A Favourite Poem: An Interview with Robert Pinsky

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Acclaimed literary critic, translator, essayist, professor and poet, Robert Pinsky, notably utilised his first of an unprecedented three terms as Poet Laureate in 1997 to pioneer his Favourite Poem Project (FPP), which is ‘dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in our lives.’ Initially drawing responses from 18,000 Americans, FPP has thus far documented more than 25,000 letters, fifty videos and four anthologies, inspiring similar projects and events around the world.

“Yearning further into giving itself into the air, breath/

Strained into song emptying the golden bell it comes from,/

The pure source poured altogether out and away.”

Robert Pinsky whimsically cites the above lines when I ask which of his own poems he likes best: “The closing lines of ‘History of My Heart’ do something I like.”

They are perhaps a fitting introduction to the poet’s writing – a precise, yet easeful articulation with careful attention paid to sound. Approaching Pinsky for this interview, he retains this precision in communication and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Sound appears to be a marked through-line in Pinsky’s writing, but it is equally present in his teaching and major projects. A focal point of his Favourite Poem Project has been the gathering and creating of a depository of videos of people from all walks of life reading their favourite poem out loud. In light of this distinctive appreciation of the spoken form of our favourite poems, I ask him: how does a poem transform for you when it is read aloud? “The experience’ he says, ‘of what it feels like to say ‘Further in summer than the birds’ or ‘Three kinds of serpent do resemble thee’ or ‘Love at the lips was touch’ or ‘That is no country for old men,’ gives me a new way of feeling like myself.”

I ask if listening to his own poetry out loud changes how he sees it and if he has ever been surprised by an interpretation. His response; “Pretty much every time.”

Interested in Pinsky’s attention to the spoken form, I ask “As a poet who openly promotes reading poetry aloud, why is this important? Is how a poem sounds something that a poet should always consider when writing?” He responds without pretence; “The word promote sounds like corporate marketing to me,” he says, “I don’t promote one way of reading poetry. I write with my voice, for any reader’s voice. That’s how I know to do it. I don’t mean to transcend language, but to use it in ways that generate truth and music.”

“I don’t mean to transcend language, but to use it in ways that generate truth and music.”

He also says; “I don’t prescribe or proscribe any way of appreciating poetry. Whatever you enjoy in it, good! The videos [on the FFP website], I think, are as fundamental as any primate holding out a piece of fruit to a companion, with a gesture and facial expression that convey ‘This is good.'”

Pinsky’s own “A Poem of Disconnected Parts” reads ‘We do not Worship our ancestorswe consult them.’ A poet of the people, for the people, perhaps, Robert Pinsky appears dedicated to listening to and elevating the humble reader. Through the FPP, Pinsky seems to ignore such things as prescribed notions or judgements of quality and, equally, the present unpopularity of poetry itself and instead asks the individual – what is your favourite?

So, “why is the Favourite Poem Project still important,” I ask, “27 years after its founding, at a time when social media has made the presentation and declaration of personal opinion and thought so much easier for the common man than ever before?”

He responds with ease. “The videos [on the FPP website] and the quotations from letters in the anthologies from Norton remain important – and unique – because they represent the impassioned, informed responses to poems from readers: not students, not teachers, not poets, not actors, not literary critics, but actual (perhaps uncommon?) readers. People who love these poems, and know them from the inside, quite apart from any professional or official context.”

Through the FPP, Pinsky seems to ignore such things as prescribed notions or judgements of quality and, equally, the present unpopularity of poetry itself and instead asks the individual – what is your favourite?

When I ask him about who the project is for, Pinsky responds, “As with the kind of writing I like and hope to create, the FPP is aimed toward anyone who likes it. Levels are not involved.”

I ask the poet about his own relationship with the construction of meaning. Particularly, how interpretation and/or intention are involved in this. “A poem is something that occurs,” he responds. “It takes place every time someone reads it. It is an event, not an interpretation. Interpretations follow after an event, I believe, rather than preceding it.”

Considering the universal quality of the Favourite Poem Project, and the consideration that all people should surely have the opportunity to be moved by poetry, I ask Pinsky whether poetry should exist predominantly in the literary or the commercial spheres and whether the two can co-exist comfortably.  “Not as a poet but as a person,” he says, “I believe that every person’s birth-right should include all the goods our species has created: shelter, health care, knowledge, works of art.”

Following on from this I address the value of studying poetry in an academic context. Is all poetry valid? Does all poetry have value? And if so, what is the place of discernment in our consumption of poetry?  …. Can anyone write a good poem?

Pinsky simply responds, “As with music, science, government, marriage, there is a lot anyone can learn from the old ones.”

I must ask him whether he has any words of wisdom for a new poet, just starting out in this changing world. He offers, “Find something from your predecessors that you love. Read it a lot, type it out, think about it. Compile a personal anthology of such things: your personal definition by example of what you mean by ‘poem’ or ‘poetry.’”

“As with music, science, government, marriage, there is a lot anyone can learn from the old ones.”

As briefly mentioned earlier, Robert Pinsky is, outside of his career as a poet, also well-respected and highly experienced in the realm of education. Stanford educated, the poet currently holds a professorship at Boston University and stands as acting Director of their Creative Writing Program. The experience that he boasts here has seeped directly into his projects, with an entire section of the FFP website earmarked ‘For Teachers’ and holding openly accessible resources, lesson plans and guidance. In light of this, I am curious about any wisdom he can offer me on teaching poetry in the classroom, or to those who have not encountered the medium before. Pinsky responds with conviction.

“The teacher must read aloud to the students,” he states, “and the students must read aloud to the teacher and one another. You will analyse and interpret your friends and family for the rest of your life. Even after they die, you will ask, ‘What did that mean?’ ‘What was it about?’ But that is not how you came to care about them.” He continues, “Physical proximity, the actual experience, comes first. The event creates the appetite for analysis, information, understanding. Not the reverse.”

“You will analyse and interpret your friends and family for the rest of your life. Even after they die, you will ask, ‘What did that mean?’ ‘What was it about?’ But that is not how you came to care about them.” He continues, “Physical proximity, the actual experience, comes first.”

Following this I ask him to name a poem he would introduce to someone who claims to dislike poetry altogether. He replies readily with “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” by William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost’s “To Earthward.”

Both of these poems are, incidentally, relatively short, modern pieces written by male American poets and marked by, dare I say, a very pleasant marriage between sound and image. The former begins, “Now they are resting/ in the fleckless light/ separately in unison,” and the latter’s opening lines, “love at the lips was touch,” Pinsky has already cited during this interview, in describing how sound transforms a poem for him.

I request a line from a poem he loves or always finds himself remembering – “There was a man of double deed…”

Finally, I ask Pinsky the inevitable: What is your favourite poem today? “Everything changes,” he says, “and so does one’s favourite: that is, what is ‘favourite’ changes and any particular favourite changes each time you come to it. This minute, trying to answer your questions, I again love Alan Dugan’s ‘How We Got the News.’”

Of course, after conducting this interview, I immediately seek out this poem, which I presume is actually Dugan’s “How We Heard the Name.” I encounter a brief and cynical piece about soldiers and Alexander-the-Great, apparently making a comment on human ambition and idolisation: “This is a joke/ between me and a man/ named Alexander, whom/ all of you ba-bas/ will hear of as a god.” I consider that there were, admittedly, several questions within this interview for which I was less-than-surprised (but still somewhat disappointed) to find Pinsky did not have a sure, omniscient response. I construct my interpretation readily – and as a reader, I am left satisfied.

Image: Maeve Moran – Pinsky performing at the 2015 Kilkenny Arts Festival

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