Called "the last of the 'civic' or public poets" by The Poetry Foundation, Robert Pinsky has ventured at times into the media scrum to fight on behalf of poetry, notably serving as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. But, as he told us during a recent e-mail interview, those efforts were, in an ultimate sense, unnecessary, for poetry will survive despite all, coming in and out of fashion as it pleases, even vanquishing the magazine that proclaims it dead (unlike God, who has yet to successfully smite Time).
Pinsky's poems combine the meticulous, meditative beauty of a Japanese garden with the deliberate wit of an East coast native. In "First Things to Hand" he says that "... the three words American men say after making love" are "where's the remote?" while likening Buddha to "dog doo," not so much as a sacrilege, he told us, but to demonstrate that the sacred is "somehow in everything."
Pinsky will appear Wednesday, Nov. 28 at Butler to close out the university's Visiting Writers' Series. He's the author of more than 20 books, including collections of his poetry, translations of work by Dante (The Inferno) and Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, and has contributed to such multi-media works as an interactive fiction game (Mindquake, released in 1984) and robotic opera (Death and the Powers, premiered in 2010). Here's more from our interview.
NUVO: Although you've written prose and translations as well as poetry, you remain best known for your poems. Do you think poetry chose you, or you chose poetry?
Robert Pinsky: From as early as I can remember, I have thought about the sounds of words and sentences: at night, in my bed, as small child, tapping the rhythms of sentences on the headboard with my fingernails. That habit of the ear has been my compass and my engine, all my life.
NUVO: What does your writing process look like?
Pinsky: "Writing" is not the most accurate word for how I work. Nearly always I begin a poem with my voice, sometimes compose most of the first draft without touching paper or keyboard. The work of composition can happen while driving a car, or in the shower. Yeats is supposed to have said, "I get a tune in my head." That sounds right to me: sometimes, the words aren't there yet but your voice has discovered the essential pattern of pitches, grammatical energies, cadences. It's much more like noodling at a piano than like writing a term paper. On the other hand, the process of revising and refining can consume a lot of paper!
NUVO: How do you know when a poem is finished?
Pinsky: You run your voice over it, as you run your hand over something you are sandpapering.
NUVO: You've been teaching for a long time, and you've taught at Wellesley, UC Berkeley, and Boston University. Have students - in general - changed since the late sixties?
Pinsky: The students have stayed the same age while I get older ... which means fashions, trends, schools, fads, etc. seem more ephemeral to me, more central to them ... with neither side of the divide being right or wrong! That matter of perspective prevails over and blurs any changes from generation to generation. I love working with the gifted young poets who come to Boston University's MFA program to work with Louise Glűck, Dan Chiasson and me. Love their quest, love laughing with them.
NUVO: What qualities do you see as unique to American poetry?
Pinsky: In some cultures, arts like poetry have a long-established, fixed place, sometimes involving snob-value. As the videos at favoritepoem.org demonstrate, many Americans of many kinds and places and ages love poetry, but as to its social place ... we are still making that up.
NUVO: How did you come to the decision to translate Dante?
Pinsky: In certain ways, Dante is the least classic of authors: he specializes in mish-mosh, a bold, home-made combining of classical and contemporary, cosmic and personal, religious and topical, grave and comical. He is the great Mixer. As with the subject of any poem, as with any poem, I did not decide to translate the Inferno ... you just find yourself doing a thing as part of the quest.
NUVO: You say, "Translation, always, is a matter of degree."How did you become comfortable with the idea that no translation will ever be an exact copy? How do you untangle the meaning from the original language, and then repeat it in a different tongue?
Pinsky: Writing a poem is always a matter of degree: you never get exactly and completely everything you want. Even the "Ode to a Nightingale" is a great, great translation of an original in the sky, or if you prefer in the mind of God. For me, the way I make translations, it is not significantly different from writing a poem.
NUVO: From 1997 to 2000, you were the United States Poet Laureate. What duties are assigned to that title?
Pinsky: No duties to speak of. It's an honorary title, not a job. Fortunately, thanks to having Maggie Dietz as program director, thanks to Cliff Becker at the NEA, thanks to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton White House Millenial Celebration, thanks to Boston University, we were able to create the Favorite Poem Project, those books and videos and the summer institute. The Favorite Poem Project, I think, is significant, in ways beyond any title.
Every July, the Favorite Poem Project sponsors a one-week Summer Institute for K-12 teachers: the teachers get the videos and the anthologies. Poets like Louise Glűck, Carl Philips, Mark Doty, Heather McHugh give talks and readings, and the teachers meet by grade level to generate teaching ideas, projects, lesson plans based on the idea of poetry as an art: the poem as an audible work of art, not an exam question.
NUVO: In your eyes, what needs to be done to keep poetry alive?
Pinsky: Poetry takes care of itself. All art does - that is paramount. What else? Well, the poetry organizations could do more to support teachers and librarians who are already doing a good job. The organizations and foundations waste a lot of time and money on silliness: how to make an Emily Dickinson costume for Halloween, prizes awarded to different categories of poet, poems in text that hops around on your iPhone, poetry soap, poetry aquarium gravel, etc . . .
In a survival race, I am quite certain that poetry will long outlast reality TV and Twitter. I'd bet my life savings on it in a second. Do you think the bookmakers in Vegas would take that one? (They are probably too shrewd to touch it.) The onetime magazine Newsweek once proclaimed poetry to be dead ... guess what happened?