Interviews

Robert Pinsky, The Art of Poetry No. 76

Interviewed by Ben Downing, Daniel Kunitz

When Robert Pinsky was named Poet Laureate of the United States earlier this year, it felt deeply appropriate. To an unusual degree, Pinsky has mulled, both on the page and off, over the relationship between American civic and private life. Although far from jingoistic, he’s an unabashed patriot who embodies many of our more attractive national traits: ingenuity, open-mindedness, a certain stalwart optimism. His second volume is called An Explanation of America, and where Pinsky once helped poets make sense of their country, it’s safe to guess that he’ll now prove just as good at spurring the country to take stock of its verse; the art couldn’t find a more effective advocate. Among the endeavors he’s undertaken is his “say a poem” project, whose purpose, Pinsky writes, “is to create an audio and video archive of perhaps a hundred or a hundred-and-fifty Americans each choosing and reading aloud a favorite poem. The archive would be a record, at the end of the century, of what we choose, and what we do with our voices and faces, when asked to say aloud a poem we love.”

Pinsky’s resume reads like a literary version of the American success story. Born in 1940 in Long Branch, New Jersey into a family he describes as lower-middle class, he went to Rutgers, and then, in 1965, won a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford, where he studied with Yvor Winters. Since 1966, he has taught continuously: at the University of Chicago, Wellesley, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, and for the past nine years, at Boston University. He was the poetry editor of The New Republic from 1978–1987, and now fills the same position at the online magazine Slate. His books of poetry are Sadness And Happiness (1975), An Explanation of America (1980), History of My Heart (1984), The Want Bone (1990) and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996. In addition, he cotranslated Czeslaw Milosz’s The Separate Notebooks (1984) and in 1995 produced an acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno. Pinsky has also been active as a critic, publishing Landor’s Poetry (1968), The Situation of Poetry (1977) and Poetry and the World (1988). Over the years, he has garnered many prizes and awards, including the William Carlos Williams Award, the Landon Prize in Translation, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Shelley Memorial Award and the Ambassador Prize. He’s also been nominated once for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and once for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

In person, Pinsky is relaxed, amusing, effortlessly charismatic, but also poised, alert, and robust beyond his years. He commands a strong, resonant voice, which he deploys to equal effect whether reciting a passage of George Herbert or spinning an old-time Long Branch yarn. From the metaphysical poets to New Jersey boardwalks, his conversation ranges easily and unaffectedly between subjects high and low. One senses that Pinsky feels nearly as at home in the garage where he gets his Chrysler convertible fixed as in the halls of academe—or, for that matter, of Congress. He’s the refreshing opposite of ivory-towered, and for a poet, uncommonly extroverted.

This interview took place in August of 1995 on the campus of Skidmore College, where Pinsky was taking part in the New York State Writers’ Institute. When we entered the apartment in which Pinsky was staying, a saxophone stood on the floor. Our first question was obvious.

 

INTERVIEWER

You play the sax?  

ROBERT PINSKY

I was playing it five minutes ago, to relax before you arrived. I keep the horn out, the way you see it now, and blow it from time to time. In high school, I was ambitious about it, and I played a little in college. Then I took it up again a few years ago—after maybe a thirty-year gap!  

INTERVIEWER

Is this the same saxophone as in high school?  

PINSKY

No, in the old days I had a great horn, a Buescher Aristocrat—I like the name—that I paid for with money earned playing high-school dances, bar mitzvahs, and so forth. When I went to California, I left the Buescher in my parents’ house, and in their characteristic way,  they lost track of it. Maybe it was sold, maybe it was stolen or given away. I must have been twenty-five or -six when that happened, and it provided an excuse to stop playing all those years. Then a few years ago, I went out in a trance and bought this Grassi, an Italian copy of the Selmer Mark VI.  

INTERVIEWER

A midlife crisis?  

PINSKY

I think my first experience of art, or the joy in making art, was playing the horn at some high-school dance or bar mitzvah or wedding, looking at a roomful of people moving their bodies around in time to what I was doing. There was a piano player, a bass player, a drummer, and my breath making the melody. The audience may not have been thinking, My God, that kid is the best saxophone player I’ve ever heard; I’m positive they weren’t. But we were making music, and the fact that it was my breath making a party out of things was miraculous to me, a physical pleasure. So maybe the horn, this fumbling after a kind of melodic grace and ease I know I’ll never have, stands for a rededication to art itself—with that eager, amateur’s love.  

INTERVIEWER

Can you relate the two arts?  

PINSKY

There’s a lot of cant about poetry and jazz. And yet there is something there in the idea of surprise and variation, a fairly regular structure of harmony or rhythm—the left margin, say—and all the things you can do inside it or against it. There are passages, like the last two stanzas of “Ginza Samba,” where I try to make the consonants and vowels approach a bebop sort of rhythm.

In Poetry and the World, I wrote: “Poetry is the most bodily of the arts.” A couple of friends who read it in draft said, Well, Robert, you know . . . dancing is probably more bodily than poetry. But I stubbornly left the passage that way without quite having worked out why I wanted to say it like that. Sometimes the ideas that mean the most to you will feel true long before you can quite formulate them or justify them. After a while, I realized that for me the medium of poetry is the column of breath rising from the diaphragm to be shaped into meaning sounds inside the mouth. That is, poetry’s medium is the individual chest and throat and mouth of whoever undertakes to say the poem—a body, and not necessarily the body of the artist or an expert as in dance.

In jazz, as in poetry, there is always that play between what’s regular and what’s wild. That has always appealed to me.

INTERVIEWER

In one of your essays, you quote Housman’s wonderful statement that he knows a line of poetry has popped into his head when his hair bristles and he cuts himself shaving. Is that the kind of thing you mean by the body of the audience? 

PINSKY

Well, there is certainly a physical sensation that even subvocalized reading of some particular Yeats or Stevens or Dickinson poem can give me, just the imagination of the sounds. This sensation is as unmistakably physical as humming or imagining a tune.  

INTERVIEWER

But it’s pretty rare to see a poetry-reading audience responding with their bodies as if it were a rock concert, isn’t it? Would that be something you’d welcome?  

PINSKY

Well, the point isn’t performance. Poetry is a vocal art for me—but not necessarily a performative one. It might be reading to oneself or recalling some lines by memory. That physical tingle, that powerful, audible experience of poetry, has come to me not with poets projecting their own work powerfully to an audience, or with the John-Gielgud-reading-Shakespeare-sonnets records that friends have played for me on their stereos. It tends to be more intimate, less planned, than that. One is alone, or maybe with a friend or two.

Or it might even be in actual school. In my classes, I ask the students to find a poem they like and to get it by heart. To see someone in their late teens or early twenties, often by gender or ethnicity different from the author, shaping his or her mouth around those sounds created by somebody who is perhaps long dead, or perhaps thousands of miles away, and the students bringing their own experience to it, changing it with their own sensibility, so that they’re both possessed and possessing—those moments have been very moving to me. Though the vocal performance may be crude, that crudeness just throws the essence of the poetry into higher relief. Whereas the effective personality of a poet giving a reading or the rich expert tones of an actor reading “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” might muffle that essence by encasing it within the other art of performance.  

INTERVIEWER

To quote from your essay “Some Passages of Isaiah”: “Grandpa Dave stood for the immense beauty and power of idolatry, the adoration of all that can be made and enjoyed by the human body.” Do you feel that your acute focus on making in poetry reflects a need to continue the family line of utility, to shape something that is actual and worldly? Was your fear of poetry straying over into hoity-toity abstractions fostered by your upbringing?  

PINSKY

I’m far from immune to the American, perhaps historically male, prejudice toward practical and physical competence; I hope I’ve also considered that prejudice enough to have some distance from it. I come from a class that is lower middle and retail-oriented, and when I was quite young, we were more or less poor, so pragmatism had considerable urgency or necessity.

Both my grandfathers lived within a few blocks of us. One had a bar and had bootlegged during Prohibition; the other was a window washer, a part-time tailor and tinkerer. In an American way, and in line with your question, it is the bootlegger I have written about most. Dave, my father’s father, had a certain swagger, glamour and capacity for violence. I once spoke with a huge old Irish guy who said, More than once I seen your grandfather jump over the bar and knock a guy out. There’s something particularly thrilling and anomalous about that in relation to Jewish life; in Isaac Babel’s stories of Odessa gangsters there are issues and patterns I recognize. I guess violence is one side of that practical, physical skill. But my other grandfather, Morris, could fix clocks and motors; he courted his wife by dazzling her with a motorcycle. (She was married to someone else at the time.) He tuned up his own car, replaced the brake linings, and so forth.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider that background an advantage to you as a writer?  

PINSKY

I certainly wish I had those skills!—and I don’t. But there is a spirit there that I feel grateful toward, and some loyalty. Both grandfathers partook of the pleasures of the marketplace, a term that maybe connotes capitalism. But there’s a more ancient sense of the marketplace or agora, that’s very attractive to me: the public space. It’s the place where people see each other, where they venture out of the family—the shared home away from the hearth. From one point of view, the Odyssey is a great hymn not just to coming home but to cruising the sea, risking Poseidon to see what deals you can make, what you can achieve or learn. I think that the laboring, mercantile, small-town, lower middle class has a lot of respect not only for gain, but for exchange. To see someone, nod to that person and think, as you say hello, Oh yes, that’s an Odiotti. His father had the paint store—or was it his uncle? And he knows vaguely that I must be an Eisenberg or a Pinsky, and that I might have something to do with the bar. We exchange recognition. That’s all part of a certain marketplace fabric that includes a lower-class work ethic, a neighborhood sense of worth, a shrewd practicality. And yes, I suppose there is something in my work as a writer that extends that ethic or reacts against it.  

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also shown an affection for the language of trade, notably in your poem “Shirt.”  

PINSKY

I grew up with respect for the skills and the knowledge of people who knew how to do things. The tenants in our building and in the rooming houses on either side of us were housepainters, railroad workers, masons, and so forth. In the summer, horse trainers and one or two jockeys. My father was an optician, and there was a whole technical jargon that went with that job.

I suppose I’m the kind of writer who has respect, and maybe some nostalgia, for practical knowledge of the world—for that earthly competence. But it’s important to recognize that there’s a boring cult of competence in American life and literature—especially competence in basic, even primitive skills. There’s a certain amount of baloney, for instance, about fishing and hunting, which is not to say that those things cannot be written about well, also. The baloney and something truly distinguished are not always easy to separate in Hemingway. And Moby-Dick can be read as the world’s best how-to book.  

INTERVIEWER

In your essay “American Poetry and American Life,” you salute what you term our poetry’s heteroglossia, its force of contrast between high and low diction. Do you try in your own work to include as many levels of speech as possible?  

PINSKY

I would like to keep and somehow unify all the different kinds of experience, and therefore all the different kinds of language, I’ve ever known. I grew up in a neighborhood that you might call—as my mother did, complaining endlessly about having to live there—a slum. It was not monochromatic. There was a lot of variety culturally, ethnically, in class and in kind of education. People spoke with various accents. Ideally, I’d like to write a poetry that pretends neither that I’ve been a professor all my life, nor that I’m still a streetboy. A poetry that doesn’t pretend that I’ve never watched television, and that doesn’t pretend, either, that I’ve never been to graduate school.

I love the way some poems—not only poems by Williams, but by Dickinson or Ben Jonson, too—constantly modulate precise answers to the questions, Who says this? or, Who’s talking? In a satisfying work of art, the answer can change from second to second: the voice proclaiming “That is no country for old men” is subtly different from the one that notices “What is past, or passing, or to come.” The idiom is always flexing, responding like the line in an oscilloscope. It’s not just the plain style, or the grand style or the Eurekan style, but as with the human face in conversation, at once always changing and always itself.

For me, writing has a lot to do with collision and departure. In the anonymous lyric “Western wind, when will thou blow, / The small rain down can rain? / Christ! That my love were in my arms / And I in my bed again,” I love that movement when the poet exclaims, “Christ!” because you haven’t been at “Christ!”—you’ve been addressing the wind, asking it a question. You’re thinking about a “small rain,” and the last thing that would follow a small rain might seem to be Christ. The change from imploring the wind to saying “Christ!” is a gesture of impatience and exaltation. For me that movement, like when an ice skater suddenly changes directions, has a lot to do with what poetry is.

My favorite parts of language may be those places where the distinction between high and low breaks down, because high and low are unsatisfactory, tentative gestures toward describing the flow of language. Is strewn a high word or low? It’s a word roofers use, after all. I’ve spoken elsewhere about going to the hardware store and overhearing a salesman say, You could buy one of these whirling things to distribute the fertilizer, or you can just strew it broadcast. It was the first time I realized that the word broadcast wasn’t coined during the Industrial Revolution, or for Marconi. Farmers walk through the fields with a sack slung over one shoulder, and they broadcast. Obscenities are low by most standards, but fuck, which is a very old word, perhaps contains a quality of loftiness by virtue of being archaic. One of the most exciting phenomena in language—it happens often in Williams and in Stevens—is when you lose the sense of what’s high and what’s low. Is mullion the mullion of Sir Kenneth Clark talking about a church, or is it the mullion of a carpenter saying, Shit, the mullion is too short. We’re going to have to go back and cut some more?  

INTERVIEWER

It sounds as if etymology is often a point of departure for you. Will you suddenly wonder what the etymology of fuck or mullion is, and then go look it up? Do you go so far as to browse in etymological dictionaries?  

PINSKY

When I was a kid I read the dictionary as an absorbing book, sometimes browsing in it for hours. There’s a lot you can learn from it besides the meanings of words, like why we eat venison and not deer. It’s the same reason we eat pork and not pig, or beef instead of cow: because the food names are the French words, brought over by the Normans. The Saxon who took care of the animal called it a sheep; after it had been slaughtered, cut up and presented to a Norman lord, it was called mutton, because mouton was what the people in the big house ate. Then there are surprises in the dictionary, too, like atonement, which sounds nearly as Latinate as prevaricate. But atonement, as it turns out, comes from “at one”; it means “at one-ment.” That’s interesting.  

INTERVIEWER

Two quotes: you say in the first line of “Long Branch, New Jersey” that “Everything is regional,” and then in Poetry and the World that “to make one’s native place illustrious is an acceptable ancient form of claiming personal significance.” Do you feel lucky to come from a place that can be described—as you yourself do—as a microcosm?  

PINSKY

In principle, I don’t believe any one person’s experience is rich or poor in itself: we are all in history, and we are in it at the shopping mall exactly as much as or as little as when we are in Tuscany. The mall and Florence, equally, are outcomes of history, and the challenge to our historical perception is merely more egregious in some places than others.

But it’s true that Long Branch has considerable historical interest—right on its surface, in a way. You could argue that Long Branch is where the modern idea of celebrity was born, in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. The town, fairly close to New York by boat or road, was a more raffish resort than Newport and Saratoga Springs, where the social elite went. Long Branch was full of patent-medicine tycoons and theater people, in those days before money and entertainment conferred the kind of status they do today. President Grant loved Long Branch, which suited his rough style. Diamond Jim Brady vacationed there with Lillian Russell: a sportier, lower, more raw and less European elite than at Newport, a social level that you could say evolved a hundred years later, with “high society” dead and gone, into its successor in People magazine. Winslow Homer drew illustrations of people summering in Long Branch for Harper’s; in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, there’s his great painting of women on the bluffs, called “Long Branch, New Jersey.”  

INTERVIEWER

How conscious were you of all that when you lived there?  

PINSKY

Hardly at all! Or not until the seventh or eighth grade, when I’m happy to say we did a unit on Long Branch history, using Judge Alton Evans’s WPA book Entertaining a Nation. And I suppose people did talk about some of it. The downtown hotel was called the Garfield-Grant.

But there are other kinds of history, too, in odd survivals that one isn’t aware are survivals at the time. I grew up in an old part of Long Branch, near Flanagan’s Field, where the circus was held. Every summer, elephants, clowns and girls in tights standing on horses paraded right by my house. There were lions in wheeled cages. My friends and I would work for tickets, doing things like setting up chairs, which was tantalizingly close to the mythology of running away with the circus. Once, when I was snooping around in an alley between tents, I ran into a bunch of midgets. One had bleached, slicked-down yellow hair and was immaculately dressed in a suit, like a little boy going to his first communion. He looked at me gawking and said, Who let these fucking son of a bitch, goddamn cocksucking kids in here. Get your goddamn fucking asses out of here!—really virtuoso cussing, but in a high-pitched voice. I can still feel the goosebumps.

And the midget, the vanished tradition of show people, the carny and circus jargon, the European roots and gypsy slang, Barnum—that man cussing me out was the fading voice of all that history. A few years later, everyone was watching television.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you have a religious upbringing?  

PINSKY

In a way. My parents were nominally Orthodox Jews, but they were of a very assimilated, secular generation, definitely not the black suit and sidelocks idea. My father was a locally famous jock and best-looking boy in his high-school yearbook—he was described as the Adonis of the basketball court, and a few years ago I actually met the reporter who wrote that line, Herb “Hub” Kamm. Both my parents were quite good dancers. They didn’t go to synagogue except on High Holidays, and sometimes not even then.

On the other hand, we did keep kosher; I didn’t taste ham until I was in college. A hamburger and a milkshake together seemed like some bizarre sexual practice. They sent me to Hebrew school when I was eleven, but I knew that even on the more religious side of the family, my mother’s, her brother hadn’t been bar mitzvahed. The conflict, ambiguity and compromise went back before their generation.  

INTERVIEWER

And what was your reaction to that kind of conflict and ambiguity?  

PINSKY

Restless, I suppose. The Jewish service and the rituals of Jewish life seem designed to insulate, to define one away from the majority culture. And the majority culture is so attractive. It was the fifties, with American baseball in its golden age, and rock ‘n’ roll in its formative, glorious early years. I was born in a good year, just the right age for Jackie Robinson and for Elvis Presley. Across the street from our synagogue was a Catholic church; in my memory, beautifully dressed people, including girls my own age, would come and go, two or three shifts sometimes, while we were in there praying away at our three-hour service.

I’ve never met a Jew who had the experience Joyce describes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that crisis of faith. My Catholic friends have told me about having such crises. But how can you have one in Judaism? Being Jewish isn’t a faith, is it? It’s a condition, like having a certain eye color, or a principle of life, like gravity, or a loyalty, as to one’s family. The comparison with Christianity seems only approximate to me. As I get it, Judaism as a religion is quite vague about the afterlife. Even the concept of sin is more like a merit/demerit system, where you get mitzvoth for performing good deeds and lose them for bad ones. But you never know exactly where you stand, and I don’t think there’s any category like grace.

Although there’s no crisis of faith to be had, there is a crisis of seduction, because the rituals and customs tend to pull you away from that sweet predominant secular culture, and from the religious majority with its Christmas and Easter, its baseball, its movies, its everything. Terms like assimilation, or saying you’re second or third generation, don’t catch the subtlety of this richly absorbing conflict, the crisis of attraction toward the sweets, the question of idolatry.

My grandfather, the one I associate with “idolatry” in the passage you’ve quoted, sneered at religion, but when his young wife—my father’s mother—died during childbirth, he went to synagogue five days a week, early in the morning, to say Kaddish for her. I picture him as a young gangster, wearing two-tone shoes, going amongst religious men who probably had as intense a dislike for him as he had for them, to chant the prayer for the dead. And when he died, my father astonished me by doing the same, getting up before dawn to say Kaddish for Dave. When I asked him why he, who never went to synagogue, would do such a thing for a man who celebrated Christmas, who had a Christian wife, my father answered, Because he did it for my mother. So to that extent, or in some idiosyncratic way along those lines, yes, I had a religious upbringing.  

INTERVIEWER

After you left Long Branch, you went to Rutgers and then Stanford. Did anyone at those schools leave a lasting impression?  

PINSKY

I’ve had at least two truly great teachers, Francis Fergusson at Rutgers and Yvor Winters at Stanford. I suppose I feel that Fergusson taught me literature and Winters taught me poetry. From Fergusson I learned ways to think about movies, paintings, and poems as kinds of action—action meaning a movement of the soul. The work of art, especially one that has duration like a play or a spoken poem, is not a bag of meanings or images or a pile of beautiful phrases; it is an action, something that happens. I learned that when I was in my late teens from Fergusson and it still serves me. It is the basis of everything I do in writing. And maybe even music. Musicians say about a good solo, He was really going somewhere.  

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by Winters teaching you poetry, as opposed to literature?  

PINSKY

I learned an immense amount from him, especially about the English sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and through those poets about how one writes in lines, and about poetic styles. It was the way I imagine conservatory. I arrived at Stanford with a typescript volume of what I then called my poems. My plan was to show these to Winters—I knew very little about him—and he’d be so dazzled by what a great genius I was that he’d give me some extra academic credit for that typescript. I imagined that he’d take the poems home with him, and the next day I’d get a phone call saying, You’re just a crazy genius. So I went into his office and told him I’d like to get credit for these poems I’d written. He grunted, and while I was standing in front of him, he began thumbing through the poems. After maybe three or four minutes, he looked up and said, Well, there may be some gift here, but it’s impossible to tell, because you simply don’t know how to write.

I congratulate myself retrospectively for not acting on my first impulse, which was to snatch my poems back, say, Fuck you, and slam out of there. Then Winters asked me, What poetry have you read? I replied, Well, I’ve read everything by Eliot, Yeats, Frost, and Williams. When Winters asked what I had read before the twentieth century, I said I’d read some Donne and Marvell, by which I meant the poems by them that were in anthologies. What else? Winters prodded. I don’t know. I’ve read Shakespeare, naturally. Winters said, No one who’s only read that much can write a good poem. Somehow, I felt all at once that he was right, or at least that he knew things I needed. What am I supposed to do, take a class with you? I asked. He said, Well, my History of the Lyric class isn’t offered this quarter, and that’s the prerequisite to my other classes. And I replied, immediately won over, along the lines of, You don’t understand. I need to be a great poet, my education’s in danger here, and so forth—a really ludicrous turnabout from my initial, thin arrogance.

He looked amused and, I believe in retrospect, as if he sensed some genuine mania that appealed to him. Anyway, remarkably, he handed me a copy of the syllabus to his History of the Lyric course—and offered to do the course with me individually! He did this, I think, on the basis of my intensity, not my poems. But I worked hard at learning “how to write” and the next year he awarded me a Stegner Fellowship. Albert Guerard used to say, Pinsky went from “doesn’t know how to write” to “one of the fine, promising young poets” in six months. That’s not praising me; it’s a satirical, yet somewhat admiring, acknowledgment by Albert of Winters’s susceptibility to his students.

Winters claimed to have read every poem by every poet of any distinction who ever wrote in English; he challenged those of us who disagreed with him to do the same. He certainly seemed able to respond to anything anybody ever alluded to. Winters resurrected Fulke Greville, a really great poet, I am convinced; and some of the poems he pointed to, like Herbert’s “Church Monuments” and Jonson’s “To Heaven,” were influential to many of us who studied with him, like Thom Gunn, Bob Hass, Donald Justice, Phil Levine, James McMichael, John Peck.  

INTERVIEWER

Some of Winters’s favorite poems seem to have found their way into your own work, as for instance your “Poem with Refrains,” with its gobbets of Fulke Greville.  

PINSKY

Yes, “Absence my presence is, strangeness my grace. / With them that walk against me is my sun.” That’s Greville, and he is unsurpassed at lines of that kind. What Winters showed me about the English poets of that period gave me an inkling of the level of the art, the quality of seriousness, the principles of musical language that one might hope to attain. I feel that those couple of years when I read poetry intensely with him have served me well, and I’m grateful for that.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think teaching is a good profession for a poet?  

PINSKY

I think that I and poets of my generation have found it so. But nowadays . . . I’m not sure. We benefited from a brief golden age of a kind. I was a student just after a period when the academic world was suspicious of, and not particularly hospitable toward, writers. Winters liked to tell a story about himself, that when he first began publishing his bold, brilliant essays about American literature, the department chairman called him in and said his work was a disgrace to the department because it was criticism, as distinct from real scholarship, and criticism and scholarship did not mix. (Whereas nowadays every professor is “a critic” or “a critical theorist,” a leftover from those days.) In his twenties, Winters had written that W. C. Williams was a great writer, that Wallace Stevens was a great writer—and I think this was before Stevens had even published a book. This kind of thing was scandalous. Scholarship was historical, theoretical and philological; it had no room for attention to literature as art, and certainly none for contemporary literature.

Then there was a phase during the fifties and sixties when—partly due to the influence and prestige of Eliot and Pound as critics, and partly, I suspect, because the academic profession was suddenly infiltrated by people from a lower social class than their predecessors—a kind of loosening-up occurred. Literary art had a superficial cachet too. There were cultural factors I don’t fully understand that encouraged a cult around Hemingway and a cult around Frost, even a cult (now largely forgotten) around Sandburg. Critics without Ph.D.s, like Fergusson and Blackmur, found places in universities. And professors were persuaded that there was a lot for them to learn from literature, or they were persuaded to behave as if they believed this. When I was in college, acknowledged great writers were still around: Faulkner, Hemingway, Williams, Stevens, Moore, Frost, Eliot, Pound, all were alive.

That turns out to have been a brief interregnum, coinciding with the period when creative writing became institutionalized. Now, times have changed again. Once again, the academic study of literature is historical, theoretical, cultural, and philological; once again, on the whole, it has relatively little interest in literature as art, or in contemporary literature.

So in a way we’ve returned to the norm. For the students I teach in the BU creative-writing program, the academic world is a less welcoming haven than it was for people in my generation. For me, teaching has been a good profession. I get to talk to students who are intensely concerned with exactly the things I care about. The work is appealing, and I have earned my bread by it. I think teaching can be a noble profession, and I feel impatient when people condescend to it.  

INTERVIEWER

A significant strain in your work is didactic, and I don’t mean in the pejorative sense. For instance, the title of one of your books is An Explanation of America.  

PINSKY

Advice and instruction have always fascinated me, partly because of their pathos—so little is transmitted in any given instance of advice or pedagogy. On the one hand, there’s the idea of the quest, that wisdom-seeking is noble. On the other, the figure of the advisor or schoolmaster is nearly always comic; even Aristotle becomes comic once he is the schoolmaster to Alexander. I think of An Explanation of America not as didactic, itself, but as a weird experiment in that vulnerable enterprise of explaining or instructing. And of thinking about the future, straining to imagine it.  

INTERVIEWER

If I understand correctly, you have taught at schools for the deaf and blind in Illinois.  

PINSKY

I made three visits of a few days each to schools for the deaf and blind in Jacksonville, Illinois. We talked about poetry a bit, and the kids read their poems to me. That is, they signed and vocalized, reading their work from traditional writing or from Braille. Sometimes I could understand the vocalizing and sometimes I couldn’t; a teacher interpreted for me when necessary. The kids were very enthusiastic. They sort of yelled and babbled to each other in Sign a lot, in a raucous, bouncy manner, exactly as other rambunctious kids that age yell and babble vocally. I asked the teacher whether she had to shush them, and she said, All the time. She put her finger to her lips and said, I have to do this. If there’s too much signing going on, then they’re not concentrating.

At the request or assignment of the teacher, I wrote a poem about visiting them and read it aloud to them, with Sign interpretation. I’m here to tell you that a deaf audience is a great audience, because man are they watching! Their faces become very animated—the faces you might dream of eliciting in response to a poem. I really liked working with those students, and with the blind kids, though given my emphasis on sound I had been nervous about dealing with deaf students. Far from contradicting my idea of the body as the medium of poetry, that experience helped crystallize my thinking. All the mysteries of consciousness flower in the body; this was manifest in the way the kids moved as they recited their poems, and in the way the others responded while watching. It was a more intense version—different at the blind school, but occurring there too—of something I had noticed in my own classes when people recite from memory. The attention becomes palpable, entranced by a physical charm.  

INTERVIEWER

To what extent do you focus on prosody and other technical matters when you teach?  

PINSKY

I don’t give lectures on prosody. I believe in examples. When a student asks, What’s a good book about traditional iambic verse? I always respond, The Collected Poems of Ben Jonson. What’s a really excellent book about free verse? The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. What’s a good book about writing short lines in ballad meter? The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.” I agree with Yeats when he says, “Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.” Craft is something that you learn by studying models. A good teacher can tell you what to look for, point things out.  

INTERVIEWER

You recently put together your own collected poems. In doing so, did you discern a particular line of development? Have you come to see your older poetry in a new light?  

PINSKY

I was pleased to find more continuity than I had expected—more I think than critics of my work, even friendly ones, had suggested. An Explanation of America and “Essay on Psychiatrists” contain not only thematic material and preoccupations that pop up again in recent poems, but also a certain kind of movement, a nervous or syncopated movement.  

INTERVIEWER

Has your work become more experimental, or less so?  

PINSKY

I don’t know if that would be the term. When you’re learning an art, you want to blow the riffs that epitomize it. You want to make the sound that says very clearly, This is funky blues. The most natural place to show virtuosity is right down the middle of the art. But there’s a counter-impulse, which is to test or stretch the limits of where the art can go. Maybe both attractions operate all through a life’s work.

You try to avoid the clichés of the avant-garde, or go beyond them, just as you do the clichés of the middlebrow.  

INTERVIEWER

Your collected poems is called The Figured Wheel, the computer game you wrote is called Mindwheel, and the work you recently chose to translate, Dante’s Inferno, progresses through circles. Am I right in guessing that the circle is your favorite geometric metaphor?  

PINSKY

There is something about the circle: each thing reflected by an opposite, and also on a continuum with that opposite—everything contained by a cycle, with each small arc implying the whole. That notion probably governs my response to your previous question too: one cycles through a life’s work, maybe journeying far away from the Ithaca of overt lyricism, and then back to it.

Louise Glück wrote something about me that I like, that the poems are less about the particular history in them than what lies behind the history: “chaos, eternity.” That’s the circle.  

INTERVIEWER

One clear trend in your work is the increasing fascination with religion and religious imagery.  

PINSKY

The making of religion, and the construction of its cultural realities, fascinate me. My mother’s mental illness and her scorn, at times, for everything the world believes may have made me especially sensitive to the phenomenon of belief, the discovery of meaning. I’ve expressed this by saying that for a person who practices some particular religion, creation is a major episode in the career of God, whereas for me, God is a major episode in the career of creation.

I’m reluctant to pretend to religion as worship, as a human activity and theater of the soul for me in the communal, traditional way that many people practice it. But it’s tremendously interesting to me as a fact. That’s maybe a digressive way of saying that the religious images, names and phenomena in the later poems aren’t so different from the cultural materials in the earlier poems. The later poems express, in a way that comes closer to the autobiographical core, some of the same concerns. Always the question, This is believed, this has credit among people. What is it to me?

To approach it a different way, maybe in some part of my mind I was asking myself, What is your subject? Your subject is culture. But that seems a little cold—what does it mean? Your subject is making, or the marketplace, the place where people normally come together. And in the market square, facing the plaza, there is always a place of worship. If not such a place for me, still such a place to me. For me, religion is an aspect of the addiction to creativity of the human animal, the making predilection of the human heart.  

INTERVIEWER

You call “Desecration of the Gravestone of Rose P.” an antiphony with George Herbert’s “Church Monuments”; “Shirt” can perhaps also be described as an antiphony, with Hart Crane and, again, Herbert coming through. Do these poems betoken a special indebtedness?  

PINSKY

For twenty years or more before I wrote those poems, I would feel in my emotional life, from time to time, like Laocoön going down. Often I was rescued from that sensation by certain machines made out of words (as Williams calls them): poems that gave me moral or intellectual courage; a few hundred lines, by a few poets including those you mention, served as a kind of spiritual amulet. Certain of my recent poems acknowledge that shield or rescue in a way I never directly had in writing before.

My grandmother’s grave—she was the one who had the gangster husband and died very young when my father was small—is in the Jewish cemetery in Long Branch, where my other grandparents are also buried. Rose’s grave is particularly beautiful. The young hoodlum-bootlegger who was her husband paid to have the stone carved in the image of a tree with its branches lopped off, to symbolize the life cut off too soon. Rose was a celebrated beauty, as confirmed by an oval portrait of her, a daguerreotype under glass that is set into the gravestone.

At some point in the seventies, someone went into the Jewish cemetery in Long Branch and desecrated many of the graves with hammers and crow bars. Somebody struck Rose’s portrait, probably with a hammer, leaving just a light fleck in the glass, but not seriously defacing the photograph. That fact, that mixed pathos and strangeness, was cooking in my head for fifteen years before I wrote the poem. Also in my head was Herbert’s “Church Monuments,” a poem I have by heart: “While that my soul repairs to her devotion, / Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes / May take acquaintance of this heap of dust, / To which the blast of death’s incessant motion, / Fed with exhalation of our crimes, / Drives all at last. / Therefore I gladly trust // My body to this school.”

The Christian feeling of the poem is for me both beautiful and incongruous, or maybe, more precisely, it makes me aware of my own incongruity to it. And the vandalization, in its contempt for that flesh, those earthly remains, those lovingly graven images, seemed an odd echo of the Christian feeling, also evoking my simultaneous immersion and remove in relation to religions.

I imagined that the crime had been committed by boys in their teens or early twenties, since we males at around that age perpetrate—in our society, anyway—most of the violence, bad driving, and general bodily degradation. It’s as if we should take males from fifteen to twenty-four and send them to Mars. We wouldn’t have any problems with crime, nor even need traffic lights; we’d all just be sensible about things. Of course, the desecration may have been done by old ladies—who knows? But I imagined it as carried out by teenage boys and chose to pretend that those boys somehow knew “Church Monuments.” It’s crazy, but somehow the act of imagining myself as one of them merged with imagining the Christian sensibility of George Herbert.

After all, their crime oddly accords with the poem. Herbert says of earth and dust that “These laugh at jet and marble put for signs, // To sever the good fellowship of dust, / And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them, / When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat / To kiss those heaps which now they have in trust?” That is a brilliant image, because the stone that over the centuries tilts—in a kind of mocking slow-motion—then falls flat onto the grave, resembles the distraught mourner who falls down flat onto the grave, to kiss the beloved dust. Well, that’s what these guys did by knocking the stones over. From a Hindu time perspective, they weren’t doing anything that Herbert doesn’t say is inevitable anyway—the boys were just telling me that my grandmother’s portrait is dust. In any case, all of that got swirled together, and instead of some more linear narrative, it became an amalgam. In some ways, the nosegay principle applies, the poem sweetening the stench of desecration; in other ways, the nosegay becomes part of the pestilence, or maybe even the other way around.  

INTERVIEWER

In your most recent poems—“Avenue,” for example—you seem particularly fascinated with cities.  

PINSKY

I went through a period when I had a lot of dreams about a city like the ones in the movies of my childhood: a guy in a trench coat walking by a railing, looking down at the Seine or the Thames or the East River. It felt like the city you see in the background of an R. Crumb or Bill Griffith drawing, combined with the atmosphere of foreign intrigue from a movie like The Third Man. That’s the ambience of those dreams.

By meditating on my dreams in a sort of unreflecting, touristic way, but also mulling consciously over the relationship between the words civic, city, and civilization, I generated the poems. The urban atmosphere seems to me like a smoke or mist yet also a clay I’m trying to shape into an image that will tell you what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking about.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your fascination with observing communities has been fueled and inflected by working on Dante? The Inferno is, of course, a type of community, albeit a very twisted one.  

PINSKY

Just as I don’t see how anybody writing in English who tries to give a character a moment of eloquent self-expression can avoid being influenced by Shakespeare, I don’t see how any writer can write about groups of people in a large, constructed setting without being influenced by Dante. By looking at a group of people and their architectural context, seeing individuals emerge from a kind of cinematic vista, and perhaps having a conversation with one of them, you will be imitating the Comedia even if you’ve never read a line of it—that’s the way cultural powers work. Even the writer who has never read much literature will, out of the very cultural air he breathes, inherit literary gestures. That’s why naive writers sometimes use thee, thy, and thine; they’re in thrall to literature because they’ve read almost no literature.

But nobody can read so much, or study so many monuments of magnificence, as to escape a force field as powerful as Dante’s. So yes, one might find poems of mine that suggest something in the Inferno. But with a work of such magnitude, one that has affected so many other works for so long, it is hard to know if the act of creating an English version is necessarily involved. Dante is like the sun or the ocean: his presence is no surprise.  

INTERVIEWER

Was your interest in taking on all of the Inferno sparked by your original assignment for the Ecco Press translation?  

PINSKY

Shortly after Dan Halpern assigned me Canto XXVIII, I started doing Canto I just to see what it was like. Then Dan assigned me Canto XX as well, because somebody else in the project hadn’t been able to do it. After finishing Canto I, which I began just to have something to do, I began Canto II in the same aimless spirit; and I was well into Canto III, as well as having finished XX and XXVIII, before I began consciously to reason with myself—figuring that there were thirty-four cantos in the Inferno, and five out of thirty-four is more than one seventh . . . and so forth.  

INTERVIEWER

So you strayed from the straight path.  

PINSKY

Yes—lost in a forest of translator’s problems. I started doing it before I could acknowledge to myself that I actually was. And it was a matter of art, not one of scholarship or having a strong opinion about the work’s meaning or style. I was working on it because I could, the way you get an idea for a poem and are grateful to be working on it. You do it because you can, keeping on because it would be hard to stop. I would sneak away from other demands to work on it, sometimes staying up too late at night.

I need some such task in order to concentrate. Compared to a lot of my friends, I don’t have a scholarly mind; I don’t assimilate information easily and don’t use a library well. But I enjoy things like whittling, fixing machines, drawing, puzzles, playing games.

I think one of the strongest human cravings is for difficulty; we are selected by evolution to be creatures that like dealing with various problems of a certain kind. The formal challenge of terza rima was like the carrot or sugar cube before the donkey.  

INTERVIEWER

Are you tempted to tackle Purgatory and Paradise?  

PINSKY

Of course. If I were a scholarly translator, there’s no question that I’d go on to the other books—it’d seem an obligation. But I’d have to want to write them the way I want to write a poem, and so far that hasn’t happened. Also, there are technical problems. The language of the Inferno is, well, low. When Dante says that he couldn’t tell whether a certain shade was a cleric or a layman, couldn’t see his tonsure because his head was covered in shit—that’s how he says it, he uses merde, the Italian word that corresponds to shit. That’s because the language of hell is low. By the time he gets to Paradiso, though, it’s lofty, practically Greek and Latin, which is a disadvantage for a translator. If you can use low language like shit and fart, you can also get away with a certain amount of elevation, a slightly archaic or formal quality to the idiom—which I consider desirable for this poem—because you have the counterbalance of the low words, a kind of ballast-idiom. But if everything is up high, it’s much harder to create a credible idiom. My goal in the Inferno was to shape an idiom that reads as though rapidly, that feels sufficiently close to American English for pleasurable reading, with a kind of onward momentum—yet gives some sense that the poem was written a long time ago, and with a certain formal gravity. It would be harder to do all that in a loftier language.

Going on would present a separate problem, like writing another poem, and I don’t know whether that’s a poem I want to write.  

INTERVIEWER

What did you do to get that archaic feeling into the Inferno?  

PINSKY

Formal might be a better term. There are little turns of phrase, small syntactical things you can do, liberties you can allow yourself, vocabulary that will give just a slightly written or period quality to your language.

Opening at random in the Inferno, the first sentence I see has Virgil speaking to Pier della Vigna in the Wood of the Suicides. Virgil says, “Had he been able to credit or comprehend / Before, O Wounded spirit . . .” Well, “had he been able to credit or comprehend” is subjunctive and rather formal, especially for dialogue. That’s syntactical, apart from the somewhat old-fashioned use of credit. Then we get, “What he had witnessed only in my verses, / His hand would never have performed this deed / Against you.” Here, verses and deed are a bit archaic. My idea is that on the one hand it should feel fairly natural, yet a dead Roman epic poet should not address the soul of a suicide, in a poem this old, in a perfectly familiar manner: “If he could understand a thing he’d only seen, before, when he was reading my poetry.” No.  

INTERVIEWER

Walter Savage Landor—about whom you wrote your first critical book—lived, like Dante, in Florence for a time. Did the coincidence of writing about a second Florentine, years later, strike you as one of those cyclical occurrences you’re so attuned to?  

PINSKY

It pleases me to think about, which I did especially when talking to Mike Mazur about his illustrations, and about certain passages. But the main work of mine that adumbrated the Inferno is Mindwheel. A lot of the totem objects and settings in the computer game are in the shapes of reels and disks and spirals, and the structure of the game itself is more or less circular, with a lot of loops along the way. The character who sets things in motion is called Dr. Virgil.

I worked on Mindwheel with programmers who read a lot of science fiction and fantasy—bright people, but not very literary. After reading reviews of the game in a computer magazine, one of them said, I’ve got to read this Dante’s Inferno—everybody keeps comparing it to Mindwheel. I had raided some of the imagery in a carefree way, never imagining that I’d someday attempt the translation. A great freedom when writing for the software audience is that you can loot all of Western literature quite shamelessly and blatantly. It’s like having a supercharger with extra muscles that you don’t really have, because for the audience it’s all new.  

INTERVIEWER

In Poetry and the World, you describe poets as having characteristic turns of energy. What would you say yours is?  

PINSKY

We’ve talked about how much I like circles; we could have added that I have to keep myself from using the various concessives as my normal mode of transition. But, though, yet, and on the other hand are natural turns for me. So, maybe a kind of circling back, a belief, sometimes despairing, that everything comes out the same in the end. The most negative aspects of my childhood made me feel that there was no meaning in the world. It was a household with an insane mother. To take a minor example, when my family had something called dinner, it never happened at the same time of day. It might happen at five in the afternoon, or at eleven at night—or it might not happen at all, because of squabbling or distraction or an eccentricity so profound it is hard to describe credibly. The notion of meaning or significance that actually rests somewhere is almost exotic to me. There is a bleakly fatalistic kind of circle. The more positive aspect of that same figure is the understanding that any given night or day will pass, the sun will rise and set again, winter or distress will end.  

INTERVIEWER

Is your adult writing life more routine than your childhood culinary life was?  

PINSKY

It’s one of my peculiarities that I hate to concede having any routines at all. I panic at questions like, When do you get up in the morning? or, What do you have for breakfast? I write with a felt-tip or fountain pen, and I write with a computer. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes late at night. Sometimes my handwriting is rather neat, sometimes sloppy. Often, the characters are very small, but not always. Having been a poor student in high school, I am always amazed that I can get anything done, and I almost have to sneak up on myself to do it, to feel I’m playing hooky: “It’s between times—I’m not supposed to write now.”  

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise much?  

PINSKY

I revise a lot, especially the last five to fifteen percent. I generate writing fairly easily; a schpritz of words or images is not hard to create. I can say a paragraph, or even talk a page, without much trouble. But the conversion to something that feels right or distinguished often takes a lot of effort.  

INTERVIEWER

It sounds as if you do a lot of polishing with the assistance of friends, through the mail and on the phone.  

PINSKY

At times it verges on collaboration. When I lived in California, there were a lot of heavy FedEx and phone bills. There have been times when Frank Bidart and I have actually written together on the phone. Consultation with poet friends like Frank, Tom Sleigh, Thom Gunn, Bob Hass, Seamus Heaney, Jim McMichael, David Ferry, Louise Glück, and Alan Williamson—to give a partial list—has been important to me; it’s hard to imagine where I’d be without it.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of your collaborative group as a kind of agora?  

PINSKY

It’s a pleasing idea, yes, because a lot of my thinking has involved the relationship between what’s inside me and communal life. Working on the Inferno with Frank, we spent many hours on each canto. We’d schedule a phone date and Frank would prepare for it by comparing my draft of a canto to three or four other translations. Wherever he found a passage or phrase he thought was clearer or more energetic in someone else’s version, he’d explain to me what I had to improve. That was collaboration indeed, demanding a great deal of labor and patience. Sometimes he had to bear with my groans and protests. When you unstitch a rhyme word in terza rima it hurts—it’s worse than knitting.

It was also a great pleasure, reading such a poem with such a friend. The sentences became a sort of tunnel through which we walked, and upon which we turned our searchlights, saying, Oh, look how this fits together here. Look at the surface there—it needs to be worked to flow into that other branch back a way. We walked the delicate yet mighty labyrinth of a great work together.  

INTERVIEWER

When people ask you what you do, what do you tell them?  

PINSKY

You mean like to the guy sitting next to me on the airplane? Teacher, usually. Sometimes I say writer, but that often leads to, What do you write? There might be less reluctance to answer poet in Mexico or Poland, say, but in this country the word poet leaves a kind of social blank. It’s not that people are hostile or contemptuous—the term just doesn’t have any meaning. Socially, it’s not a category, for reasons that in fact I like, reasons that can make me quite proud of this country. We don’t have certain aristocratic, established social criteria that are involved with art as firmly as in many cultures. There are corners of the United States where this is less true: at Harvard or Princeton, a notion that mingles money, social class, intellectual pursuits, and arts like poetry and music into a matrix of social superiority may be quite strong, but in the country at large that notion is pretty diluted. There’s relatively little snob value to poetry here. I can see plenty of cause to celebrate that fact, as well as cause to lament it.

Generally, I welcome the relative absence of that connection between social status and art. But on the other hand, the substitute of being hip or sophisticated or avant-garde—a fashion awareness, basically—is maybe worse than the old snobbery, which had at least a pretense of civic meaning, a pretense of public or communal presence for art. When I started out, when I inspected great poetry, I found that a lot of it was in the civic realm, a communal focus like that of Greek tragedy. I don’t know why eloquence and civic life in the U.S. have diverged so sharply in my lifetime, but in my mind it’s related to a nervousness about fashion, a nervousness that has maybe displaced the European or Anglophile nervousness about class. It almost seems that “sophistication” has replaced “class” in our manners.

What does that mean for art? You could argue that American poetry was a lot better off when Edgar Guest and Bliss Carman were figures of some respect, or when Hallmark greeting cards were in verse. At some moment, people got just sophisticated enough to know that Rod McKuen and Kahlil Gibran were corn—but not sophisticated enough to relish Milton or Hart Crane. Maybe we would benefit from more of a continuum all through the culture and fewer sealed compartments. Our national genius is polyglot, syncretic, culturally diverse, rebellious toward any would-be presiding aristocratic center. As Whitman more or less says, we’re always contending with fragmentation. So our national thirst for art, which is immense, never calls itself by name.

As a kind of contrast, I heard an interesting thing, possibly true, about Bengal. As I heard the story, a referendum proposal to build a new railroad line was headed for defeat until its advocates put forward the argument that the new railway would give workers another hour or two every evening to paint and write poetry; apparently every Bengali is in self-image a painter or poet—or both. So the tide was reversed and the referendum passed.

And that arc of the circle, too, has its appeal and its absurdity—different from our own, it would seem. And yet there are times, in a town like Berkeley or Boston at least, when the guy trimming your trees or the woman at the tax-preparation place asks you what you do, and if you say, I’m a poet, the answer comes back, Oh really—so am I!