Robert Pinsky served three terms as the United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. Born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey, he has published over twenty books during his storied career and has been the recipient of awards that include the William Carlos Williams Prize, the PEN-Volcker Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the PEN American Center and his best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante (1994) was a Book-of-the-Month-Club Editor's Choice and received both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. While serving as the Poet Laureate he founded The Favorite Poem Project that is dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry's role in Americans' lives. In addition, he serves as a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Boston University, leads a poetry workshop in the graduate writing program and continues to work on his PoemJazz project that explores the conversation been the sounds of poetry and the sounds of music. THIRSTY was very fortunate to visit with Robert Pinsky this past summer in Boston for this conversation.
THIRSTY: How did a boy from Long Branch, New Jersey come to translate a long poem about Hell written by Dante Alighieri over 700 years ago and wind up winning awards and praise for the effort?
ROBERT PINSKY: It's a bit like shooting baskets or singing harmony or carving wood: there was a kind of technical hook or knack. The translations I knew, both prose and verse, seemed kind of slow and wordy to me, whereas Dante in Italian is kind of fast and fluid. I felt that I could use fewer words, get a rhyming form, and make it quicker, more athletic. It's up to readers to decide if I did that, but I do use fewer words than any other translation! The famous first terzina, in my version, is not three lines long—it's a bit under two.
So, I wasn't thinking consciously about the great themes of Dante, I was thinking about the equivalent of running hook shots, or bluesy vocal chords, or using the woodgrain to bring out a contour.
THIRSTY: If Dante were alive today, what kind of man would he be – a politician, a language theorist, a poet or just someone with a wild imagination fueled by street drugs? Do you feel that you got to know him on a personal level after spending so much time translating his words and his thoughts?
ROBERT PINSKY: So much was different: the city, Florence, had for him the feelings we associate with national patriotism or family pride. Scholarship and art were a single thing. So it's hard to say. But as you imply, he did have some political career, he did have ideas about language . . . .
He managed to get himself exiled from his city, and when the success of the Comedia led them to invite him back, he declined because they wanted him to say the old accusations had some justice. So maybe we can imagine him not getting a lot of conventional prizes: academic tenure, say, or the Florentine Hall of Fame. He had the confidence to know he had done something better.
An action of the Inferno is to get over the desire for settling scores or getting even—his eyes increasingly look higher than all that.
THIRSTY: You have written that "the familiar world can be seen in a new way" through the freedom of a poem. And that "Good writers notice things." How have your poems changed over the past thirty-nine years since your first book of poetry, Sadness And Happiness, was published? How has growing older changed your notice of the familiar world?
ROBERT PINSKY: I hope I continue to notice new things, and hear different kinds of music. I hope I continue to go against the grain of my time . . . as the title of that first book, and the title poem, certainly do! I see the title and remember writing that poem and the other long one in the book, "An Essay on Psychiatrists," and I marvel at that young poet's nerve! I hope I still have some of his sauce and recklessness.
THIRSTY: You have said that "Poetry is written for anybody's voice…" and that the "Culmination of the work of art is when someone other than the artist gives voice to it." Did this philosophy contribute to your founding of The Favorite Poem Project after you were appointed Poet Laureate in 1997?
ROBERT PINSKY: Yes, Absolutely. I'm very glad that this year, with the help of the Poetry Foundation, we shot some new videos in Chicago. In the coming years there will be more new ones, in different cities, that will appear at the newly-enhanced favoritepoem.org.
THIRSTY: You recorded a CD entitled PoemJazz. You have written that "Music has authority…The figurative 'music' of a poem as a similar authority." How has poetry influenced music and how has music influenced poetry over the past 60 years? And, how do you feel when performing your poems accompanied by music?
ROBERT PINSKY: In the course of my life, poetry's relation to music, literally and figuratively, has been emphasized by two historical sources of inspiration and guidance:
First, the modernist generation: William Carlos Williams with his "metrical figures," and the words "song" and "music" in so many of his titles; Robert Frost with his "sentence sounds" in "The Figure a Poem Makes," Ezra Pound in ABC of Reading using the word "compose" for the creation of a poem, rather than "write." Pound and HD rejecting the "metronome" in favor of "melody." Yeats saying about the genesis of a poem that "He'd get a tune in his head."
Second, the first wave of great poetry in English, the late 16th and early 17th century. Campion and Dowland and all those madrigal poets, writing poems that were also songs, with matchless abundance and beauty: lute songs, a well as madrigals. Wyatt wrote several poems addressed to his lute, as a metonymy for his art. Ben Jonson and Shakespeare and George Peele writing great songs for the stage.
What both sources have taught me, though, is also quite different from songwriting, and from what I do with the PoemJazz CD and performances. The great lesson for me is that the poetry I love most, aspire to the most, creates the music-of-speech, that can be heard in the videos at favoritepoem.org. It's what Paul Valéry means when he tells the actors to approach poetry by first reading it several times listening to the syntax, vowels, consonants, trying not to think about the meaning. It's what the great comic Sid Caesar means when he says "comedy is music; it has melody and rhythm." He says he can double-talk French, Japanese, Italian, German, by listening to the "song" of a language. Pitch, as well as rhythm.
Going back centuries—or all the way back to the first humans— poetry and music may have been a single art. (Maybe we should add dance?) In "Poetry and Music," a piece for Slate, I try to think some of the present, practical outgrowths of poetry and music as sister arts.
THIRSTY: During your storied career you have published twenty-five books. And you have written that "The more I think about meaning, the more interestingly strange the concept becomes." Through your writing are you searching for a Rosetta stone that will help decode the meaning of the human condition?
ROBERT PINSKY: It's the sound of meaning that I crave and concentrate on: Frost talks about hearing a conversation through a closed door. A toddler can make the sounds of meaning—which is to say, meaning—in a language, before quite forming words. If one gets that right, then something in the human condition can express itself through you . . . audible to anyone who says the words of your poem, in that person's imagination or actually. You don't need to be there to perform it, the reader will hear it, in that reader's own actual or imagined voice. That is the unique intimacy of poetry.
THIRSTY: Your website refers to you as "Poet, Translator, Essayist." In fact, you have worn many more hats. Of all that you do, what are you most passionate about and what have you accomplished that has had the greatest enduring impact on the field of poetry?
ROBERT PINSKY: The proof is in the pudding—which is to say, the poetry.
THIRSTY: This past summer several of your books were released as ebooks with a potential unlimited shelf life. How will this electronic delivery of poetry affect the preservation of ideas in the coming decades?
ROBERT PINSKY: Like most writers, I welcome dissemination of my work. The entertainment industry, Disney and others, using tremendous amounts of money and political power, has extended copyright beyond reason. I hope that the electronic media will provide a counter-force, enabling freedom of access. It will be nice if my children might make a little money from my books . . . but enough is enough!— I love the grandchildren, but let them write their own poems!
THIRSTY: In a Commencement Speech you gave in 2012, you concluded by saying "I wish you worthy and pleasurable difficulties in your life." Are worthy life challenges the fodder of great poets?
ROBERT PINSKY: The challenge to make a real work of art is great and worthy. Like curing diseases or feeding the hungry, it is difficult. The point of that speech I gave at the Concord Academy is that the part of us that loves video games, golf, crossword puzzles also can spur us in engaging the joy (and frustration) of those higher difficulties.
THIRSTY: What can we expect from you in the coming year?
ROBERT PINSKY: I am completing a new book of poems. My MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), "The Art of Poetry," went live on September 30. And there will be more PoemJazz performances with musicians.