibilities are as the Poet Laureate, as well as some of your experiences. What are your goals for this year?
Pinsky: The Favorite Poem Project, the readings at which I have been moved by the variety and intensity of poems chosen by readers who are not part of poetry’s professional microcosm, has been a source of inspiration and satisfaction for me. I mean to get the archive made; I hope that the very wonderful anthology when it is published this fall, will help us get the additional funds we need to complete production of the video and audio archive.
On April 3 and 4, 2000, in Washington, the Library of Congress will host a conference on the readership of American poetry, attended by historians and scholars familiar with publishing history and the history of taste, as well as poets and critics. We plan to be able to show the first fifty or so of the videos at that conference. I invite your readers to attend.
Resonance: You have initiated The Favorite Poem Project https://www.favoritepoem.org/. From the web site, it seems that the response has been significant. What kind of response have you gotten from scientists? Tell us about some of these scientists and their poems.
Pinsky: We had about 17,500 submissions total. Of those who offered occupations, we had: 26 scientists; 30 researchers; 4 biologists; 3 chemists; 1 molecular biologist; 1 geneticist; 1 geologist; 1 meteorologist; 1 microbiologist; 1 lab worker; 1 ichthyologist; 1 botanist; 1 biochemist. Certainly some of our 6431 students are future scientists; and some of our 1035 retired people were scientists.
We also had good batches of engineers, computer programmers, pharmacists and statisticians. (The poem by Walt Whitman, ” When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer ,” reprinted below, is one of the poems selected to be read.)
Resonance: The Internet has revolutionized communications and access to information in the last several years. As bandwidth increases and computers become ever more powerful, the revolution may continue unabated. How have e-mail and Internet publishing affected the art of writing? For example, letter writing is likely a lost practice. Future historians may not have much correspondence to work with to reconstruct past events.
Pinsky: The Stanford Library, which owns many of my papers, has inquired about my turning over e-mail and other electronic files to them. So far, I haven’t, but that may be a hint of things to come in general. It’s become a truism to observe that e-mail has restored writing and correspondence to a prominent place in daily life. Will voice recognition change that? I don’t think anyone knows.
At Slate, where I am poetry editor, readers can hear the weekly poem read aloud—by the poet, or, in the case of dead poets like Emily Dickinson or Fulke Greville, by me. In this instance, digital technology restores a physical aspect of the poem, its audible delivery, that print technology lacks.
Resonance: Do you have a few favorite web sites? Our readers may be interested in the Library of Congress site https://www.broadcast.com/news/events/loc/poet100898/. Another one of interest is where you read some of your poems, https://metalab.unc.edu/ipa/pinsky. Perhaps you can tell us about your editorship at Slate magazine https://www.slate.com/.
Pinsky: There’s also a Sun Microsystems site https://www.sun.com/events/millennium/poets.html where you can—or could—hear the reading that Rita Dove, Robert Hass and I gave at the White House, reading American poets like Dickinson, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, Edwin Arlington Robinson. The President and First Lady each read a poem, too, as did some DC schoolkids, a disabled war veteran, etc. It was a kind of starting point for the Favorite Poem Project. There’s also the PBS NewsHour site with the poems I read on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/poems/july-dec99/pinsky_8-19.html
Resonance: Writing careers are notoriously difficult to bring to the level where they can financially support the writer. For many, writing must necessarily be a part-time occupation. Can you provide advice to the novice who loves to write, and wants this to be a career rather than a hobby?
Pinsky: It may be wise to find a way to earn one’s bread, a job one likes and can do honorably in a manner that leaves time and energy for writing.
Many have done great work that way: Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, a lawyer and a doctor, come to mind. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and others were fortunate enough to have been taken care of partly by inherited money or by partners. Allen Ginsberg even as a media figure who could command high fees became a college teacher.
Resonance: I enjoyed and was moved a number of times reading your poem “An Explanation of America, A Poem to my Daughter”. I read it in your book The Figured Wheel, New and Collected Poems 1966-1996, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York. I know of no way to give the reader of this interview a sense of it except to say that the poem is quite vast in its effort, successful I wish to add, to paint a picture of American history from many perspectives. The poem is over forty pages long and, I believe cannot be summarized. As I read it, I found my mind’s eye viewing in rapid succession episodes of our history, from slavery to Vietnam, from the immigrant experience to the glitz of the cities. Now, almost twenty years after you wrote it, is there anything you feel you left out of, or would like to add to, America?
Pinsky: A very good question, and a hard one. I’ll dodge it by saying that I often feel a need to point out that the title indicates “An” explanation of America, not “the” explanation! It is addressed to a child, indeed a specific child, and tries to base itself on my own, specific experience of our country. I can think of many things that might have been included: more about American music, more about the Depression, more about television . . . but the plan of the poem is self-limiting: the plan is, more or less, to make explicit some of the things that a parent implicitly hands on to a child along with a country. The attempt is to be personal, as well as civic, or to find the place where those terms overlap.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
The Haunted Ruin
By Robert Pinsky
(posted in SLATE Wednesday, June 10, 1998)
Even your computer is a haunted ruin, as your Blood leaves something of itself, warming The tool in your hand. From far off, down the billion corridors Of the semiconductor, military Pipes grieve at the junctures.
This too smells of the body, its heated Polymers smell of breast milk And worry-sweat.
Hum of so many cycles in current, voltage Of the past. Sing, wires. Feel, hand. Eyes, Watch and form
Legs and bellies of characters: Beak and eye of A. Serpentine hiss S of the foregoers, claw-tines
Of E and of the claw hammer You bought yesterday, its head Tasting of light oil, the juice
Of dead striving–the haft Of ash, for all its urethane varnish, is Polished by body salts.
Pull, clawhead. Hold, shaft. Steel face, Strike and relieve me. Voice Of the maker locked in the baritone
Whine of the handsaw working. Lost, lingerer like the dead souls of Vilna, revenant. Machine-soul.
To hear the poet read “The Haunted Ruin,” clickhttps://www.slate.com/Sound/Poem_Pinskyr_Haunted.ram