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Thrilling Difficulty


November 1, 2007

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There are few higher profile poets in America than Robert Pinsky, damning praise though that is. During his tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate, his Favorite Poem Project took on a life of its own that continues a decade later. He edits poetry at Slate, writes the “Poet’s Choice” column for the Washington Post, and has appeared on public television, The Simpsons, and The Colbert Report, a trifecta no contemporary poet would ever be expected to hit.

There are also few poets of Pinsky’s generation who have matched his accomplishments as a poet, translator, and critic. His books of poems include The Figured Wheeland his seventh and most recent, Gulf Music,which Louise Glück calls the latest example of, “an art whose scope and complexity and grandeur are rarely equaled by any of his contemporaries.” His translation of Dante’s Inferno helped set a new standard by which all subsequent translations are judged. His essays on poetic form and poetry’s place in our culture are collected in The Sounds of Poetry, The Situation of Poetry, and Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry.

With this record in mind, you might expect to find Pinsky more politic and less humble than he is. He refuses to even call himself a poet, leaving that judgment to his readers and critics. His responses show a sharp intelligence and a knowledge that ranges from Don Cherry to Sibby Sisti.

I spoke with him this September, before his hated Yankees fell like a lame couplet from the baseball playoffs.

—Gibson Fay-LeBlanc

Guernica: When and how did you get into poetry? When did you write your first poem?

Robert Pinsky: What I got into was art, even before I could use the word “art.” My daydreams always have involved making something: a building, the design of some object, a picture, a dance, a song, a movie, a story.

Whatever makes a child want to glue macaroni on a paper plate and paint the assemblage and see it on the refrigerator – that has always been strong in me. In high school and into college, it was being a musician: playing saxophone at high school dances, at weddings, poolside at beach clubs, in bars. Or banging at a piano.

There was no “first poem.” I began fitting words together for the sounds—or for the surprises or the feeling or the hell of it—earlier than I can remember. Designating the product “poem” was not part of it. I have always been thinking about the sounds and shades and aromas of words—fitting them together or disrupting their customary march—more or less every second of my life, waking and sleeping.

“I could not do the things I wanted to do on the horn or the keyboard so I faced what I might have been evading, my actual métier, the sounds and nature of words.”

Guernica: When did you begin to call yourself a poet?

Robert Pinsky: Frost’s dictum that it is for other people to say still has force for me. I tend to say “I am a writer” and “I write poems.” When it seems too elaborate or pretentious to avoid, I will use the word about myself, but I tend to be a little shy of it— almost superstitiously, to keep it sacred. Or just to hope that others will say it, will apply the word to what I write.

Guernica: Fair enough. But when did you begin to see that writing was the art that you would devote yourself to, rather than playing the sax?

Robert Pinsky: In college, I went back to do an audition with the guys I used to play with in high school. I stunk up the place, and we did not get the job. I think I decided I was a poet on the way home, more or less.

In other words, I could not do the things I wanted to do on the horn or the keyboard so I faced what I might have been evading, my actual métier, the sounds and nature of words.

Guernica: How do poems usually begin for you?

Robert Pinsky: A certain mood where I can slow down the flow of babbling, rhyming, joking, playing, cursing. Sometimes it begins with feeling the impact of some work of art: in a museum or on television or as I read or listen to music.

Most often it is that mood or frame of mind where I decide to slow it down, inspect it, focus it— that stream.

Guernica: Is it a simple decision then, that kind of attention? Do you try to make that decision regularly, say, every day or every week, or do you let it come to you as some writers say they must?

Robert Pinsky: I say “decide to slow it down” or focus it, but it might be more accurate to say “I feel able to” or “I feel moved to.” As the saying goes, you can’t will yourself to be hit by lightning. But you can carry metal objects onto hilltops during thunderstorms.

Guernica: Whom do you see as your mentors, whether you’ve known them in your lifetime or not?

Robert Pinsky: So many artists: Mark Twain, Akira Kurosawa, Ben Webster, Sid Caesar, Emily Dickinson, Nikolai Gogol, Francisco Goya, Ben Jonson, Willa Cather, John Keats, William Carlos Williams, Buster Keaton, Homer, Ella Fitzgerald, Preston Sturges, Johannes Brahms, William Faulkner, George Herbert, Joseph Cornell, Jonathan Swift, Fats Waller. I’m trying to recall what’s been through my mind lately. The list is very, very long.

I knew some older poets whose work is important to me—Elizabeth Bishop, J.V. Cunningham, Robert Lowell—but they were not “mentors.”

My important teachers include Francis Ferguson, Paul Fussell, and Yvor Winters – but as teachers of literature, not writing.

What I have learned about writing comes from artists, and from certain friends, my peers.

Guernica: All of your poems show a careful attention to form in all its guises. Most of your poems have a sculpted appearance on the page, and your short book The Sounds of Poetry appeared almost a decade ago now. Where does form enter into the process of writing a poem?

Robert Pinsky: Form is the generated and generative principle in a work of art. The container or external principle is not necessarily the form. In a significant regard, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams share certain central qualities of form: the spine of vowels and consonants and syntactical energy; the rhymes in such poems without end-rhyme as “An Old Man’s Winter Night” or “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper.” The formal life of certain vowel sounds in “Fine Work,” of the dental consonants on pauses in the sentence where the old man becomes “a quiet light, and then not even that.” The life in both poems of certain ordinary language like “clomping” and “eight-foot strips” and “at a loss” and “after lunch.”

Guernica: It’s interesting that you mention Frost’s and Williams’s vowels and consonants. If I had to talk about the thing that marks one of your poems as yours, it would be the specific character, the spine, as you say, of your vowels and consonants. Perhaps that’s the DNA of any poet, but it’s more apparent, more particular in your case. I think if I was on the subway and heard someone read aloud, “The flash of your hammer / Fashions the shelter” [from “Photograph” in Gulf Music], I could say, even if I’d never read the poem, “Oh, that’s Pinsky.”

Robert Pinsky: Thank you. I think it’s like musicians or singers: there’s the range of possibilities, and there’s the way a particular person has found to use that range. It can vary, you can try to make it grow, but the way you dance or throw the ball has its deep nature, too. For me, the vowels and consonants are the notes, the materials.

Guernica: Your poem “Rhyme” in your new book rhymes its end words across stanzas rather than within them. Was that a technical challenge you set for yourself?

Robert Pinsky: Well, it was a certain feeling, an emotion that might come from rhymes insinuated themselves in a certain way. I wanted a feeling of music, but more like Satie or Don Cherry than like Mozart or Waller. Echoes that are regular but not insistent, something a reader might hear but not identify, like recognitions of the Cornell box, or the muted sense that a room has been occupied before you, will be occupied after you.

In other words, that unusual arrangement of rhymes was a kind of means, a way to a feeling.

Guernica: You dedicated your long title poem “An Explanation of America” to your daughter in 1980. I’m wondering how well you think this poem holds up in today’s America, and what your daughter thinks about this poem now that she’s older.

Robert Pinsky: Nicole as an adult, as when she was a young child, is skilled with words, a good reader and writer—she wrote the notes to my Inferno translation. She knows how to laugh and how to be funny.

I respect the poem’s effort to combine patriotism and dismay toward our country, its sense of a right-wing, crazed, violent element and something civilized, nobly generous as well. It is for other people to say if it “holds up.” And for Nicole to say what she thinks. But for myself, I am willing to stand by the poem.

“I’m disgusted by dumbing-down, complacency, an attempt to reach back to some (false) good old days before modernism.”

Guernica: Do you think there’s still room in poetry today for more discursive poems, those that can take on politics and culture in the largest way or talk about whole groups of people, like your “Essay on Psychiatrists”?

Robert Pinsky: The verb “to essay,” to try, to vocalize one’s way along a sort of heuristic journey into things . . . I like the essayistic element in the work of John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich in the generation older than me, of Tony Hoagland and Elise Partridge in the generation younger than me—an element that finds the scope of lyric poetry limitless, completely wide, as embracing (and as vulnerable) as the human voice.

There is room in poetry for absolutely everything, I think.

Guernica: From your first book, Sadness and Happiness (1975), to Gulf Music, which is forthcoming in October, your work is filled with efforts to get at the fragmentation, the forgetting, and the disconnection that accompanies our existence. In “Poem about People,” your first poem in your first book, you write about “me, mis-hearing / My rock radio sing my self pity / ‘The Angels Wished Him Dead’” and about “the dark wind crossing / The wide spaces between us.” In “Gulf Music,” the title poem of your new book, the poem frequently falls into music and wordless utterances. Why is all our fragmentation, forgetting, and disconnection such rich territory for you?

Robert Pinsky: A personal, biographical answer might be that I grew up in a disorderly, unpredictable household, jangling alternations of comedy and history, insanity and idealism, doubt and head injury, music and anger, loss and wit.

On a more civic level, I grew up in Long Branch, a decayed but still gaudy town with a glorious history, where Presidents summered, along with Broadway stars, famous gamblers and patent-medicine millionaires– all partly forgotten, but with a ghostly sheen. An adumbration of American history, in some ways.

And forgetting seems to me an important subject.

Guernica: You wrote an article on Slate recently, called “In Praise of Difficult Poetry“. What brought this piece about?

Robert Pinsky: The title came from a headline writer at Slate. My own title called it “An Anthology of Difficulty”—some of the poems are not so much difficult as musing about or engaging the idea of difficulty.

It seemed an amusing idea. Maybe I was thinking, in part, about [the] current resurgence of [an] American anti-intellectualism that struggles with our democratic idealism about reason and the mind: on one side, the spirit of Enlightenment, the rule of law, public education for all; and on the other side, a right-wing populism, a demand that everything be made easy, complacent, genial, harmless.

This issue runs through American art and politics. It’s a central issue in Twain, and it emerges in a range of places—Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and Cather’s Song of the Lark, the heartbreaking career of Melville, with his exciting popular hit Whitejacket and his difficult flop Moby Dick.

I don’t reject the title Slate chose—difficult is a great human desire, as video games demonstrate. But I was trying to make a timely anthology, not an argument.

Guernica: The struggle you mention—between anti-intellectualism and populism—plays out in contemporary poetry as well. There are those who insist that the syntactic and semantic slipperiness of many contemporary poems is a kind of verbal middle finger at the reader, that poems should be “accessible” on some basic level, that as Stevens said, “a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” Others might say these poems attempt to get at the increasing fragmentation of our world, that they have good reasons for resisting interpretation, that they don’t allow poems to be put into neat, little narrative boxes of explanation.

What say you? I realize it’s a simplification to talk about this as merely a two-sided issue and that it’s difficult to talk about this without staking the discussion down to particular examples, particular poems.

Robert Pinsky: Ulysses and the poetry of Wallace Stevens are “accessible” because they are so imaginative, profound, pleasure-giving. Such works give me access to something. I suppose the most dopey, worthless thing on TV is literally more “accessible” because we have access to it by clicking it on. But it doesn’t actually give me access to anything but maybe boredom and therefore a reverie about something else.

I’m disgusted by dumbing-down, complacency, an attempt to reach back to some false good old days before modernism. This is not an “aesthetic” response for me, not a matter of “poetics”: given modernism’s relation to the stresses and ambitions of the modern world, an effort to turn back the clock, to be reassuring formally and morally, is repellent. When I read the newspaper, when I consider the issues of war and peace—then, a reassuring, easy or easily “accessible” art seems grotesquely inappropriate. Not that the politics of Pound, Marinetti, or Yeats are attractive—but in the properties of their work, they respond to a reality. So do their inheritors, Ginsberg and Plath. Longfellow is a fine poet, an admirable figure, but to bring back his ways of writing and thinking doesn’t hold much promise, in my opinion. Not worth much attention.

Not that a glib opacity is more responsible. It too may trivialize or be complacent. It too may fail to respond to reality. But there’s always a fashion-of-the-period that certain people, some quite gifted, will adapt or follow. I can sort through that stuff to find what is genuine or lasting, that is worth the energy and attention.

In the “Neo-Modernist” work of, say, McMichael or Bidart, I find access to what I crave. I don’t get bored, I don’t feel condescended to; I feel in the presence of reality I could not otherwise access.

“The despair in this book is in large part a political emotion. It responds to activities of our government: deception, torture, suspension of rights, among them.”

Guernica: Could we perhaps call a poem like “Louie Louie” from your new book a kind of poetic embodiment (of many in your work) of this subject? It’s an amalgam of references from literature and popular culture that the speaker has supposedly heard of, never heard of, and/or forgotten. With all its repetition and references, it’s a pleasure to read and yet probably puzzles many readers the first few times through. And then there’s the title, which many readers might recognize as the title of a great, great song but wonder why it’s sitting above this poem.

Robert Pinsky: Well, as with successful songs, movies, conversations, you don’t have to know exactly what every reference is to be excited and interested by where things are going.

And a culture is made not of precise, hard-edged memories—like some professor’s pompous “canon”—but of partial forgettings. Pearl Buck and Frank Buck and Leo Frank and Buck Rogers and Roger Williams and William Rogers, for example. You don’t need to identify any of the names, I think, to feel that they are a sort of linked catalogue of the sort of stuff that floats around in one’s mind, or a culture.

Guernica: How did you come to that title?

Robert Pinsky: Desperation, and the suggestion of a friend.

Guernica: When do poems become too difficult, or do they? How might we judge that? You seem to want the freedom to be difficult, even obscure, yet clarity seems vital to your work as well. Your note at the end of Gulf Music, for example, eventually explains where your references to “Sibby Sisti” and “numerus clausus” came from.

Robert Pinsky: The works of art I love—the comedy of Sid Caesar, Coltrane’s variation on “Too Young to Go Steady,” Dickinson’s “It was not death,” Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” any page of Ulysses—generate a simultaneous clarity and smokiness, knowledge and dark, a clarity that shades off into a fringe of ambiguity. They give me the pleasure of easing into a delicious, strenuous, thrilling difficulty.

Guernica: Did all your focus on fragmentation and forgetting in the first part of Gulf Music cause you some despair? I think it’s interesting that the second section of the book reaches for solidity, or at least the appearance of it, in the form of poems about everyday objects.

Robert Pinsky: The despair in this book is in large part a political emotion. It responds to activities of our government: deception, torture, suspension of rights, among them. The poems, I hope, struggle against the seed of quietism or surrender in that despair, toward a more purposeful anger.

That was the effort of the book: truth to anger, truth to despair, without trivializing them with mere sermon, mere superiority.

Guernica: Your “Stupid Meditation on Peace” certainly resists any superiority, particularly in the speaker’s identification with a monkey “Who fires his shit in handfuls from his cage.” I read it as an argument with the self or between the self and the common wisdom on peace. Did this poem begin with these big ideas, or in some particular encounter with the contemporary peace movement, or in some other way?

Robert Pinsky: I believe that “monkey-mind” is a term of Buddhist thought. [There is] much appeal for me in Eastern religion, the little I know of it. And something thorny in me finds American adaptations of Buddhism terribly self-indulgent, silly, gooey in the way the English call “wet.”

The Manhae Foundation, a Korean Buddhist organization, asked me to write a poem about peace. I wrote this poem while in South Africa, with what I wrote possibly affected both by the history of apartheid and colonization and the natural beauty, with the unsentimental nature of nature (watching a mother cat bring down a wildebeest).

And the quotation from Sid Caesar’s autobiography, contrasting the separate branches of life’s stream, the Tributary of Peace and the Tributary of Art—that was a gift. It helped me try to write about peace in a serious, not a vapid way, to be more than simply in favor of it. And yes, to be honest about the shit-throwing monkey that is part of oneself and part of the problem.

Guernica: Does the translation of a canto from Dante’s Paradiso at the end of Gulf Music mean we can expect more Dante translations from you? Your translation of the Inferno has certainly stood the test of time so far, and it also helped spawn, or at least was part of, a whole new generation of translations of Dante, Ovid, Horace, and other classical poets.

Robert Pinsky: I don’t expect to translate the other two cantiche, though I guess you never know. That final poem is somewhere between translation and imitation, and it is based on just a few stanzas of the last canto of the Paradiso. In fact, I skip a stanza. Really, it is a poem by me, about vision and ending, or vision of the end.

Of course it’s been pleasing that the Inferno translation is so widely read. I get responses to it every week. But that’s not the same as being able to do the other two.

Guernica: You’re one of this country’s most public poets. What kind of responsibilities do you feel in this role? Is it a role you relish or more of a necessary evil?

Robert Pinsky: My poems—like my family life, my life with friends, my teaching—these things express who I am. I don’t feel any extra responsibilities or relishes or necessary evils in them. They are part of who I am, with all of those customary desires and doubts, purposes and confusions that come along with being a particular person.

The Favorite Poem Project videos, at www.favoritepoem.org, have just been upgraded to flash files—much clearer and easier to watch. I am very proud of the FPP. And though I am skeptical about titles like “Poet Laureate,” I am grateful that the title led to the Project, which to me is much more significant than the title.

Guernica: Do you have to block your public persona out when you sit down to the blank page?

Robert Pinsky: No—my devils and angels, fears and hopes, insights and stupidities, loves and loathings, are what they are. I don’t edit them out so much as try to make them interesting—whether I am talking to you, or writing a poem, or joking with my kids, or speaking on television. That is the only way I know how to do these things.

Guernica: What are you reading right now, or what have you read recently that you loved?

Robert Pinsky: Ernst Pawel’s fascinating, terrifying, profound account of Heinrich Heine’s last years: fatally ill, in exile, in great physical pain, and writing great work. A combative, satirical spirit who to his astonishment found depths of serenity in himself.

And Pawel, who himself fled Germany in 1937, apparently knew he was writing his last biography.

A good companion book to the greatest work of fiction I know about an artist is Cather’s Song of the Lark.

Guernica: Most importantly, you grew up in New Jersey but have been living and teaching in Boston for years. Red Sox or Yankees? Who will still be standing in October?

Robert Pinsky: I grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, which is to say a Yankees hater. Since the real Dodgers no longer exist, it was easy to adopt this other, local team with a “B” on its hat. My wife (also an ardent Brooklyn fan when she was a child) and I go to the games fairly often.

Guernica: Is baseball the sport that lends itself most easily to poetry for a reason or just the one that’s had the most time in American culture to be written about?

Robert Pinsky: I don’t know. Could the playfulness within the game have to do with it? All that joking and teasing the players do? I have seen a bullpen full of major leaguers playing reggae rhythms with their empty plastic water bottles and guys in the dugout pretending to tootle and strum bats.

The pauses, which drive some people nuts with impatience, give the game time for high drama and low kidding around. My father, an outstanding catcher, was amazingly good at teasing chatter.

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