The private life of America's most public poet
“I don't think of myself as tremendously public,” says the most publicly visible U.S. poet laureate in the position's 13-year history. "I have spent most of my life in a room like this one, in a house with my kids." We are sitting in Robert Pinsky's large attic study, drinking South African Rooibos tea while blue jays scream in the yard. A saxophone is propped on a stand near one wall.
Pinsky, 58, is the author of five books of poetry, including, most recently, The Figured Wheel (Noonday Press, 1997), a collection of old and new poems. He has translated the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and his translation of Dante's Inferno (Noonday, 1994) turned the 600-year-old classic into a best-seller. A professor in the creative writing program at Boston University, Pinsky is known as a teacher whose enthusiasm is contagious.
Though he has been a private man for much of his life, Pinsky has often written about the poet's civic responsibilities. Like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, he has taken up what he has called the classic challenge for American poets: creating a "democratic poetry" with which to celebrate—and criticize—a vibrant, complicated nation.
Pinsky's high public profile is largely due to his regular commentaries on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His Favorite Poem Project has also brought him attention, earning him such media nicknames as "the people's poet" and "poetry's preacher." The project began in 1997, shortly after the Library of Congress appointed Pinsky poet laureate. His initial plan was to compile a record of Americans reading the poems they loved. Two years and numerous public readings later, 12,000 participants had submitted entries by the deadline in April, according to the Project's Web site (www.favoritepoem.org). The first poet laureate to serve a third term, Pinsky this fall will begin compiling the final video archive—a permanent testament to his belief that poetry has an audience far wider than many imagine.
How did you come up with the Favorite Poem Project?
My good friend Frank Bidart and I were watching a Willie Nelson concert tape. At the end, the audience is tearing at their garments and screaming and weeping, and Willie is on stage doing the final number and the credits are rolling. And Frank said, "Now, that's what a poetry reading should feel like."
And I said, "Well, it's easy for him. He doesn't have to do all his own material."
Then Frank said, "Well, we ought to give poetry readings and do lots of material."
And he and I have. We read nothing of our own. We read poems by Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop and Frank O'Hara and whoever we feel like—though we tend not to read anyone living. We enjoy it immensely.
The Favorite Poem Project is partly meant to demonstrate that there is more circulation of poetry and more life of poetry than there might seem. . . . If you take any office building in any city in America, I can promise you there will be people in the secretarial pool who have poems they love. I assure you there will be managerial people who will have poems they love. There will be people on the custodial staff—folks who empty the wastebaskets and clean the floors—who have poems they love. And there will be people on the board of directors who have poems they love. The poems would not all be in English. They would vary widely in kind and in literary quality. But as those people described why those poems were personally important to them, you would see a very basic human phenomenon of communal support and appreciation and respect.
Do you have a favorite poem?
There is a list of probably 50. It rotates. "Sailing to Byzantium" [by William Butler Yeats], "Ode to a Nightingale" [John Keats], "Eros Turannos" [Edwin Arlington Robinson], "To Earthward" [Robert Frost].
You've written about "the saving vulgarity of poetry." What do you mean by "vulgarity"?
The word has to do with the fact that there's kind of a built-in universality to the art, which needs so little equipment. It's basically somebody's breath and mouth. Though it's an intellectual art, it's also a bodily art. There is a cerebral, intellectual part of it and there is also an animal part of it, and that gives it a peculiar intimacy.
Do you have a vision of a just and liberated society?
I'm not sure how to answer because the history of my century is a history in which the visionary has repeatedly collapsed into nightmare. I am almost genetically incapable of becoming a true conservative or a reactionary. I was raised in an immigrant town in this country. I certainly aspire to a better society than what we have—more just economic arrangements, more equitable distribution of material and agricultural goods.
But Pol Pot was a visionary. And Hitler was a visionary. Stalin, perhaps, wasn't a visionary, but he cleaved to a vision. So as I reflect on the history of my century, I feel hesitant about the notion of a sweeping vision. It's a powerful electoral and philosophical issue right now to think about how much we owe to a kind of gradualistic, ameliorist sense of politics.
You focus on the city in your poetry. Why are so many people attracted to the city right now?
Just as Americans are feeling tender and protective about the natural environment, I think we're feeling tender and protective about the neighborhood life and the downtown life that once were taken for granted. And the great romance of the city, from Baudelaire through Carol Reed, is not a romance that we can repose in. It has some of the feeling of a wounded thing as well as a very powerful thing.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a town—Long Branch, New Jersey—that had a very strong historical fabric going back to the 19th century. My family had been in the town for generations. My grandfather had been a well-known bootlegger and now he had a bar across the street from the police station and town hall. My other grandfather washed the windows in many of the stores. So, though you'd have to call them working-class figures in many ways, they were important figures in the town, as was my father.
My father and mother graduated from Long Branch High, as I did, my brother and sister did, and our cousins did. So I was aware of the historical context—both in the macro and in the micro sense. And I've often thought that my response to books like Faulkner's The Hamlet , Joyce's Ulysses , and One Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel García Márquez] partly is determined by that sense of a town and community that self-consciously sees itself as solemn and grand.
Long Branch was a largely Italian town, and there was a beautiful, expansive Italian culture of food, music, and communal life. There was a new boardwalk and a racetrack—so that flash and glamour and money came down from New York. And I'm grateful for all those things.
Did anything happen to you early on that changed or deeply molded your life?
My parents were witty people. They had good taste in clothes. They were good dancers. They were prized, and sort of like impoverished royalty. My mother listened to the opera on Saturday mornings. They were very funny as well as very terrifying in their fights or crazy spells. For five or six years, I was an adored only child of parents who felt themselves to be visibly beautiful and exciting people. I was a part of that charm. I was encouraged to be right. And I'm grateful to them for that. I think it's good for people to be adored.
Then my mother fell on her head in 1951. . . . Family life was severely crippled and fractured by that event. She had a very severe concussion. Whether for physiological or psychological reasons, for many years she suffered from vertigo and hypersensitivity to sounds and light, and she was very deeply unhappy and erratic for a long time.
There was a certain tension between my parents, a dissatisfaction. We didn't have much money—in a two-bedroom apartment, with eventually two children and a baby. It was not what my parents would have considered at all a desirable part of town. So, the scarcity of money was a part of it.
Has the fact that you grew up working class been important to your writing?
It has given me an appreciation of my good fortune. I have an acute sense of amazement that I can earn my bread by teaching poetry and by writing these things that occur to me and that I put in a certain shape or form to sound a certain way, and people pay attention to it.
Do you like being a poet, or would you rather be something else?
I like being a poet very, very much. If I could play the saxophone the way Dexter Gordon or Sonny Rollins does, I would probably rather do that. But I can't. I think the rhythms in a lot of my writing are an attempt to create that feeling of a gorgeous jazz solo that gives you more emotion and some more and coming around with some more, and it's the same but it's changed and the rhythm is very powerful, but it is also lyricism. I think I've been trying to create something like that in my writing for a long time.
Anne-Marie Cusac is managing editor of The Progressive . Excerpted from The Progressive (May 1999). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (12 issues) from Box 421, Mt. Morris, IL 61054-0421.