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[Robert Pinsky]
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Pinsky's progress

America's poet laureate tries to bridge the gap between poetry and the world

by Chris Wright

It seems fitting that Robert Pinsky -- whose poems have such a burnished elegance and labyrinthine mystery to them -- should live in a house like this: a large, winding, scruffily elegant Victorian with stained-glass windows and wood-paneled ceilings. But relaxing in his study, in the pale blue glow of a computer, Pinsky seems anything but gloomy. And why should he be? It's been only a couple of weeks since the Library of Congress honored Pinsky by appointing him America's next poet laureate. "At first," he says of the many urgent messages the library left on his answering machine, "I thought it must be about some overdue books."

When this quip zooms over the head of a visitor, Pinsky rests his elbows on his knees and smiles indulgently. At 56 years old, Pinsky cuts a handsome, even dashing figure. Indeed, despite the fact that he is married with three adult daughters, it seems that in certain circles he is something of a sex symbol. Since March 28, the day the decision to make Pinsky laureate was announced, he has faced a barrage of media attention, and some of the personality-plundering that goes along with it. As one of his close friends puts it, "Everybody wants a piece of him."

In truth, he does seem a little tired. When Prossor Gifford, the library's director of scholarly programs, finally reached Pinsky to inform him that he was about to receive one of poetry's highest accolades, he confesses his initial reaction was not ecstasy, nor exuberance, but rather a mixture of pleasure and dread. ("Sixty percent pleasure," he says, "forty dread.")

Pinsky has already enjoyed considerable success as a poet, most recently with his translation of Dante's Inferno (Farrar Straus Giroux) and his own collected poems, The Figured Wheel (Farrar Straus Giroux). For seven years he was poetry editor for the New Republic, and he has performed the same job for Microsoft's online magazine, Slate, since its inception eight months ago. He has become heavily involved in other computer-based projects, too, including writing an interactive companion to the Inferno.

On top of this, Pinsky gives regular readings, for which he travels extensively. He teaches a weekly graduate creative-writing seminar at BU, where, according to the admissions department, there is already a distant rumble as students stampede to enroll in his fall seminar. And now he has a salvo of journalists coming at him, asking probing questions like: "Does poetry illuminate experience, or transform it?" There's no doubt that in the next few months Pinsky is going to be a very busy man.

The poet Frank Bidart, one of Pinsky's closest friends, says of the turn Pinsky's career has taken, "It's like sitting under a waterfall -- there's so much coming at him at once."

Of course, there are thousands of poets out there who would gladly give the left side of their brain to have these kinds of problems. Robert Hass, who has been poet laureate for the last two years, says he is happy and honored to have served in the position, but he also admits that on May 1, his last day as laureate, he will be "delighted" to step aside. Hass describes the laureate's role as "ill-defined by design." Ostensibly, this means that the poet can shape the role to fit his or her other responsibilities, and so there is less professional and personal disruption. In reality, though, it also means the added pressures and responsibilities of having to design your own program -- of being a general as well as a foot soldier.

Prossor Gifford, who prefaces almost every statement with "As you probably know," offers a slightly different spin. "The responsibilities are designedly minimal," he says. These responsibilities, which include organizing a reading series and giving a poetry reading and a lecture, are negligible considering the $35,000 paycheck. But, Gifford adds rather ominously, "As you probably know, the expectations for the position have certainly been heightened by the last two laureates. We try to find laureates who will rise to the occasion."

Hass says, "What happens is that you get a lot of opportunities, a lot of invitations, and you have to figure out what you can usefully do." Both Hass and his predecessor, Rita Dove, proved themselves tireless in their efforts to be useful. Hass organized art and poetry contests for children, and initiated a weekly poetry column in the Washington Post Book World, which has since been picked up by 20 newspapers. Dove worked to bring poetry into public schools, and injected elements of jazz and Native American poetry into her reading series. "I did it for two years," says Hass, "and I did it hard."

Another very active poet, Gail Mazur, who teaches a graduate creative-writing course at Emerson and directs the Blacksmith House Poetry Series, agrees that Pinsky has his work cut out for him: "The last couple of laureates have set the bar very high. But," she continues, "Robert has great stamina, and such a crisp mind."

Indeed, Pinsky already has a couple of irons in the fire. For one thing, he is known to be as comfortable dabbling in cyberspace as on the page. According to one of his contemporaries, "Robert was the first poet on the block to get a grip on technology." During our interview, he enthusiastically plays an audio clip (from Slate) of C.K. Williams reading one of his own poems, and explains how he believes computers can help disseminate the spoken word as well as the written.

Slate's editor, Michael Kinsley, says that Pinsky has been doing great work for the online magazine. "I'm not a poetry expert," he says, "but we were thrilled to get him. He wants to make poetry on the Internet his mandate, and we're delighted by that." With his Inferno project, Pinsky has proved himself a programmer as well as an enthusiast, which delights Prossor Gifford as well: "The Library has a big presence on the web, and we're hoping that Robert will help us get poetry on there," he says.

Also, Pinsky has decided on one definite outreach strategy, adapted from his favorite classroom exercise, in which he will invite people to read their favorite works of poetry aloud. He has rather colorfully suggested the likes of Bill Clinton and Jesse Helms as possible candidates to read their favorite poems in public. "If that person has no favorite poem," he explains, "perhaps that's cause for introspection in that person, or something for others to think about."

But Pinsky does not intend to use poetry as a political tool. Rather, he seeks to heighten appreciation of the great poetry that's around us, to make people aware not only of a grand tradition, but that we ourselves are a part of that tradition. "I think the more people perceive the continuity between the language that charms or impresses them and all the great poets of the past," he says, "the better off we'll be." It's a fundamental but deceptively slippery notion: despite the centuries separating them, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" and "Why don't we do it in the road?" are very closely related.

"Every object we touch has a history," says Bidart. "The words we speak, the objects we use have been made through this very long process of creation. Robert has a way of articulating that so that people recognize the link between past and present." If we can be made to see this link, Pinsky believes, we may stop thinking of "great poetry" as a scholarly pursuit and start enjoying it.

Bidart says that Pinsky is ideal for the laureate role, a sentiment that becomes a kind of inevitable refrain from people in the business: "The ideal choice," "Robert is perfect for a post like this," "He will do that very well," "He has so many different skills," "A wonderful choice," "There isn't a better choice," "He's amazing," "Wonderful." And so on.

Pinsky does seem well-suited to the role. As poet, UMass poetry professor, and Phoenix classical-music critic Lloyd Schwartz explains, "He's a poet who has really thought profoundly and written profoundly about the relationship between poetry and the world. These are things he's thought about very deeply for many years."

Pinsky says poetry acts as "a kind of nexus." Howard Stern and Dennis Rodman notwithstanding, he believes that "the two most interesting things in the world are ideas and the human body, two things that poetry uniquely joins together." In his book of essays, Poetry and the World, Pinsky says that poetry serves to link not only the physical with the mental, but the ordinary with the mysterious, and the past with the future. You can almost see him physically placing poetry smack-dab in the middle of things.

He also has a delightful way of stating complicated poetic theories in concrete, worldly terms. For instance, to describe what he see as the three basic elements in poetry -- rhythm and sound, or "physical grace"; social texture, a "sense of context and the power to generate context"; and inward revelation, "the inward motion of another mind and soul" -- he uses the lucid examples of songs, jokes, and letters.

One of the challenges that Pinsky will face is bridging the gap between an insular poetry community and a public that, on the whole, would rather watch Madonna grab her crotch than read a sonnet. In his doleful 1991 Atlantic essay "Can Poetry Matter?", Dana Gioia wrote, "American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group." Americans, says Gioia, are largely cut off from the art of poetry. Pinsky disagrees.

He has a passionate belief in poetry's indispensability, even to those who never touch the stuff: "The medium of the poem is one person's voice. The grunts that this mammal has evolved to make meaning. There's a centrality to that, an importance that's easy to underestimate if you measure everything by sums of money and large numbers. There's a spiritual importance to that."

Mazur says that while many poets are content to think of poetry as peripheral, Pinsky is "convinced that poetry not only deserves a place in the world, he believes it is central. He believes that poetry is a part of the body, and that the body can't exist without it."

In his poem "The Uncreation," Pinsky writes:

Everything said has its little secret song,
Strained higher and lower as talking we sing all day,
The sentences turned and tinted by the body:

A tune of certain pitch for questions, a tune
For that was not a question, a tune for was it,
The little tunes of begging, of coolness, of scolding.

Pinsky's work is known for its manipulation of sound -- its lavish, interwoven textures and rhythms; the passionate, almost deferential care he pays to every "grunt." The poet Carl Phillips, who took Pinsky's BU workshop in 1992, and who now runs the University of Washington's creative-writing program, says that Pinsky "seems to savor each and every word, to hold it there for the listener to hear."

In his poem "Attainment," in which the narrator tells of getting hopelessly "stoned" in some distant land, and of two Good Samaritans who found him "dead to the world," the language the narrator uses to describe this event, the sounds of the words bleeding into one another, reflect his state of mind:

. . . Day of attainment, tall saints
Who saved me. My taints, day of annointment. Oil
Of rose and almond in the haircutting parlor,
Motor oil swirling rainbows in gutter water.

Is his head in the haircutting parlor or the gutter? We're no more sure of the answer than he. The playfulness of language and imagery here reflects the poet's lively sense of humor, another factor in his poems' success, and another quality that will help see him through the demands of his role as laureate.

Pinsky's desire to make poetry accessible does not suggest that he talks down to his audience. "I think his work requires someone who is willing to listen," says Schwartz. "He's not making simple points. He's thinking intelligently and demandingly." Bidart agrees: "Sometimes he expresses very complex ideas in very complex ways." On the other hand, Pinsky can spend a page and a half summarizing some long-winded critical theory, only to respond with: "I think that at some vital level our answer must be, so what?" As Mazur says, "He speaks a common language. He's brilliant, but he can talk to anyone."

Pinsky was born in 1940 in Long Branch, a "decayed" beach town in New Jersey. In a biographical section of Poetry and the World, he says he did not do very well in school, and was, in fact, " `kicked out' for cutting classes, insubordination, failure to comply with rules or instructions, etc." Pinsky's father was an optician, and his grandfather a bootlegger and bar owner. He seems somewhat embarrassed by questions about his "democratic" attitude toward poetry, but says, "I think my impulse toward inclusion comes from the fact that I come from a small town, that I did not come from an upper-class or educated family."

Though he is fervent in propounding poetry's vital place in the world, Pinsky doesn't disparage other forms of art and entertainment. Unlike many intellectuals, he doesn't seem to feel himself battered by the forces of popular culture -- which may prove to be another strength in his laureate role.

"What I love about his poems is how much there is in them, so much stuff," says Martha Collins, a poet and the founder of the creative-writing program at UMass/Boston. "There's nothing that is beneath him. He gives the sense that everything and everyone is a worthy subject."

This inclusiveness informs not only his poetry, but his conversation as well. During the course of our interview, Pinsky speaks knowledgeably and thoughtfully about jazz (he is an avid saxophonist), rock music, the movies, basketball, politics, technology, poker, and the art of joke telling. He can go from "Words are themselves a kind of paradoxical medium" to "Then the third cockroach says, `I'm going home to fuck the cat again' " in the space of a minute.

Pinsky has written of himself as, "the one for whom it seems impossible/To tell a story straight." He has described his poetry as "discursive," meaning that his poems weave through a wide range of subjects before reaching their conclusion. "You never know where they're going," says Lloyd Schwartz. "You can never predict what's going to come next."

Schwartz notes that this meandering style has not always enjoyed the kind of acclaim it's getting now. "When Robert started to publish," he explains, "people were worried about the fact that he is a discursive poet rather than an imagist or a colorist. He was thought of as unpoetic." Robert Hass says Pinsky is a "brilliant poet whose work has often been misperceived," but adds, "I think, though, that people are finally coming to see what an achievement The Figured Wheel is."

Apparently, however, some critics' misgivings about Pinsky's work remain. This year's judges for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry passed Pinsky over in favor of Lisel Mueller, who has a more straightforward, economical style ("My next poem will be happy,/I promise myself. Then you come/with your deep eyes, your tall jeans . . . ").

Pinsky's poems make connections more intuitive than logical. They leap, almost manically, from place to place -- from the past to the present, the worldly to the spiritual, the idiomatic to the formal, the brooding to the playful, the philosophical to the mundane. This generates a great energy, and a quickening sense of the author's imagination in motion.

In "The Uncreation," the poem quoted above, Pinsky immediately follows his description of the quotidian songs of life with a bizarre and haunting image:

The Mudheads dance in their adobe masks
From house to house, and sing at each the misdeeds
Of the small children inside. And we must take you,

They sing, Now we must take you, Now we must take
You back to the house of Mud. But then the parents
With presents for the Mudheads in their arms

Come singing each child's name, and buy them back:
Forgive him, give her back, we'll give you presents.
And the prancing Mudheads take the bribes, and sing.

This diversion into the mystical isn't arbitrary: it points to the inherent strangeness of our everyday singsong speech, and links our daily experiences with those of distant cultures, with mythology, and (given the prehistoric feel of the Mudhead tale) with other, far-off points in time. This joining of disparate elements is an exemplary enactment of Pinsky's idea of poetry-as-nexus.

Despite his lofty position as the public face of American poetry, Robert Pinsky -- computer wiz, poet, critic, laureate -- seems at his most animated when delivering a punchline. He tells me he plays in a twice-monthly poker night. "I win more than I lose," he says, "but the guys I play with are idiots." He is, by all accounts, a wonderful joke teller. "I like jokes very much," he says, before launching into a theatrical rendition of three cockroaches in a bar.

"The central thing about Robert," says Schwartz, "one of his most appealing characteristics, is this mass of contradictions. He's the model of rationalism. But it would be boring if he were just rational, and he's not. Like all the best poets, he can also be a little nuts."

Chris Wright is on the staff of the Boston Phoenix.

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