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Talking Taste, with Robert Pinsky

a fresh new interview with Robert Pinsky

Talking Taste, with Robert Pinsky

Interviewed: January 12, 2015


Robert Pinsky was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. He graduated from Long Branch High School, as had his parents, and went on to college at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and then to graduate work at Stanford, where he held a Stegner Fellowship.

robert-pinsky.jpg

His Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux) was published in 2011. His previous books of poetry include Gulf Music (2008), Jersey Rain (2000), The Want Bone (1990) and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996. 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. His prose books include The Life of David (2005), The Situation of Poetry (1976) and The Sounds of Poetry (1998).

The CD PoemJazz, with Grammy-winning pianist Laurence Hobgood, is released by Circumstantial Productions. Robert has also performed reading poems with Ben Allison, Bobby Bradford, Vijay Iyer, Mike Manieri, Stan Strickland and other jazz musicians.

Among his awards and honors are the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Harold Washington Award from the City of Chicago, the Italian Premio Capri, the PEN-Volcker Award and the Korean Manhae Prize. He recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the PEN American Center.

Robert Pinsky founded The Favorite Poem Project, including the videos that can be seen at www.favoritepoem.org, while serving an unprecedented three terms as United States Poet Laureate.


How has your experience as a professor of creative writing and literature influenced your personal tastes? How has what you've taught – and perhaps who you've taught – over the years challenged or even transformed your sense of what’s pleasing and what’s not?

RP: For years I've required the young poets in my MFA workshop to compile an anthology: 36 pages that show what you mean by the words “poem” or “poetry.” Ideally, typed up by hand. The students learn from the exercise – sometimes typing something they didn't realize they liked, sometimes beginning to type something they thought they liked, then abandoning it.

A kind of secret function of that exercise has been to develop and expand my taste. The student anthologies are scouts for me, keeping my taste limber, I think. Sometimes, there’s the plausible mediocrity that the young poets (or their teachers) are reading in a particular decade, or lustrum, or year. But sometimes I get some free education. Not only contemporary finds (it may have been in one of those anthologies that I first read a poem by Terrance Hayes or Katie Peterson) but poets translated from other languages. And re-discoveries: some very hip, rather experimental young poet types out “Lycidas” and I realize I’ve sort of underestimated it as a dusty, ornate perennial.

 

What about your own work as an editor and anthologist, including the Favorite Poem Project  is it similar or different to your role as a critic?

RP: “Critic,” I’ve read somewhere, comes from Greek “krinos” which has to do with choosing. Pound’s lists in ABC of Reading, Yvor Winters’ lists, Louise Bogan’s—they make sense to me, they stand the test of my personal time and, I believe of larger time as well. In an opposite way, sometimes, a contemporary critic will choose, make a “canon,” and I’ll feel relieved: the list reveals great areas of incompetence in the critic. The Favorite Poem Project, like the student anthologies, has informed my taste. Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick” became important to me through the video at www.favoritepoem.org, where Seth Rodney reads it and discusses it. I knew that poem, and Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” before the FPP. But it was the letters about Hayden’s poem that formed my sense of it as a great poem.

So gathering an anthology is a form of criticism, at a high level. To choose. The very highest form of criticism (to quote again) is actual composition.

 

As a critic, in Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry you write persuasively about the “democratic imagination” – the tension between the individual soul of lyric poetry and the dual social preoccupations with cult on the one hand and colon on the other; and you note this tension as a source of inspiration (even a necessity?) for modern poetry. This presents a wide range of topics to choose from, and stances to take; but it also presents a inherent challenge for writers to grapple with complex, even conflicting, ideas in their works. Can you think of any examples of contemporary writing that successfully avoid this modernist tension altogether?

RP: All the American contemporaries I can think of engage the contradictions and tensions in our culture. If not explicitly, then implicitly with maybe in some ways more force as a result. In that little book, I dare to mull, briefly, the dual nightmares of colonized uniformity on one side, and fragmented cult on the other. Diametrically opposed extremes, two poles: Maybe an oversimplified way to deal with the tangled web of democracy, colonialism, slavery, snobbery, genocide of the original North American peoples, identity politics, eighteenth-century rationalism in the Constitution, nineteenth-century transcendentalism in the Abolitionists . . . .  

But all the recent writing I admire engages the modernist tension as I understand it: maybe obviously in the poems of of Tony Hoagland or Kevin Young, C.D. Wright or Natasha Tretheway, Tom Sleigh’s recent Army Cats and Station Zed. But also in Louise Glück’s A Village Life with its only-implicitly European community, the radically expanding and contracting geography of Charles Simic’s poems. I think of the twisting course among sexual and cultural tensions in Sara Peters’ remarkable first book 1996. Stuart Dischell’s much-anthologized poem “Days of Me” is at once a comic aria of the self and a catalogue of American social habits and systems.

 

Over the years, you've written about the connection between music and poetry – and it’s an integral part of your life as an artist, too, as you've performed your work with many different musicians. Have you ever been surprised about your own musical tastes, some like or dislike which perhaps doesn't carry over into your literary tastes or general aesthetic? 

RP: Like nearly everybody, I have a sneaking, ineradicable affection for the most popular music of my teenage years.

 

Let’s talk extreme tastes: Can you tell our readers something you simply can’t stand in literature? And then, to conclude on a high note, tell us something you couldn't live without? 

RP: There’s a kind of reassuring chuckle or reassuring uplift in middlebrow writing that I really, really don’t like. Complacency. I suppose in another way, some kinds of language-is-inadequate, quasi-experimental writing is equally cozy. Both forms of deprecation. I prefer the large, even if it risks the grandiose. On reflection, I’m really responding negatively less to particular works or writers than to the cultural appetite for certain kinds of ease -- in keeping with your project [with Jam Tarts]: the taste for those varieties of deprecation.

Take so-called “children’s literature”: I like Walt Kelley, immensely, and Walter de la Mare, because they don’t really write “for children” or condescendingly. Large scope, reach, not deprecation. I don’t like Shel Silverstein’s writing—that awful one about the boy and the tree!—and I’m aware that kajillions of people love it. That appetite or taste reminds me it’s time for me to struggle again to make myself a little more buddha-like.

In the other direction? Struggling with insomnia, in the dark, I sometimes silently recite to myself certain poems, including “The Snow Man” or “An Old Man’s Winter Night” or ”Because I could not stop for Death” or “Sailing to Byzantium”. . . they never put me to sleep, they always make me feel better, and despite many repetitions they always feel fresh and exciting to me.