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Winter 2005, Volume 22.2



Joel Passey

An Appetite for Art: A Conversation with Robert Pinsky


Photo of poet Robert Pinsky.

Robert Pinsky teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He served two terms as United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. His Favorite Poem Project, undertaken during his tenure as Poet Laureate, produced internet links to archives of poems and instruction that celebrate and redefine the value of poetry in American culture. In 1999 Norton publishers released The Favorite Poem Project Anthology, produced by Pinsky and Maggie Dietz.

Published volumes of his poetry include: Sadness and Happiness (1975); An Explanation of America (1979); The Want Bone (1990); History of My Heart (1994); The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 (1996); and Jersey Rain (2000). Volumes of criticism include: Landor's Poetry (1968); The Situation of Poetry (1977); Poetry and the World (1988); and The Sounds of Poetry (1998). Translated works are: The Separate Notebooks, by Czeslaw Milosz (1983) and The Inferno of Dante (1994) for which he was given the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. He has written a computerized novel, Mindwheel (1985). Honors include: the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.

In April of 2004, Robert Pinsky participated as one of the featured scholars in the National Undergraduate Literature Conference held at Weber State University. I had the opportunity to interview him in the Special Collections room of the Stewart Library in the presence of students and faculty participating in the conference. 


Photo of Joel Passey.

Joel Passey (PhD, University of Illinois) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Weber State University. He has published in Text and Performance Quarterly, Weber Studies, Ellipsis, The James Dickey NewsLetter, Communication Journal of the Pacific, City Art, Utah Sings, Rough Draft, and Panorama. He has served as President of the Utah State Poetry Society. His interests include the study of epideictic rhetoric and the study of language as performance. He is an active reader of poetry and has performed with The Babcock Readers.

On behalf of the university, faculty and students, I want to welcome you to our campus and thank you for accepting the invitation to be part of the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. What about this conference attracted you to participate?


It is good to be here; thank you for inviting me. I respect and enjoy what you are doing. [pause] I am pausing because I don't want to say this in a way that seems anti-intellectual or disrespectful towards scholarship, but I am extremely concerned, because of my own background, in the actual pleasure and actual perception of the art of writing: not as a professional discipline, but as something that gives people excitement or comfort or pleasure.

So the idea of supporting undergraduates is important and appealing. I like that the undergraduates attending this conference are not just students performing in order to get a grade: that they enjoy literature and are interested in producing it, as well as reading it. It's all close to my heart.


In that regard, the purpose of the Favorite Poem Project, you say, is to celebrate and document poetry's role in the lives of Americans. What is your most recent assessment of the success of that project?


I'm interested in recognizing and encouraging what I think is a basic pleasure: kids love their Dr. Seuss; young children naturally like rhythmic language. Many children's games, in every culture I know of, involve rhythmic language. It's like a toddler at a wedding; the band starts up; people start dancing, swinging their bodies around; and, if there's a 3- or 4-year old kid there, the kid sees and hears and starts moving to the music. Poetry is like that—it's part of us. Poetry, based on rhythm, is a fundamental human pleasure. In order to dislike poetry, people have to learn not to take a certain, intuitive pleasure.


In the interest of extending the pleasure of poetry to others, you hold summer poetry institutes for administrators across disciplines. Is there a common apprehension these educators share about including poetry in their various disciplines?


Surprisingly many teachers are afraid of poetry. Not only middle school and high school teachers, but university teachers as well. Recently, at an event similar to this one at Harvard University, after my talk I met with instructors in a special undergraduate program they call History and Literature; there were about 15 of them. They confided, "I feel comfortable teaching fiction and drama, but I am afraid of teaching poetry. Can you give me some hints about teaching poetry?" This is understandable, but strange: all over the world grandpas and grandmas recite poetry to their children; people fall in love and say poetry to one another. How can people, as a whole, or in school or college, actually be afraid of this art? A lot of people are afraid of dancing. You have to get a little hot from dancing before you warm to all your ambitions; you might feel self-conscious, but, really, you learn to be self-conscious about it.

What is the cultural history of that anxiety that instructors coming for the summer institutes have expressed? Early in the 20th century, I. A. Richards did wonderful things; he asked a sampling of undergraduates to say what certain specific poems meant to them. He discovered a crazy range of interpretations. He concluded that we must teach reading more scientifically. Rigor would increase retention. In some ways, maybe that scientific emphasis was or became a calamity. A lot of people, as a result of well-meaning instruction, have the idea that a poem is primarily—that is, first of all—a challenge to see if you can say something "smart" about the poem.

Don't get me wrong! I am not opposed to saying smart things. I prefer them to stupid things every day. But the first challenge of reading a poem is not to say something smart about it; a poem is something that sounds wonderful when you say it out loud. It's moving or exciting or interesting, and if you experience that feeling, you will have an appetite for poetry. An appetite for information and analysis. You will analyze and interpret poetry in a way resembling how you ponder your family and friends—for the rest of your life, even after they die, you analyze those people, interpret their words or behaviors, their manners on this occasion or that. It is pleasure and feeling that leads us to analyze poems and interpret their manners and ask what they mean. But analysis doesn't make you passionate about poems. You become attached to them through physical encounters.

I have a daughter who is a veterinarian. When she was in school, I saw her watching a video of a man showing the nerves of a dog's head. So, there on the screen is a dog's head, skinned. What could be uglier than a dead dog's head, with the hide removed? This guy is saying there are three processes of the optical nerve; they are called this and this and this. There are two processes of the optic nerve in front of the mandible. He knows this like someone else might know a recipe or a tune or a familiar speech in Italian. It was very beautiful. I found myself moved, realizing how much and how surely he knew and that my child was acquiring this knowledge. So after this master physiologist in the video dies, she'll be there to pass it on to someone else. But this knowledge—studying the processes of the optic nerve—is not how she first came to like dogs. She liked them before this knowledge. She had to take a dog outside and play with it—touch it. She had to let it shit and pee and be a dog. And that is my theory of the study of why we are passionate about something, be it dogs or poems.


Your own turn-on to poetry, you have written, came when Paul Fussell introduced you to Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium." You also praise a great deal the poetry of Ben Jonson. What is it about their work that charms you?


Very simple answer why I like these poets: I think Ben Jonson is one of those people like Mozart or Charlie Parker. A master of what the ear can perceive. Nobody had a better command of vowels and consonants, not even Shakespeare. Here's a poem by Ben Jonson—his excuse for loving:

Let it not your wonder move,
Less your laughter, that I love.
Though I now write fifty years,
I have had and have my peers.
Poets, though divine, are men:
Some have loved as old again.
And it is not always Face,
Clothes, or Fortune gives the grace;
Or the feature, or the youth.
But the Language, and the Truth,
With the Ardor and the Passion,
Gives the Lover weight, and fashion.
If you then will read the Storie,
First, prepare you to be Sorie
That you never knew till now
Either whom to love, or how;
But be glad, as soon with me,
When you know that this is she
Of whose beauty it was sung
She shall make the old man young,
Keep the middle age at stay,
And let nothing high decay
Till she be the reason why
All the world for love may die.

Let me do the ending of that again:

If you then will read the Storie,
First, prepare you to be Sorie
That you never knew till now
Either whom to love, or how;
But be glad, as soon with me,
When you know that this is she
Of whose beauty it was sung
She shall make the old man young,
Keep the middle age at stay,
And let nothing high decay
Till she be the reason why
All the world for love may die.


Listening to the sentence leap across the lines—it's like watching a great dancer or athlete. You can hear how much Yeats learned from Jonson. It just flows out—over three hundred years ago! He says, "If you then will read the Storie, / First, prepare you to be Sorie." He's writing the meter "twinkle, twinkle little star," but it's coming out as convincing, natural speech! So it's really just an astonishing technical command, a command of the instrument of the vowels and consonants in the sentences, above all the sentences, all as it goes along with or punctuates or teases against the rhythm.


In your personal narrative Salt Water, you comment on the striking effect the cantonal singing in the synagogue had on you as a boy. What about those experiences shaped your interest in language and poetry?


I have said before that to me Judaism was not a religion. It was more a system of sensory deprivation. I grew up in a nominally Orthodox family; the truth is my parents were very secular, though we kept kosher. Is there a Mormon equivalent? Imagine being 12 years old and hating school. The Saturday morning service was a three to three-and-a-half hour service. I spent Saturday morning in the shul listening to old men chanting prayers—and in a language I didn't understand. But cantorial singing—these syllables coming out—it was beautiful. I sometimes think that my fascination with the sounds of language and words may stem from those experiences.


I heard you read a poem on the PBS News Hour; it was so true and heartfelt. What pedagogy, if any, informs your role as a public reader?


I did write a little book called The Sounds of Poetry. It's very much written for people who are serious, even fanatical, about that subject. If you just want to learn scansion or the names of metrical feet, it is not the book for you. My shortest advice would be to find poems you love and say them over and over again. That's the best assignment I gave, possibly the most useful thing I do as a teacher of writing or reading: to type out with your own hands some poems you love, let's say 35 pages. And I don't judge the content. It could be nursery rhymes, something your mom read to you, song lyrics.

The only rule is not to include anything you wrote. Students sometimes tell me they learn more from this exercise than anything else. Of course, when you type a poem, you're memorizing it three or four or five words at a time. Then you can think about these questions: What is the typographical error I just made? Is it a Freudian typo? Which is better, typo or original? Why is it better? Or is my version better? And you have it. You have the anthology you have typed to look back at.

The idea is not original. My wife gave this same assignment when she taught 8th grade English. I've done it with peers, with students at the University of California, Berkeley. Here is another, related suggestion—read aloud. And when you get to the end of the line and the grammar doesn't stop, then your voice should not stop. If there is tension between the grammar going on and the line trying to stop it, your voice should acknowledge that tension. As with that Jonson poem I spoke to you, "Let it not your wonder move, / Less your laughter that I love." The poem will take care of the rhymes; the pauses, the fast and slow are all written into it.


Reading aloud is part of the format you use in your creative writing classes at Boston University?


Yes, the first thing we do is hear the poem, sometimes in both the author's voice and someone else's. And I always tell my students I want them to have something by heart at all times. Periodically, I will ask, "Do you have a poem for us you want to do by heart?" And if not, then, "We'll start with you next time."


Having published a number of volumes of literary criticism, you take your role as a critic quite seriously. Why are you so devoted as a critic?


Oh, that one hurts, Joel! Yes, I have heard I have more than seven personalities. [laugh] Writing literary criticism—it's just a bad habit. [laugh] I guess that for me, it's a teaching function. A book like this, Sounds of Poetry, I wanted to write about the physical nature of poetry. People often talk darkly about quantity or duration, for example, as though it's some kind of arcane mystery you can't understand. Pitch seems to be another one of those mysteries. Yet, we use pitch all the time, and we can hear quantity quite well. I want to dignify and illuminate some of these essential aspects of poetry as an art.

When I wrote The Situation of Poetry, in the early 70s, I was irritated with the accepted discourse about poetry. Sure, I had always liked poetry and would write it. My goal was to modify that accepted discourse and maybe make it more helpful.


What role should academic criticism play in affecting the accessibility of poetry to the public at large?


I don't know, and it's a question that I have not dealt with. My Favorite Poem Project is an attempt to deal with the presence of poetry in people's lives—and their acceptance of poetry independent of academic criticism. The truth is, I have never read many of the scholarly works about poetry. And the books we're talking about, the ones I have written, are not scholarly books exactly. I suppose you could argue that academic criticism, in many ways, is the most useful to professional poets. If there's a lot of information you want, or new ways of thinking, some work of scholarship might be wonderful—opening new possibilities. But, I don't have a lot to say about academic criticism of poetry. It's never been any big concern of mine.


You make the observation that "all good art deflects the predictable." Tell us why that observation is important to you.


I think people go into poetry, I hope, because they get bored easily—and real poetry is the opposite of boredom because it is fast and fresh. I truly, deeply hate clichés—especially if I catch myself using them. People say poetry is hard to understand. Yes! That's only one of the good things about it. [laugh] Poetry is difficult; yeah, that's one of its virtues. If there's a cop show on television, you understand it before you have seen it. Some things are too easy because they are too predictable. Most things people enjoy are difficult. That's why kids love video games. Their games are difficult. The animal loves difficulty. If people make a lot of money and are successful, you'll find them out on the golf course—because it's difficult. And I think I've mentioned boredom already. I think I get bored much more easily than other people. And one of the things I like about poems is that they're always upsetting your expectations.


When you talk about the social responsibilities of poets, you say that they should feel utterly free and yet must be answerable. How do you manage that apparent contradiction?


Well, maybe that paradox occurs whenever you try to create a work of art. When you begin, whether you're one of these 19- or 20-year old people in this room or me at 60, the paper is equally blank. You also are equally free. You should feel you are able to use in your poem any swear word or personal information or political position. You're free in that sense. You do the thing you are free to do, but then you respond. This is true of art but also maybe of many things in life—you are free, but you use your freedom to respond, in a way that is answerable.


Talking about writing poetry and being answerable, Keats observed that "if poetry doesn't come as naturally as the leaves on a tree, it had better not come at all." What do you think he may have meant by that?


I think he meant something very much like what I said about why Ben Jonson is so great—he wrote verse the way some other, differently gifted person might sing or throw a ball. The way a tree makes leaves. There are people who really like to think about the sounds of words. But there are thousands of people who don't care about thinking about the sounds of words. Some people get into the rhythms of the vowels and consonants. There's some thing that we are naturally curious about; there's some obsession with physical materials. Some of us can look at a wing chair and then look away and make a pretty good drawing. Some will look at it and study it. Some of us can have a drawing implement, and the wing chair in front of us, and good light on it; yet in an hour and half we cannot reproduce an image that looks much like a wing chair. Is it learned? Is it something you acquire when you are an infant? Is it something that's in your genetic makeup? I don't know. There's something to what Keats says; if you try to will it, maybe you can awaken something, but it certainly is very difficult. More likely, it is in you as the leaves are in the seed that becomes a tree. Though unlike the tree we can study, we cultivate our gift.

I remember Mr. Winthrop, our old tyrannical teacher who taught music for several generations in Long Branch, New Jersey. His nationality was German. When the 7th graders came in, he hummed a couple of notes using a mouthpiece. Then, he asked me to hum the notes back to him, giving me the mouthpiece. I learned to play the clarinet because when I hummed with the mouthpiece it made a sound. "Do it again." That was Mr. Winthrop's system. He'd give you a mouthpiece, and you'd make a noise with it, and you'd be in the band. And if you couldn't make a noise, you were out. [laughing]


Like music, the characteristics of poetry we choose to judge its value by are somewhat subjective. In your writings you talk about physical grace, lively social texture and inward revelation. Is that a standard that you hold for yourself as you write new verse?


It's more than a standard. I can't get excited and I can't get on with doing it until it has physical grace. I can have an idea for a poem, or a thought, or a feeling. I can have it for weeks or months or years. But I'm not writing a poem until it's doing something to me—until my heart aches. A thrilling difficulty. This heartache drowns me in the pain that I love. It's like doodling at the piano or playing with clay. You finally get a shape to it. So, the physical reaction is real and tangible, not just an abstract expectation. I guess what I mean by lively social texture is that even if I haven't written a particular poem, I'd still define it as interesting, the way gossip or anger or comedies are suppressed. If you hear voices through a locked door and you can't make out what they are saying, sometimes you can tell if it's interesting or not, passionate or not. It can't be measured, but if it's there, it sounds graceful, maybe even revelatory.


In what ways can poetry serve the role of transforming and shaping social needs and sustaining cultural traditions?


Whitman wrote praises and songs that opened up lots of human endeavors that were not "poetic"—not courtly matters or devotional matters. He showed us that these experiences can be celebrated and lyrical. Frank O'Hara maybe does something comparable with his way of celebrating a gay man's experience of New York City, 20th century culture, technology, etc. William Carlos Williams looks across the way, at roofers who are having lunch, and one of them… let me read you one of his poems for an example of what I'm talking about. It's titled "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper":

Now they are resting
In the fleckless light
separately in unison
like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

above the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight
Foot strips has been
Beaten lengthwise

Down the center at right
Angles and lies ready
To edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.

There's something about that noun "coping" and the participle "chewing" at the ends of two lines, then "picks up a copper strip and runs his eye along it" that speaks to us. It is what the poet has done: he has run his eye along the scene of the roofers. There's something really nice about that. He shows us what is worth noticing. It's got all kinds of human intelligence and measure and organization: the copper in eight foot strips that has been beaten lengthwise at a right angle. It is all beautiful to see and say. The poet conveys the cultural or social information, "I have the things I know and I love, and that's why I encourage you to do the same."


You made the observation in the journal 2B that "our mass media are increasingly elegant, spectacular and attractive," that they have "stimulated, rather than filled, the basic human appetite for art." In what ways can poetry fill that appetite? Or can it?


I said that not without irony or reservation about mass media, but with respect as well. I think that video and music and computer graphics can be spectacular, beautiful, gorgeous. They are on a mass scale, but that is not to say that they can't be great works of art. Buster Keaton is a mass artist, so is Miguel Antor. They are great, great artists and performers. Poetry is in certain ways the medium of the individual, the opposite of performance. I don't write for me to perform. I don't write for an actor; I write for your voice. That's my metier's glory. If you read with your voice something by me, or even imagine it in your voice, my work of art is on the scale, and at the level of intimacy, of your breath. Different from performance!—but we don't have to choose one or the other. On an individual scale, and on a human scale, poetry and the appetite for art are limitless. A person might watch a music video, listen to music in the car, read a novel in the evening, and then read a poem in the afternoon—we are art gobblers. We crave it, without end.


Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." Much of your poetry speaks to an "unfathomable matrix" of generations of people, places and objects that are all complicit. I think of "The City Dark," "Ginza Samba," "City Elegies." How did that vision form for you?


Maybe unconsciously and early? I grew up in a small town, where my grandparents had lived, where my surname was well known. I have said already that my dad was an athlete of local note; his father had a bar; before he had a bar, he sold liquor in the town during Prohibition. [speaking now to the students] I was boring Joel before this interview, telling all about how Long Branch got started as an oceanside resort. And it was just intuitive—the idea of being part of the matrix that went back into the past, in effect explaining myself to Joel by some history of where I come from. I don't remember much of what I told him; I was just a boy. I heard about it from people older than me. And now as a man of years, I look at young Americans and realize that our country today is largely held together, on the surface, by pop culture. What we share is professional sports or popular music, maybe certain films, etc. Products. We're not all one religion, not all one race, not a "purity"—not so homogenous as the Japanese, don't feel about language the way the French do.

Maybe it is our sense of impurity, of improvising and patching together, that lets us be fluent, dynamic, wealthy. And the perpetual danger and grossness of our culture, the other side of that fluidity, is also readily apparent. Can improvisation and fluidity be historical, a heritage? Are we held together by something coarse, or fine, shallow or deep? It seems incumbent upon us to think about the question, to concentrate on it. In ways, whether we know it or not, we are strategically connected to one another, profoundly connected, and connected to the many, many dead. I feel a duty to report and question these connections.


You have exploited the resources of the internet for a wide range of creative projects, and you have written a computerized novel, Mindwheel. What is it about?


Mindwheel is about the need to find a secret that civilization desperately needs. The civilization in Mindwheel is threatened as in a standard science-fiction narrative. And the protagonist is also the player or reader who must go on a quest through minds that scientists have reproduced in sort of a neuro-astral matrix. Even if the minds are dead, their energy, their neuro-electronic energy, still can be entered into like a terrain or planet. And so you go through the minds of four figures: a fascist dictator, a kind of da Vinci or Einstein or Shakespeare figure, a woman who is a female version of Freud, and a kind of rock n' roll political figure a little like John Lennon or Dick Gregory or Lenny Bruce. To some extent, Mindwheel is a Dante ripoff. It's about a quest.


What has been your most satisfying achievement to this point in your career as poet?


Maybe the volume, An Explanation of America. It's so weird. It's the most experimental thing I have done, a booklength poem addressed to a child. But choosing the most satisfying is not how I think. I hope the book of poems I'm working on now will be my best. I am also completing a prose book related to the story of King David—those recent, present works are the "achievements" I'm thinking about now. There's a sense in which you don't think about or evaluate what you did a while ago. These new books are my job, now. Choosing among the others is for someone else.


Thank you very much, Robert. It has been a real pleasure talking with you; we wish you the best with your future projects.


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