Interview with Robert Pinsky
Interviewed by Melissa Studdard
You once said, in a discussion about Singing School, that a poet getting another poet’s work by heart is like a musician warming an instrument with someone else’s song. It’s such a gorgeous analogy. Would you elaborate?
As drawing is a form of looking and singing is a form of listening, composing a new poem is a response to the poetry one knows. “Inspiration,” it is sometimes called.
Sometimes people say about something they admire, “Oh that is so great it makes me feel like giving up” — like the not-bad alto player who, after the first time he hears Charlie Parker, throws his horn off a bridge.
I disagree with that notion, or anyway I haven’t felt that way: great music makes me want to play music, watching great tennis players makes me want to play tennis. Reading Keats or Dickinson, reading Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” or Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” makes me want to write. It’s boring, plausible stuff that makes we wonder why writing is worth it. But then I can read Alan Dugan’s “How We Heard the News” or Allen Ginsberg’s “America” and I’m reminded why I want to write.
It might be prose: that wicked funny second chapter of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend or Cather’s description of Thea Kronborg waking up in her hotel room the morning after a successful concert, in The Song of the Lark.
I remember well the feeling those passages have given me, the feeling that I wanted to get a bit of them by heart. I’d like to give other people that same feeling, and that for me is close to the reason we make art, and want it.
Getting by heart something you love does something for a poet that the best writing workshop in the world cannot do.
One thing I return to again and again with your work—both your own writing and your many projects—is the communal essence of poetry—how it brings us to our most vital humanity and connects us there. What is this strange magic? How does poetry open us like this?
Voice is voice. This primate has evolved a voice-box, and in its cleverness it uses elaborately articulated and modified grunts to achieve great things: some of those things awful and debased, and some of them noble and generous, and many of them weird combinations of those extremes, in crazy, various degrees: all enabled by voice, the primary organ of communication and memory.
Watch an infant, concentrating ardently, firmly, on voices. I’ve learned recently that the infant responds to recited poetry exactly the same way as to singing: that same comfort and excitement, that same engagement in the life of other people: the parental voice as a doorway to the social world, the world of people outside yet with oneself-- but also, in the melody of song or the melody of poetry, a doorway to the world of art.
You’ve spoken of the bodily and physical nature of poetry. I think the videos from the Favorite Poem Project beautifully exemplify how poetry moves through us. Can you tell us about the project and what you find most compelling about the videos?
Some of my many favorites among these videos demonstrate physically the power of poetry for a particular reader. I don’t mean dramatic skill, or histrionic power, but something more essential, more poetic than that. Seph Rodney, for example, reading Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick." Or Pov Chin reading Langston Hughes’ “Minstrel Man." The new, visual, digital medium demonstrates the nature of the old, bodily medium: the reader’s voice, actual or imagined, as the poet’s instrument. Seph Rodney talks about his many differences from Plath. Pov Chin, relating the poem to her family’s experience, does not mention the strange American minstrel tradition. They are not academic experts or professional performers: they are readers, and one can see and hear that they embody those poems, in the most essential way.
You and the pianist Laurence Hobgood are currently doing something unique and thrilling with music and voice and improvisation—PoemJazz. Would you tell us about the album and the tour and what it’s meant to you to be a part of it?
PoemJazz presents the voice, speaking poetry, as a musical instrument. In that, it resembles rap— in a different idiom of speech and a different musical idiom. Poetry is a matter not only of cadence, but of melody: speech depends on pitch and quantity, as well as rhythm, and I hope that in the PoemJazz CD Laurence and I have a musical conversation: between his great piano playing and a non-singing, but musical, vocalist.
In a Tablet Magazine review of your Selected Poems, David Kaufmann noted your movement from “meditative formalist to Whitmanesque bard,” and I noticed something similar—that your poems have become increasingly expansive both horizontally and vertically. I use those terms in the sense of your discussion of de Tocqueville in Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry—to mean that at the same time the poems are more broadly encompassing the contemporary experience, they’re also connecting more deeply and thoroughly to history and the future. To what do you attribute this expansion, and has it been intentional?
It is so hard to make a good work of art, I think: for me, if it is intentional it is intentional the way you try not to drown, if you find yourself pretty far out, in deep water. You flail, you grab at floating objects, you try to remember the strokes and techniques, you strive to be as calm and alert as possible.
In the course of a life, there are different opportunities to stay afloat, if you can. And maybe even more . . . to get somewhere!
Are you working on any new projects? What can we look forward to from you in the upcoming years?
There will be a new book of poems that I hope to complete with a year or so, And my Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), “The Art of Poetry,” goes live on September 30, 2014.
And of course I hope to maybe surprise myself.