Robert Pinsky was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. Excerpts follow from an interview conducted at the Library of Congress when he visited as a guest poet the year before he was appointed Poet Laureate.
Grace Cavalieri: Let us talk about your use of American History. I’m thinking of your poem about the Triangle Fire, “Shirt.” Using history as poetry. What made you decide to separate the poem into its elements like cloth—as a fabric itself which would come apart. What possessed you? How did that fall?
Pinsky: Well the poem began as poems often do with the sounds of the words. I was really just thinking about old sewing machines, treadle-operated sewing machines and how beautiful they are, you know the gilt engraving on the arm, the black arm with gold engraving on it and the wrought-iron treadle and the wooden platform with the black steel that fits in sort of neatly and it was the sound of needle, bobbin, treadle, union, those parts of the thing. But the time I wrote the poem I was thinking a lot about creation which is one of the subjects of this book, The Want Bone. It’s largely about making, which is also destroying. Civilization in all of its horror and ugliness and its beauty consists of, you know, it’s really all the work of Shiva, the Hindu god with the hammer who makes and breaks any artifact you look at. I was thinking at the time I wrote this poem about the idea that any artifact you look at—could one understand its history, even a word if you think of a word as an artifact—could one understand its history and all the human ingenuity and resourcefulness and suffering and agony that went into it, you could recreate the history of the whole world from it, if you could understand it. And the poem flowed out of the sounds of those words, and in its flowing it went into the channels of the conscious thinking I’d been doing about creation. I’d been thinking a lot about religion; I’m not a practicing “anything.” I don’t practice any but I’m interested in religion and certain religions, as one of the great, great episodes in the history of creativity or creation.
Cavalieri: …You have been called “anecdotal,” you’ve been called “discursive,” you’ve been called “august,” you’ve been called “neoclassic.” You have been called “narrative,” “natural.” I see all this very much balanced within your work. But I’m curious about how you describe yourself. Of course we’re all many things so why can’t you be those many things? But if someone were to say: “well, just what kind of poetry do you write,” how would you describe your voice?
Pinsky: I think the kind of poetry I write is, I think, about the whole range of things that people call poetry or work. I suppose that more than most I’m very attached to the old, old roots of poetry as a body art, as a bodily art, that I’m very given to the old, old traditions of the sounds of poetry. And that I think of it as the most bodily of all the arts. Even more bodily than dance, because in dance the medium is the body of an expert, of an artist, but in poetry the medium is the body of the audience, the medium is the column of air shaped into meaning-sounds in the mouth of anybody at all. And that’s probably kind of archaic and ancient an idea of poetry. There are people who are interested in other things, but for me the core of it is that air inside a body. I’m very interested in memorization which is the process of incorporating a poem, so, I would say the kind of poetry I write is the kind that emphasizes the physical qualities of the words.
Cavalieri: You’ve just changed my mind. I was thinking that poetry wasn’t able to do what Cleo Laine did yesterday. I heard her hit a G above a high C and I thought, now we just never can get that high. We just can never belt it out quite like that. It’s just on the page and a poem doesn’t do that. And you’re saying “oh yes, it comes through the body, oh yes.” You can do a G above high C and you don’t have to be schooled in a conservatory. So I’m taking what you say now as true, and happy about it, because I was just thinking a little about limitations yesterday. So you make the poem everybody’s property.
Pinsky: Well a great singer or a great dancer is an artist and an athlete and that art is physical or bodily in that sense, but if I recite a poem by W.B. Yeats or Robert Frost to myself or an Emily Dickinson, I’m not a great athlete. I didn’t write the words. But the actual physical forming of the words that was choreographed and determined by that now dead artist inhabits my body. If I say once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing, such a form is what Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enameling to keep a drowsy emperor awake, etcetera. If I do a long sentence like that. It’s not an athletic feat like hitting a high G. Not to say that hitting a high G is only an athletic feat. I hope it was a feat of expression by Cleo Laine as well. But the feat is the feat of Yeats or Dickinson or, God knows, of Geoffrey Chaucer, inhabiting a body that is perhaps hundreds of years in the future or is thousands of miles distant and that is a body art. It’s a bodily feat. You know my lips and my tongue and my teeth and my breath are performing that work of art.
“While that my soul repairs to her devotion,/Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes/May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;/To which the blast of death’s incessant motion,/Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,/Drives all at last.” That was a little bit of the bodily configuration of sounds determined by George Herbert in the 17th century in England and that refined and aristocratic Englishman actually determined what the body of the grandchild of Jewish immigrants speaking the English of 20th century America would do, you know, 250 years later. It’s extraordinary and it’s not physical in the way that the high G is physical but it’s physical in the way that’s more intimate, you know it’s less of an athletic feat. But it’s a more remarkable possession by the dead intimate kind of a feat.
Grateful acknowledgment to Grace Cavalieri and Forest Woods Media Productions’ “The Poet and the Poem” for permission to print this interview.
Grace Cavalieri's newest publication is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishers, 2017), a compendium of poems, plays and interviews. She has nineteen books and chapbooks of poetry in print, and has had 26 plays produced on American stages. She founded and still produces "The Poet and the Poem," a series for public radio celebrating 40 years on-air, now from the Library of Congress. She is the poetry columnist for The Washington Independent Review of Books. She received the 2013 George Garrett Award from The Associate Writing Programs. To read more by this author: Grace Cavalieri: Winter 2001; Introduction to "The Bunny and the Crocodile" Issue: Spring 2004; Grace Cavalieri on Roland Flint: Memorial Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Whitman Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Wartime Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Evolving City Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Split This Rock Issue; Grace Cavalieri on Ann Darr: Forebears Issue; Grace Cavalieri on "The Poet & The Poem": Literary Organizations Issue.