Monday, Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky entered “The Fray,” Slate’s reader-discussion forum, for an hourlong discussion. The following is an edited transcript of the chat.
Robert Pinsky was named poet laureate of the United States in March 1997. His special project as poet laureate is the Favorite Poem Project, which will create an audio and video archive featuring Americans from all walks of life reading aloud a beloved poem. He is the author of five books of poetry, including The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1965-1995, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and received the 1997 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He is Slate’s poetry editor.
What have you been reading lately?
The letters between Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams: They met in college, and it’s wonderful as well as a little sad to follow the devotion, the ups and downs … Pound spent his last night in America at Williams’ house.
Excellent, I will look for it. I used a WCW video–“Voices and Visions,” I think–to work with talented middle school students this summer. I also used your poem “Shirt” with the same students.
I find some of the Voices and Visions series wonderful. A video/audio project of my own that I hope we get to is the Favorite Poem Project: The idea is to tape 1,000 Americans of all ages, professions, regions–not necessarily poets–each saying aloud a favorite poem, with a sentence or two about why he/she loves the poem. Bless you for using my “Shirt”–it was on a recent College Board exam. … I’m both pleased by that and a little dismayed to think I’m being used by ETS to torment the young!
Do you speak your work aloud as you write to hear those sounds?
I do write–and read–with my voice. For me, this is a vocal art.
I find the statement that you view poetry as a vocal art quite interesting. Are you saying that what comes out of you as poetry is a thing designed to be spoken? I have said something similar myself, but I was referring to the inner voice we all carry around with us. Is this the voice you speak of, or do you literally mean poetry should be vocalized physically?
I mean “voice” quite literally. I think that part of poetry’s unique appeal is that it is a bodily art in which the medium is the audience’s body–that is, our voice. When I say a Dickinson poem aloud, my breath is her art’s medium. So when I write, I am trying to make something in my voice that will sound good in the reader’s own voice, as he/she says or imagines saying the words.
This makes poetry a uniquely intimate, yet public or civic, art.
Like NuPlanet, I find this statement most interesting:
“But along with that intellectual pull, there’s the physical attraction of the sounds of words; and the two are related, because the allure of the riddle is partly the physical, mysterious presence of sounds that are just beginning to mean something.”
It’s this line of thought that has led to my interest in “Sound Poetry,” exemplified by the works of Tzara, Schwitters, Heidsieck, Haussmann, etc. Strangely enough, this kind of poem is generally met with resistance and/or disapproval from those primarily interested in less marginalized forms. Do you have any thoughts on these poets or on this field in general?
I guess I consider all poetry sound poetry, and there are examples or schools in any art that emphasize one aspect (e.g., the physical) at the expense of others, validly. But the Pinsky family motto is “All of the Above.”
I think I understand what you say about “our” voice becoming the medium in a bodily sense. I suppose where I differ is that I consider poetry that is specifically designed to be read aloud, as in a public forum, just a different category within the medium. This is partly because I am never consciously aware that the voice I am using to conceive a poem is anything more than just my own private vocalization. Also, I always seem to miss half of what’s going on when poetry is presented in any type of theatrical milieu. I find my consciousness interacting with the body or vocal language of the speaker, as well as the environment in which it is presented. The voice option in Slate is a typical example of this. I have read some of the poems and then listened to the author’s reading of the same poem. Aside from finding the personality was exactly opposite to what I had conjured during the reading, I now found myself trying to fathom inflections and emphasis in places where I had previously not found any. I guess my question, at this point, would be, am I unique in writing poetry as something I expect to be simply read, rather than recited aloud? And have you encountered this type of resistance(?) or question in your travels within the various poetry circles?
I grew up with poetry (my father frequently quoted Eliot and Frost) but fell away for about the last 15 years. Can you recommend any poets, anthologies, magazines, or books to help me catch up? I recently bought Thomas Lux’s New and Selected and loved it.
I’m glad you enjoyed Tom Lux’s book. Louise Glück has a book about to come out, Vita Nova, that I like a lot, as I did her Meadowlands. I’ll also recommend Frank Bidart’s Desire. Her publisher is Ecco and his Farrar, Straus. As to anthologies, I’ve just done one that comes out this month, from Morrow: The Handbook of Heartbreak: 101 Poems of Lost Love and Sorrow. Though the material is sad, I hope the book gives pleasure.
dpiette, Blaise, others,
I hope you consider volunteering to read a poem for my Favorite Poem Project. You can learn about it at http://www.nefa.org, the site of my sponsoring agency, the New England Foundation for the Arts. Or just send the author and title of the poem you’d like to read, and your address name and phone number to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The volunteers–I have thousands already–will be a valuable archive, aside from the video and audio.
Hello Mr. Pinsky,
I’d like to know your thoughts, as general or as specific as they may be, on canonicity. What works or authors do you consider to be an integral part thereof? What do you think of the notion of “sexiness” in relation to the canon’s constituents?
My question springs from a desire to know the ways in which we redefine the canon every so often. Also, as a follow-up, what elements of a work of poetry (or fiction for that matter) make that work canon-worthy? Are there such elements?
As to the canon, it is always changing, always different for each person, always suggests some social core. Like culture, or a culture or a nation, it is made out of motion. It is a form of change.
You say that the canon is “always different for each person.” How could it be, then, that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, et al., are so universally agreed upon? Just how personal is the canon when these literary figures are such a large part of our common epistemology?
What does it mean to be a Jewish poet in an America where ethnicity seems increasingly less important?
As to the idea “How could it be, then, that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, et al. are so universally agreed upon.” Well, some people think Chaucer is outdated; I personally think Shakespeare though a great, great artist in the plays is often second rate in the sonnets; Pound deprecated Wordsworth and Milton; and some people think Blake is a scoundrel; etc., etc. What lasts is what doesn’t bore people, I guess.
Horowitz, I hope you are right that ethnicity is less important. I do think that our terms for these things will seem quaint to our grandchildren. I find “Jewish” an immensely rich, fascinating historical reality that I will be thinking about as long as I live–“ethnicity” is an inadequate term for all these threads and influences from the past that make up any one person: George Herbert through his poetry, and Coleman Hawkins through his music, are our ancestors, too.
Why are you happy to see ethnicity disappear? An America without it would seem awfully bland. Do you envision a day when there are no countries or religions (kudos to John Lennon), nothing to kill or die for?
I don’t welcome any cultural reality “disappearing”–I remember your original terms as “less important” and that phrase made me think of racism, blood-hatred, snobbery, etc. Remember, my family motto is “All of the Above,” so my Chinese and Hindu and African-American and Islamic heritage is important to me, too.
By the way, if any of you are librarians or teachers, etc., and would like to have a public Favorite Poem reading in your community, my helper Maggie Dietz will send you a how-to kit: email@example.com, or FPP, 236 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215.
Let me clarify: To say it is a vocal art does not mean that it is a performative art. I am not thinking of the expert actor or poet or orator performing in a hall so much as I am the person muttering a few lines or a whole memorized poem while in the shower, or driving–or the person reading the poem aloud to a lover, child, one or two friends. “Do you know these lines of Whitman …” and then the reading. Or just the way I comfort my mind with a few snatches of “Sailing to Byzantium” or whatever … that’s near the center of the art, for me.
That is a perfect clarification. Thank you.
I also do not want anyone to go away with the image that I look down upon the practice of reading poetry aloud. I think what you are trying to do with your “Favorite” poem project is excellent, and very important. Especially for, though not limited to, children. Now here is an area where I know reading poetry aloud has a meaningful and lasting effect. Having spent uncountable hours reciting too many rhymes, riddles, and tattered Golden Books to my kids, I am well aware that it does make a difference. In any case, thanks for dropping in this evening, and I really think you should just pop into the other poetry thread from time to time (you do lurk there, I hope?) and let us pick your brain or vice versa. Ciao.
“The Unseen” is a devastating poem about your visit to Krakow–the concentration camps. The title is perfect–because it’s almost what you didn’t see that evokes the pain and anger. This kind of poem seems so hard to write. I’ve tried and failed for the most part.
On a lighter note: Do you still play the sax?
I think there are subjects and feelings one carries around for many years, perhaps noticing them sometimes no more than a limb of one’s body, and then one day the opportunity to write that poem somehow appears. I feel as if “The Unseen” is as you say about what one cannot get at–to return to the haunted ruin idea, the part that is left in ruin. And at Auschwitz, the proportion of what is lost, and the dimension of it, is like a cry as big as the universe …
I do still play the sax, take a lesson with the Boston jazz player Steve Tully whenever I can … though there is so much travel that I often neglect it …
A couple of years ago, Garrison Keillor (yes, the Minnesota boy) wrote a scathing article in the Atlantic Monthly called “The Poetry Judge” (it is not online unfortunately) where he had been asked to judge a local poetry competition in XXX town somewhere. He said he wished that he could have given NO awards, because all the poetry was so bad. Is this because he is a crotchety Midwesterner or because poetry is so “easy” to write that anyone who strings a rhyming couplet together is a poet?
And then, why is it so HARD to write good poetry?
Garrison Keillor is a serious lover of poetry and knows what he is talking about; if you ever hear him read a poem aloud, you will know what I mean. He gets it. I can imagine him (he is a grouchy chap) becoming a bit bearish if his beloved art seemed to be taken lightly, or treated as if it were easy, or an amusing sideline, etc.
Something that ties into Garrison Keillor’s gruff attitude toward judging a poetry competition is the current phenomenon of poetry “Slams,” which appears to be quite fashionable among the young hipster set. While I definitely think it’s a good thing for these kids to be channeling their energy into artistic pursuits, I find the competitive attitude at these events rather distasteful. To me it misses the point and fatally detracts from the art. I’ll assume there’s an element of competition among established poets, as there is in any vocation, but that’s not quite the same as these verbal mud-wrestling exhibitions. What other readily available options do you suppose young people interested in honing their poetic skills have today?
Let me say something about the discourse on this thread, where I have lurked from time to time. (Eavesdropping inspired me to suggest this format.) Sometimes the Web leads people to that insulated rudeness so familiar on the highway: People who would be polite on the grocery line are brutish in the anonymity of the car. But this group has attained a generous, courteous kind of discourse, serious without being strident. So I congratulate you all. Thank you all–and as NuPlanet suggests, I hope we can do this again some time.
And please do help with the FPP–addresses and information above.