Tom Sleigh conducted the following interview with United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky on October 1, 1997, in West Newton, Massachusetts.
Sleigh: I know that jazz has been a big influence on you. One of the things I've always loved about the jazz magazine Downbeat is the blindfold test. The musician being interviewed listens to part of an album, rates the recording from one to four points, four being the highest, tries to identify the artist, and talks a little about it. Ready?
Eke lullaby, my loving boy,
My little Robin, take thy rest.
Since age is cold and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best.
With lullaby be thou content,
With lullaby thy lusts relent.
Let others pay which hath mo pence;
Thou art too poor for such expense.
Pinsky: It's Gascoigne's "Lullaby of a Lover" and it's one of my 3.5's. He puts to sleep his eyes and then his will and then his fancy, one stanza for each, and in the last stanza, this one, he puts to sleep his penis and says, Now I'm too old: "Let others pay which hath mo pence."
I remember thirty years ago, Yvor Winters reading that poem to me and chuckling very hard while telling me that Sir Arthur Quiller Couch in the Oxford Book of English Verse omitted that stanza. (Laughter.) I also remember Winters saying that he had shown the stanza to Virgil Keble Whittaker, the chairman of the Stanford English Department at the time and a sixteenth-century scholar. Winters said, "Ho-ho. Whittaker had no idea what this stanza was about. Ho-ho-ho." The poem could be called an example of late sixteenth-century phallocentricism in a very charming and appropriately grave mode.
Sleigh: Another one. Ready?
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of love's latest breath,
When, this pulse failing, passion speechless lies,
When faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over
From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.
Pinsky: Yeah. Same period, a little later. That's another solid three-and-a-half. It's Michael Drayton, who has skills that really could compare with Shakespeare's in this sonnet. The poem feints in one direction and goes in another--you just know he's sort of grinning at you and saying, "Yes, I'm saying goodbye, and it's all over," and it's a way of saying, "Come here, honey, give me a kiss." It's an attractive, flamboyant piece of rhetoric from that same period, part of the high fashion for sonnets at the time.
Sleigh: Could you talk about your poems in relation to jazz? It's a form based on improvisation and on a respect for tradition. You have a passion for certain sixteenth-century poets--would that constitute "tradition"? And if that constitutes tradition, what would constitute improvisation?
Pinsky: There is a lot of baloney written about jazz and poetry. One thing you can say for sure is that you have a basic rhythmical or harmonic structure, and then the pleasure is seeing how surprising and various you can make the variations from that structure--what interesting directions you can build on it or away from it. And if you think about the way even Parker and Gillespie and the bebop generation built on the blues and turned it into a complicated structure, I think that is a model worth thinking about for poets. There are times you can feel in your own writing or in somebody else's writing the danger of lapsing into too easy a relation to references and signification, to rhythms, to ways of proceeding. You can feel the pleasure of disturbance, of doing something a little different--I think that dialogue or argument is something the two arts do share. That you want to extend it before it turns stale. To honor it, you have to change it a little bit.
Sleigh: Can you talk about that in relation to one of your own poems? Say, "Poem with Refrains"?
Pinsky: Quotation is something I love in poetry. Quotation is something used in jazz, too, where Sonny Rollins will suddenly quote, "You Ought to Be in Pictures," when that isn't the tune he's playing at all; he's playing "Love in Bloom." Or when they're playing together, Rollins will quote a phrase that Coltrane has played in some other tune or setting, and Coltrane will quote a phrase that Rollins played back to him.
In the sixteenth century, quotation was so taken for granted that the writers didn't make a big distinction between original composition and translation. So you read a poem like Herrick's "The Vine," or many Elizabethan sonnets, and there's a model in a rhetoric handbook or in some preceding Greek or Latin poet. Certainly Pound is terrifically made out of quotation. A limitation I have found in the "Maximus Poems" is that Olson uses quotations so much the same way that Pound uses them.
My "Poem with Refrains" is an attempt to use quotation in a way that feels fresh to me. Strictly speaking, they aren't even refrains: at intervals, as a kind of punctuation or transitional music, I quote some of the lines I love, playing the quotations against the story from my own life that I'm telling.
Sleigh: One of the things that's impressive in that poem is the different registers of speech.
Pinsky: For good or bad, a lot of voices do get quoted. It tickles me, I admit. In one passage, there's the Black Muslim speaker, speechmaker, there's my mother making an outrageous wisecrack, there's me attempting to tell the story, and then there's the voice of Algernon Swinburne--it was a pleasure to make a kind of collage out of Swinburne and the Black Muslim, and my mother and me. And to feel that the collage in some way makes sense.
Sleigh: We've been talking about tradition. What about improvisation?
Pinsky: There are literally improvisatory poets, that is, people who compose very quickly and don't revise much. Frank O'Hara, I think it's in Personism: A Manifesto, says that he likes to sit down and play the typewriter for an hour or two after breakfast. Very few people have that kind of ease. But I think if you write with your voice, then you are improvising. If you are in the habit, as I am, of testing out every phrase and every line with your voice, and trying to discover the lines with your voice, you have something roughly parallel to an harmonic structure or a rhythm in what you're trying to say, or the emotion you're trying to get at. And then the voice is trying to improvise different phrases over that--should it be "with many recognitions, faint and sweet"? . . . "with many recognitions, dim and sweet"? And you're trying it over as you mutter the different alternatives to yourself--there is an improvisatory and intuitive aspect to writing with your voice, I think, maybe more so than when writing with a keyboard or a pen.
Sleigh: How about a writer like Williams? I mean, does he seem improvisatory to you? In the sense that he made such a big deal about the American idiom.
Pinsky: Williams's symmetrical stanzas, the fact that he wrote so often in three-line stanzas, are a reminder of how he loved the word "measure." It may be very limber and improvisatory in effect, but he is thinking about an order that is a rather abstract, general order. Williams strives for an effect of spontaneity and improvisation and freshness, but the symmetrical stanzas and his whole approach to writing also imply the idea of improvising both on a rather set theme, and on a rather fixed notion of underlying cadence.
I suppose you could propose that to be a great improviser you have to have an extremely powerful, fluent sense of form--just as to be a great improviser in music you're supposed to have a tremendously good, fluent sense of time. A player like Rollins gives you a tremendous freedom and punctuation because as his kind of great horn player he's also a great drummer. The way he plays phrases, never quite playing on the beat or off it, makes him function simultaneously as a great improvisatory percussionist. If he plays without a rhythm section, he is still playing with the rhythm section of his own skull. What he's doing always sounds very firm and very sure, even though he's constantly surprising you with his rhythmical patterns.
Sleigh: We're talking about reasons why poems seem to have a lot of vitality and freshness and an air of spontaneity. In one of your essays, Poetry and Pleasure, you say that one of the reasons that many poems fail is because they're not "interesting enough to impart conviction." You define "interesting" as "the free acceptance of the gift of pleasure." How do pleasure and conviction come together?
Pinsky: I'll try to bring it down to earth in a technical way. I think that conviction often carries a cadence across a line sooner or later in a poem, that the quality of conviction formally is expressed, if not by enjambment, by some sense that the rhythmical unit and the syntactical unit are not identical. They're not inertly the same, they have a relationship to one another and the conviction is a kind of force of the syntax in relation to the rhythm. And I suppose you could equally say that there is a conviction in the rhythm in relation to the syntax. A lot of young poets whose work I read, whether they're language-oriented and rather non-referential, or more narrative and autobiographical, they share a kind of timid, boxy sense of the relation between syntax and the line: so that the poem tends to be written in grammatical phrases. The lines coincide with the grammatical phrase, with an occasional arbitrary enjambment.
I think a technical correlative or embodiment of conviction is a use of the rhythms, the relationship of the consonants and vowels, and the relationship of the line to the phrase that's dynamic, shifting expressive--full of conviction.
Sleigh: And how does pleasure play into that?
Pinsky: It's fun to accompany somebody on a discovery of how you can play in relation to a certain set of chord changes in a certain tempo. It's a pleasure to accompany Hart Crane and Emily Dickinson, as they show what you can do with a fixed line and an emotion and a set of things to say, as the emotion and the line and the rhythm and the syntax push against one another, dance together, dance apart, come into conflict, argue about it, make peace, explode, do all the different things that those stylistic elements can do. And I think that it expresses a kind of awakeness and a kind of pleasure, regardless if the material of the poem is dark, that calls up, if everything's working right, an answering awakeness on the part of the reader.
Sleigh: Your poem "The Refinery" is pretty self-conscious about language as a subject. That poem unfolds a narrative where ancient pagan gods take a train ride from the stars down to an oil refinery, where they drink language from the storage tanks. Where does such a thing come from?
Pinsky: It's one of my few commissioned poems. I was asked to write a poem about the English language, and I was aware that among languages the English language is particularly a result of violence. The richness of our vocabulary stems from the fact that the island was invaded and raided and conquered repeatedly, so that Scandinavian and Norman French and Germanic and Latin roots came in through various acts of war, colonization and expropriation. I suppose that idea has conviction for me: it corresponds to my sense of reality.
And the idea of a valued product--the English language--coming out of this catastrophic, stressful, ugly history, tremendous pressures and tremendous amounts of time, made me think of petroleum: and that's the refinery, where they speak of "cracking" when they refine oil; they "crack" the oil into different grades and products. So that homemade mythology got the poem going--there was the perception of the language like petroleum, and then the question of what sort of gods would want such a thing to happen--whatever ancient gods would, for purposes of their own, want to bring about either petroleum (the word is from the Latin for "oil of rock") or bring about the English language; they would be very strange deities, with purposes we can't completely determine.
Once I had the idea of these gods, rather frightening, barbaric deities, then to put them in a railroad train, descending from the stars and down the Northern coast of California, to the refinery I knew very well in Richmond, California--then that part was easy.
At night, that refinery does look like fairyland; with lights all over it, it looks like the most beautiful castle in the world. The lord of the castle is, as the poem says, a corporation, a person declared real by law.
Sleigh: We've been talking in an oblique way about a hierarchy of values in poetry that makes you want to read or write a poem.
Pinsky: It begins and ends with the voice for me. If a poem I read sounds good when I say it aloud, I'm willing to stay with it a long time and try to figure it out if it's difficult, or to see something further in it if it seems transparent. And if it doesn't sound great to me when I read it aloud, I tend to wonder what's on TV. (Laughter.)
Sleigh: We've talked about sound as one of poetry's primary aspects, both in terms of pleasure and in terms of arresting the attention of a reader. I know that you're working on a book that has to do with the sounds of poetry in English.
Pinsky: I'm finishing it: a little book, of about eighty or a hundred pages, to be entitled: A Brief Guide to the Sounds of Poetry in English. I hope young poets find the book interesting, but I also have a kind of lay audience in mind: anyone at all interested in poetry, who might find some use for a book that is brief, that is a guide, and that is about the sounds of poetry.
My idea is to help people listen, and to do it using a minimum of special terms, avoiding jargon, avoiding accent marks, avoiding special typographical symbols or diagrams. I try to do it by relying on the English language.
Sleigh: In relationship to a book that young poets would find useful, some lines from Wordsworth come to mind: "Fair seed time had my soul, fostered alike by beauty and by fear." Was it a fair seed time in your case? What would be the beauty part, and what would be the fear?
Pinsky: I was born in 1940. Maybe everyone is sort of chauvinistic about their own era. I am. The years of my childhood and youth were a beautiful seed time in relationship to American popular music. Rock and Roll was being born, and when you first heard Fats Domino, and Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, and you heard doo-wop hits, like "Earth Angel" and the records of the Platters, and also white people's music--Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, things like that--were overturning the last gasps of the popular music of the preceding generation--awful Franky Laine hits--to see that happening as part of the expression of your own generation is good fortune, I think.
And the same could be said about American sports. It was great to be ten, eleven, twelve years old when Jackie Robinson was truly performing what is quite accurately speaking, you might say even technically speaking, a heroic act. He suffered for a community, he suffered not only for black people, he suffered for Americans and our country itself, he suffered for baseball, and his suffering included tremendous skill, but also tremendous and punishing restraint. A terrible ordeal, of great benefit to others, and a magnificent display of prowess, moral and physical. Without analyzing or understanding it, it was possible, at ten or eleven years old, to know that I was witnessing something really great.
And television, too, was great. Young Sid Caesar was on: ninety minutes in "Your Show of Shows." Another idol of mine, another kind of mastery. Robinson, of course, mastered himself as well as his calling. And when I was old enough to realize it, the spectacular generation of great modernist American writers were many of them still alive: Eliot, Faulkner, Frost, Stevens.
There's another thing about that "seed time." I have thought since those days that I was also lucky to be a little older than the war babies, so that there were fewer of us of my age. And I grew up in a small town, where my family was well established for a couple of generations. But the town, Long Branch, New Jersey, also was very near New York, and a lot of New York people came to the town for vacation. I grew up on the ocean, it was a resort, there was a boardwalk, there was a merry-go-round, and all of that was quite beautiful and I'm grateful for it. I also grew up in a family that understood laughter, a family that savored glamour in itself and others, that appreciated clothes and looking good, and style--I was given a sense that we were beautiful and amusing people. And when I was a kid, I found joy in manipulating words. I used to browse around the dictionary and see what I could learn. It was very good for somebody who didn't do his homework, it was good distraction. You could start and stop at will anywhere in it, it was a beautifully unsystematic book to read.
That's the beauty part. Fear? My father got fired from his rather low-paying job when I was seven years old, in 1947, and we had no money. We, I'm sure, always would have been able to eat, but I had the anxiety that we might not. It also felt humiliating that he had been fired and that we were living in a small apartment in a part of town that was, my mother always called it, a slum. . . . There were drunks and derelicts, it was a place where neighbors in one direction from us were all black: it wasn't where middle-class people were supposed to be living, and I had insecurity about all that.
Three or four years later, when my father had set up his own shop, and we started to see a little breathing room but were still living in the same place, my mother, who had already been rather a strange and difficult person, fell on her head. That was terrifying, though it sounds a little like a joke. For a couple of years, after the capital "C" concussion, she had to be in a room that had no light in it and sounds bothered her. She was hypersensitive to sound and to light--that really rules out an awful lot of things. And eating was a constant source of difficulty and argument. Who would prepare food? Where would food come from? She had been very rebellious about taking on the responsibility of providing food even before she fell, and after she fell, it was over.
I did have a grandmother four doors away who cooked a lot and pretty regularly gave us food, but I can remember feeling the humiliation of carrying jars and Pyrex bowls down the street from my grandmother's apartment to ours, while old Mrs. Kravitz was looking out the window watching me; so, as I used to like to say to Bob Hass and the other gourmands of Berkeley, I was brought up to think that food is more trouble than it's worth. (Laughter.)
Sleigh: In "Responsibilities of the Poet," you say that an artist needs not so much an audience as to feel a promise to respond. Could you say a word about that sense of promise to respond as it relates to the public aspects of the Poet Laureateship.
Pinsky: I'm not sure if the Poet Laureateship in itself has very much to do with the act of writing at all--except perhaps that it's inimical to the act of writing. (Laughter.) Writing, in itself, is not a public matter, is it? It's a matter between you and your work. You intend to do it as well as you hope the man who put the wiring in the building did his work, though your proficiency is less obviously important and harder to judge. The Poet Laureate's job is, I suppose, more like teaching than writing. Like teaching, it's a public job, a task located between you and other people. So the position is not much like writing in that sense. It's on behalf of writing, I hope.
Sleigh: On behalf of writing then, could you explain what you meant by saying that "the truest political component of poetry "is the sense of to whom the poem belongs." And could you connect that to your desire as Poet Laureate to make an archive of poetry read aloud, not by poets or critics of poetry, but by people from all walks of life.
Pinsky: I think when you read a poem by Pope or Dickinson or Blake, or those poems by Gascoigne and Drayton, or Bishop or Ginsberg or Eliot, probably any poem you read, implicitly there's a society, there's a culture, and usually there's a social class that is the implicit originator and the recipient of the poem. Even in Blake, and clearly in Whitman. That's a political matter. It takes a property, a large cultural property, and conveys the idea, this is who it belongs to, these are the inheritors responsible for it.
The Laureate project is to make a record establishing the place of poetry in the United States outside of the professional microcosm of poetry. The idea is to make an audio and video archive of hundreds of Americans saying aloud the poem that that person loves. This ranges from laborers to Congress people, from the woman who runs a corporation to parole officers. People of different ages, ethnicities. I hope this archive will include some poems in languages other than English, too: Navajo, Japanese, Spanish, Yiddish. Whatever any American reader feels is a poem important to him or her.
Sleigh: In terms of the Laureateship, how is this going to be disseminated?
Pinsky: The archive will be presented to the Library of Congress. I hope teachers will find ways to use this archive in class. "Anthem," a new National Public Radio weekend cultural program, will include a regular segment based on the Favorite Poem archive. We've taped a parole officer who had a certain Langston Hughes poem that he recited to his clients. One day a client recited the same Hughes poem back to him by memory. Another person already taped is a woman in Alaska who talks about a depression she endured one Alaskan winter. She reads Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning," and talks about how the rebellious, feisty quality of that poem, and the act of saying that poem aloud to others, helped her through her depression. And along with them, in the first "Anthem" segment, we have F. Scott Fitzgerald stumbling through part of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," in a charmingly and comically declamatory way. In April, there's going to be a reading based on this idea at Town Hall in New York. I hope Mayor Giuliani reads a poem on that occasion, and I plan to have some students from New York City public schools reading poems they enjoy.
Sleigh: One of the things I find appealing about this project--but maybe risky too, is that it's not based on actors delivering poems in a dramatic or declamatory way. No professional performers?
Pinsky: I think we'll go very light on the number of professional actors, professional poets or declaimers. I believe
there is a special intellectual and physical thrill or comfort people experience when they say aloud a poem they love, and that the listeners can feel that. Even if the performance is not particularly expert or impressive, we can hear when someone is saying aloud the words of a poem that is deeply meaningful or important to that reader. Anyone who says a poem aloud has the experience of becoming, physically, the medium for Emily Dickinson or Wordsworth or whoever wrote the poem. The theory of poetry underlying this project is that poetry is an intimate, as well as a public medium. That is, the medium of poetry is the audiences breath, the audiences larynx, the audiences mouthone person. And yet the art is communal, sometimes even civic, too.
Tom Sleigh is the author of The Dreamhouse, After One, Waking, and The Chain. A recipient of an Individual Writers' Award from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, he teaches at Dartmouth College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.