An Interview with Robert Pinsky[The following interview originally appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of Meridian, a new journal at the University of Virginia, and is reprinted by permission of the editor.]
Robert Pinsky is the Poet Laureate of the United States. A renowned poet, critic, and translator, his most recent books are The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 (Noonday, 1996) and his translation of Dante's Inferno (Noonday, 1994), which received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.
The following interview was conducted by phone. Pinsky, at his home in Boston, was finishing a photo-shoot. Midway through the interview, we were briefly interrupted as Pinsky showed the photographers out. The break has been included here because of the shift in mood it illustrates. Pinsky was allowed to talk about the pressures of his office as well as his hopes, long enough to permit us to glimpse the man behind the post.
Ted Genoways, Meridian
How did you find out you had been named Poet Laureate?
I came home from giving a poetry reading, and there were three messages on my answering machine from the Library of Congress. I thought it probably wasn't an overdue book. [laughs]
One of the things the Library of Congress mentioned that appealed to them was your effort to make poetry accessible to a broader audience by putting it on-line and seeing the web as an asset rather than a liability.
Like print and writing, the computer is just a kind of representation of what is the actual medium of poetry, which is the human voice. I'm the poetry editor of a weekly magazine published on the web by Microsoft; the magazine is called Slate. We have a poem in Slate every week and readers can click on the poem and hear it read aloud. There's a lot of poetry on the web.
What would you say to the people who complain that there's no system on the web for people to divide what's good from bad beyond their own critical faculties?
I think that's true, but it's also true when you walk into Grolier Poetry Bookshop [in Boston]. It's also true when you pick up a literary magazine. I don't think there's any guarantee of quality.
Another thing the Library of Congress cited was your other work in poetry. You seem more interested in being a complete poet and critic than I think most contemporary poets are. I think it was The Nation that drew the comparison to Robert Lowell. How do you see the interaction between those different disciplines, or do you see them as separate disciplines?
I grew up with the idea that to practice an art was to be involved in every part of it and to try to involve art in every part of life. I never took a creative writing course, so I don't have a creative writing degree. I never specialized in an academic way. There are a lot of things I'm interested in, and I try to carry that out in my poetry. The generation of T.S. Eliot and people influenced by Eliot, I think those people as a matter of course wrote in many different forms, were interested in translation, and it's never occurred to me to be any other way.
How would you remedy what seems to be a growing distance between the writer as artist and the critic?
William Butler Yeats says, "Nor is there singing school but studying / monuments of its own magnificence" [in "Sailing to Byzantium"]. That is, there's no way to learn to be better or to learn to do an art other than to study monumental examples of the art. Ezra Pound says, "The highest form of criticism is actual composition." That is, the poet must choose the word "critic" is based on "krinos," which means "to choose" and critics today get away with not choosing or not selecting but a poet every moment must choose: whether to use a long word or a short one, this adjective or that one or none. This constant process of criticism is part of the work of composition.
Is it a spider's web in that way?
Everything breaks off from the matrix; the decisions may not be conscious ones, but one is choosing at all times. With each step tens of thousands of new possibilites appear.
Which has implications especially in translation, because it's not only your own intentions you're trying to forward but also someone else's.
Yes, it's interesting.
Especially because you, in your introduction to Dante's Inferno, and John Ciardi [in the introduction to his 1954 translation] say almost identical things about the limitations of rhyme in English but come to the opposite conclusion. Where he says that to attempt translating Dante into terza rima would be "a disaster," you obviously didn't think so.
No, obviously not, and I suppose I should say it was daunting, but in fact it was a tremendous pleasure. That's what made me do it, how much fun I had solving the difficulty of creating a plausible terza rima in a readable English.
You employ a lot of unusual word combinations, similar to Old English kennings. For example, from the beginning of Canto XIII: "The leaves not green, earth-hued; / The boughs not smooth, knotted and crooked-forked."
Yes, it's so much fun to use all those Germanic roots, particularly when you're translating from a Romance language. Walter Benjamin says a wonderful thing about translation, that a restrung translation "records the change in the new language," brought about by the work that's being brought into it. I'm partly trying to record the impact upon English of The Inferno.
And it must not only have an impact upon English, but also upon your poetry.
Well, translating is a wonderful form of reading; it may be the most intense form of reading, and whenever you read a great work, it's going to affect your own work. I think working on this translation brought me a new intimacy with and appreciation of the physicality of poetry. Dante is so tactile, so sensuous a writer, and trying to get some of those effects in a parallel way or a simulacrum or an equivalent way in English gave me a heightened sense of the importance of physical sounds, like going to all those Germanic roots or the Old English roots in the passage you mentioned.
And I've noticed some of those appearing in the new poems in The Figured Wheel...
Yes, I think so, and...wait, excuse me a minute. [A brief pause] Excuse me, I had some photographers here.
It's all right; I'm sure your schedule must be constrained at all times.
Well, I do find that everything has to be written down, so it doesn't get completely crazy. Some guys were here taking my picture; I thought they were going to be gone when you called. They were finished, but they were still packing up.
You must have far more requests than you can handle. How do you make those decisions?
It's a great question. There are some things that just seem, to use my booking agent's expression he will say, "This is just a good Poet Laureate thing to do." There will be some things that just seem as though this is what the post was created for, something that involves encouraging somebody who's doing a very good job, bringing poetry into schools or something where you what to enourage and support something that's very worthy. And sometimes it's a personal connection. Or if it's something that seems to involve some national thing, like I was invited to go to the birthday party of Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution here in Boston, which happens to be a ship that was saved by a poem. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that poem [after a newspaper article in 1830 proposed dismantling the ship], and it seemed like that was something one ought to do.
A few years ago, Rita Dove did a lot to help redefine what a Laureate "ought to do." How do you think the role of the Laureate has changed?
I think it has changed in response to the change in the times. I think that there's been a notable upsurge of interest in poetry and the practice of poetry, and in response to that change in the culture the office of Laureate in a typically American way has sort of improvised itself into something somewhat different.
So what are you hoping will be your trademark or your legacy?
I have a project that I hope to complete, which is to create an audio and video archive of many, many Americans saying aloud a poem that person loves. I hope to have a very wide range of regional accents, a range of ages, professions, kinds of education, and it will not concentrate on poets or critics or experts. The idea will be to establish a record at the millenium of the life of poetry in the United States, outside of any professional microcosm of poetry. This project will be sponsored by the Library of Congress, as part of their bicentennial celebration, and I hope it will also be part of the country's millenial celebration.