Issue 144, Fall 1997
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.
You play the sax?
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!
Is this the same saxophone as in high school?
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.
A midlife crisis?
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.
Can you relate the two arts?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.