Robert Pinsky (born October 20, 1940) is an American poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. From 1997 to 2000, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In October 2007, Pinsky visited Duke University to give readings and workshops. Daniel Riley from The Archive caught up with him for a few questions about poetry and higher education, launching a literary career as an undergraduate, and the Boston Red Sox.
ARCHIVE: Tell us a little bit about your experiences writing in college.
PINSKY: As a freshman at Rutgers, I was acutely aware of Anthologist, the student literary magazine. I went to a meeting, though I was intimidated. In fact, it was an impressive publication; there were covers by the major American artist Lucas Samaras, already impressive as a college kid. The editor was Alan Cheuse, the fiction writer who now does reviews for National Public Radio. At first, Alan seemed imposing, a kind of austere bohemian. Eventually, he became a good friend. In my senior year, after Alan graduated, I succeeded him as editor. Also at Rutgers, and publishing in Anthologist, were others who later published books, including Henry Dumas and Peter Najarian, both in my Freshman English class, taught by Paul Fussell. A circle of friends interested in writing, the kind of group that gathers around a magazine, can be very important in a writer’s development.
ARCHIVE: How do you feel about the great MFA debate?
PINSKY: On the one hand, it would be too bad if the MFA degree created a guild: a closed organization that gives membership credentials, decreeing who is a poet. That is bad. On the other hand, MFA programs have made American poetry more democratic, socially. If you look at the anthology published by Harvard U. Press, called “The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry,” you will find that for poets born before 1940 you could make a respectable anthology of American poetry involving only those who went to Harvard: not just Stevens and Frost and Eliot but in a later generation poets as different as John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley—all at Harvard. Add Princeton and you get Kinnell and Merwin. Add Columbia, and there is Allen Ginsberg. But in that book none of the poets born after 1940 went to Harvard or any of those schools: it’s all Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and the University of California, Riverside and small colleges. Various social forces, including the GI Bill and the expansion of state universities, moved American culture away from one center in the Northeast, and one social class, toward many centers, including unlikely ones like Iowa City and Missoula. In short, the MFA reflects much that is good, bad or in between in the American way of dealing with culture: democratizing, professionalizing, bourgeoisifying, etc.
ARCHIVE: You received a Masters and Ph.D. in English literature at Stanford. How does your work as a trained critic inform your poetry?
PINSKY: Everything you learn informs your work, or so you hope. And to some extent you are in reaction against what you learn, too. I’ll always be grateful for having discovered Fulke Greville, Walter Raleigh, George Gascoigne, Thomas Nashe, in graduate school. And I’ll always be grateful for having studied Old English and the history of the language. And I’ll always be somewhat in reaction against the pedantry and small-mindedness that characterize some literary scholarship.
ARCHIVE: You’ve said that the Favorite Poem Project is one of your proudest accomplishments. Are there any submissions that you’d like to publish but can’t for whatever reason?
PINSKY: In the first anthology, Americans’ Favorite Poems, we print Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel,” for which we received permission. The anthologies—most recently, An Invitation to Poetry, which comes with a DVD of the videos—print comments from readers along with each poem. With Cullen’s poem, a young man named Todd Hellums says, “I am black and gay, and Cullen was black and gay.” We later made a video—a very striking video—of Todd Hellums reading the poem and commenting on it. But that video is not on the DVD with Invitation to Poetry and it is not with the others at http://www.favoritepoem.org –because the Ida Cullen Estate denied permission. The lawyer for the late Ms. Cullen informed me that for her, the idea of a black man being gay was unacceptable, and therefore we would not be permitted to use the poem in the video. In the video, Mr. Hellums doesn’t say Cullen was gay.
ARCHIVE: Have you done much fiction writing?
PINSKY: I’ve published two stories . . . but my writing is based on me talking. I can say anything, but if I write “The man sat at his computer” or “It was a sunny day” I become embarrassed—there’s no man, no computer, no sun, just me talking. In a way, I don’t believe in the world’s objective existence enough to be a fiction writer.
ARCHIVE: Were you trained as a journalist as a younger man?
PINSKY: I wish I were, there’s a romance to it for me. When the Christian Science Monitor asked me to cover the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2000 I loved it. I like writing the “Poet’s Choice” column for the Washington Post Book World. But I’m not a trained or real journalist, just a pretend one.
ARCHIVE: You’re a diehard Boston Red Sox fan. Congratulations on the championship. Have you ever written a poem in Fenway Park?
PINSKY: No, Fenway is too poetic for that—it’d be like writing a poem about a sunset. The poet’s job is to make unpoetic-looking things poetic. So I’m more likely to write a poem about a shopping mall than about a beautiful, evocative place like Fenway, which I love.
ARCHIVE: What’s your community of literary friends like?
PINSKY: Louise Glück and Frank Bidart and Gail Mazur are my close neighbors. Ha Jin and Leslie Epstein and Rosanna Warren are my colleagues. And by phone and email my community includes Bob Hass, Carol Muske, Tom Sleigh, C.K. Williams, dozens of people, some of them hundreds or thousands of miles away. I see a lot of Frank, Louise, and Gail.
ARCHIVE: You’ve said that you enjoy inserting “hoaxes” in your poems. What exactly do you mean by that?
PINSKY: Oh, you might make up a Shakespeare quotation and then allude to it. In “Window” I mention my Irish grandmother and my family’s Chinese restaurant.
ARCHIVE: What is the state of poetry in America?
PINSKY: Poetry is a basic, fundamental human activity like dancing, singing, cuisine, lovemaking. In our way of dealing with the appetite for it we seem to be getting a little bit more like a Latin or Asian culture.
ARCHIVE: Let’s say you’re 20 years old, it’s 2007, and you want to be a writer. What’s your move?
PINSKY: Read. Read. Read. Read. Read to find things that are challenging, magnificent, great. Read Euripides and Gogol. Read Babel and Greville. Watch the films of Preston Sturges and Akira Kurosawa. Go beyond the ordinary, automatic taste of your time and place.
ARCHIVE: What is your all-time favorite line of poetry?
PINSKY: Here are two, on the subject of the preceding question:
There is no singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence.