Questions for Robert Pinsky

Kathryn Levy

Robert Pinsky is the author of eight collections of poetry including, most recently, Selected Poems. From 1997 to 2000, he served as the United States Poet Laureate, and during that time he founded the Favorite Poem Project, featuring a wide range of Americans sharing their favorite poems. His translations include the acclaimed The Inferno of Dante, and among his books of prose are Poetry and the WorldThe Sounds of Poetry, and The Life of David. His CD PoemJazz, with Grammy-winning pianist Laurence Hobgood, was released in 2012. Pinsky teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. Our interview focused on his most recent book, an anthology and guide for students of poetry, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters.

KL: Singing School seems to be written with particular urgency. What aspects of the poetry world and your own life compelled you to write the book at this time?

RP: Well, first off—I’ve become a grandfather, and if not exactly a Senior Citizen, something like a Senior Poet. In other words, though I feel young it has come to my attention that I am, er, well…nearer the end of life than the beginning.

Oddly enough, I don’t find that a gloomy thought but it does focus my mind somewhat on having a message to the future: this book, for me, is that. It’s my attempt to say compactly, with examples and no baloney, what I think I know about poetry.

Secondly, as to “the poetry world,” the first point inspires me to go beyond (as much as I can) the anxieties, rewards, squabbles, amities, fashions, pitfalls, goodies, trends, and foofaraw of any worldly pursuit. The book tries to be about essentials, not the little particular ups and downs and sideways feints of any “world.” Not that I’m immune to all that or above it, day to day—far from it! But in this book I enjoyed going somewhere better or more permanent.

KL: How do you think it relates to your previous writing about poetry and craft?

RP: The Sounds of Poetry is my compressed summary of what I consider worth knowing on that subject. As plain and direct as I could make it, with as many specific examples as possible—and an exacting book in the sense that you really must say the poems and lines aloud. I wrote out what I have tried to say to my best, most ambitious students. (I remember telling Carl Phillips he didn’t need to master certain technical things, he could make an excellent life’s work without them—and of course he went to work and mastered them.)

Singing School is an anthology with that same approach, but concerned with the whole range of possibilities, including but not limited to the sounds of words and sentences and lines.

KL: In the preface, you quote the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon: “The music that thrilled me when I was young…still thrills me.” Can you talk about one or two poems that first thrilled you? 

RP: When I was a freshman and sophomore I loved reading aloud Gregory Corso’s “Marriage” and William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love” and T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Thom Gunn’s “Tamer and Hawk” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I hadn’t yet learned much about the differences among them.

KL: You seemed to have had very catholic taste in poetry from the start, as that list of poems demonstrates. Can you define some fundamental qualities you look for in poems, including your own? 

RP: Ear and imagination. In both, that sense of a surprise that doesn’t wear out.

KL: Are there some poems that have become more resonant for you over time? Some that interest you less than they once did?

RP: Over the years I return more and more to certain poems by Alan Dugan (e.g. “Funeral Oration for a Mouse”) and Elizabeth Bishop (e.g. “At the Fishhouses”). At some point I got tired of Cummings. I’m more skeptical about more of Shakespeare’s sonnets than I used to be.

KL: What makes you keep returning to the work of Dugan and Bishop? For instance, what about “At the Fishhouses” compels repeated reading?

RP: Maybe the answer is “grammar” or “syntax” or “sentence sounds.” I could add Williams’ “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” and Ben Jonson’s “His Excuse for Loving.” For me it’s pretty much the same as melody in music. The tune gets in your head and knits itself into your sense of music itself, or poetry itself. It’s the melody of the grammar as it snakes along through the rhythm of the lines.

KL: The juxtaposition of poems in the book, even the way the biographies are written, seems subversive to me. What assumptions about poets and poetry were you seeking to challenge? 

RP: Maybe we should leave it at never having liked school?

KL: What do you imagine your teacher, Yvor Winters, might have thought of the selections of poetry and the arrangement of the book?

RP: As to the specific poems I select, he would have been exasperated and acerbic about a lot of it, and he would have noted with satisfaction the evidence of my great debt to him. As to the arrangement—he was always remarkably tolerant of a certain goofy quality in me. As though being from New Jersey, and not a Westerner, gave me a free pass for eccentricity.

KL: What is the evidence of that debt to him?

RP: The poems of George Gascoigne, Walter Raleigh, Fulke Greville, Ben Jonson, all that first burst of lyric splendor in English when English was new. The sound of his voice—reading that stuff, or reading French modern poetry. The calm, understated vocal communication of what a poem is.

KL: If you had to pick a poem by Robert Pinsky for Singing School, which one might you pick and what elements in poetry would it embody?

RP: Good (and wicked) question. Maybe “Rhyme” for the way it does and does not fulfill the expectations of its title. Maybe the same poem for the way it throws together a hotel room, a stuffed parrot, instruments, and boxes.

KL: The first chapter of the book is called “Freedom.” What tends to inhibit freedom in young writers? And what seems to be liberating?

RP: In a way that seems increasingly derived from the art world, the system of galleries and shows, young poets may be quite anxious about what their peers and contemporaries are doing. A nervous looking to either side of you, a readiness to sign up with a team or group or trend. That’s understandable, maybe unavoidable. But there’s a pleasurable freedom in looking ahead and behind you, not worrying about where the herd may be tending.

KL: Do you find there are some habits your graduate students need to unlearn in order to grow as writers?

RP: We all need to identify our habits, and unlearn or adapt them—not just the students, me too.

KL: Can you talk about some of the traps writers, older and younger, tend to fall into?

RP: You could classify a lot of pitfalls under the heading of distraction: it’s a life’s project to avoid being distracted by success or by failure, by fashion or by resistance to the new, by what others say or by your own willful deafness, by over-confidence or by crippling diffidence. Everything but your love of the art itself can be a distraction, subtly or frontally.

KL: In teaching children, I have found them very receptive to the pleasures of sound in poetry. Why do you think many adults, particularly in America, seem so resistant to simply listening to verse?

RP: I don’t know. Maybe well-meaning teaching? Or critics? (Have you ever heard the most famous academic critics read aloud? It’s kind of shocking.) I’ve done some taking care of an infant lately. The effect of singing to him and the effect of reciting to him: it’s the same! There’s something fundamental and deep about it.

In the Institute for K-12 Teachers that the Favorite Poem Project conducts every July, that’s a central point we discuss: that what comes first, before analysis, information and other goods, is listening to the poem. Experience precedes analysis. The teacher must read aloud to the students and the students must read aloud to one another.

And the point is listening: not elocution or histrionic skill or corny acting, but listening to the sounds that are in the poem. That’s demonstrated well, I think, by the videos at www.favoritepoem.org.

KL: In the book you suggest exercises arising from various poems. Do you create exercises for yourself? Can you give an example of one that led you in an interesting direction?

RP: For me, it’s not that well organized or direct. If I give myself an assignment, I tend to rebel against it and do something different—just like when I was in school!

KL: The book invites a dialogue with the work of master poets. When you are revising a poem, are any of those masters looking over your shoulder, challenging or questioning you?

RP: There’s that Yeats poem where he talks about having supper, after he dies, “With Landor and with Donne.” I confess I do occasionally think about what Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens or Ben Jonson might say about something I do in writing.

KL: Using Wallace Steven’s “Madame La Fleurie” as an example, you discuss the sort of imaginative leap that cannot be willed. But we live in an increasingly fast and distracted society. How can you encourage students to slow down and wait—for what can’t be willed?

RP: The fast and distracted society can eradicate the thrill of surprise: after the umpteenth time you see the car drive off the high building, or the spaceship crash into Times Square and disgorge Crab People—not that those can’t be done with imagination, or some fresh, meaningful zing—you begin to yawn. I’m sure the designers of video games, and producers of movies think about this a lot. But somehow, that last image in “Madame La Fleurie” never wears out: “In that distant chamber, a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light.”

There’s an example of surprise that stays surprising!

And like those designers and producers, we poets face the problem of achieving that surprise-that-stays-fresh. In my opinion, Wallace Stevens attained it that time.

KL: Which brings me to a basic question about teaching writing—what can and can’t be taught?

RP: Making music is based on listening, cooking is based on tasting, drawing is based on seeing. That’s my assumption. And writing is based on reading. The two are really one. What do I learn about writing by getting by heart some lines I love? Something! Something that is distinct, and essential, but hard to describe.

KL: The first chapter of Singing School begins with the powerful statement, “There are no rules.” It’s the same way you begin The Sounds of Poetry. But don’t students enter writing programs anxiously searching for rules?

RP: If so, then I am doing my job, fulfilling my responsibility to them, if I lead them to question that anxious search. Also, to question my declaration, of course.

KL: Willa Cather wrote in a letter, “It’s the heat under the simple words that counts.” Do you agree? 

RP: She is one of the very greatest American writers, and you have quoted a great sentence from her letter. We must try to emulate her: her toughness, her soulfulness, her clarity, her mystery, her hard work at writing, her good judgment. (I recently discovered a letter she wrote to Robert Frost, quite early in his career, telling him that most of the stuff being published as poetry was nothing, but his was really good.)

KL: Do you ask your students why they need to write poetry? Do you ask that question of yourself?

RP: Maybe I should ask them that question…after all, I do ask myself. But I tend to assume that they are fanatical…until proven otherwise!

KL: I love Roethke’s line, “I learn by going where I have to go.” Have there been some especially revelatory moments in your writing life that have taught you where you need to go? 

RP: The Life of David was an assignment: the only book I’ve written that was someone else’s idea. Jonathan Rosen was setting up that series of Jewish lives for Schocken, and he asked me to write the first one, about what might be considered
the greatest life ever imagined or lived. I couldn’t resist that, though I had misgivings. Thanks to Jonathan’s persistence, I wrote it. My best prose book, I think. Or, if
not that, the prose that is most pure, rather than functional. Most like a poem in that sense.

KL: For me, a particularly resonant poem in Singing School was “David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan” from the Bible. Do you recall having any interest in the verse of the Old Testament when you were growing up? Or did you come to that as an adult?

RP: I had a nominally Orthodox Jewish education. For my Bar Mitzvah, I chanted a Haftorah from Isaiah…though I had no idea what the words meant. And the passage is God’s denunciation of hollow, meaningless rituals! (I’ve written about this in Poetry and the World, the essay called “Some Lines from Isaiah.”) I sometimes think that my focus on sound has to do with those long, long services—the cantorial singing, the one beautiful element, for me.

KL: You talked about some of the poems that first excited you. But what language of any kind do you remember first interesting you? Or when you were a boy, was music more alluring than words?

RP: Music was exciting, but I also loved comedy: Sid Caesar, at the center of that, but also the great stand-up stars on Ed Sullivan, the skills deployed in
sitcoms and sketches by Art Carney, Arnold Stang, Phil Silvers. And my parents and their friends—masterful joke tellers, with large mental libraries of jokes. Also, the laughter and penetrating irony and mystery of Yiddish that I heard.

KL: I read a suggestion that Singing School is in some ways a memoir. Do you agree that it could be seen that way?

RP: Yes. Predilection as autobiography.

Emily Gilbert