To celebrate National Poetry Month, I thought I would interview one of the poets I admire most, Robert Pinsky, who served as US Poet Laureate from 1997-2000 and has authored several books, including a brilliant collection of poetry, The Figured Wheel.
When you were serving as the US Poet Laureate, you started the “Favorite Poem” project. My favorite poem is the intricately beautiful, 14th century poem, “Pearl.” I also greatly enjoy biblical poetry like the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. What are some of your favorite poems?
*Among many: George Gascoigne’s “Gascoigne’s Woodmanship,” William Carlos Willliams’ “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” Fulke Greville’s “Elegy for Philip Sidney,” William Butler Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse,” George Herbert’s “Church Monuments,” Robert Frost’s ”Directive,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “To Margaret,” James McMichaels’ “Four Good Things,” Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Miss Blount,” John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” Wallace Stevens’ “Madame La Fleurie,” Emily Dickinson’s ”Further in Summer than the Birds,” Ben Jonson’s “His Excuse for Loving.” *
I have loved reading through many of your collected poems in The Figured Wheel, including “The Childhood of Jesus” and the fantasy about Jesus and Isolt. Recently, I noticed your poem, “Shirt,” included in Bedford/St. Martin’s 250 Poems anthology, obviously an editorial favorite. Which of your own poems are particularly important to you and why?
*An impossible question for me, Jane — like many poets I tend to focus on the most recent. “An Explanation of America” matters to me as my most daring experiment and because it is addressed to my oldest daughter.*
You have lived the life of a public poet for many years. What do you believe are the roles and responsibilities of a poet in our culture today?
* As a poet, the responsibility is simply to write as well and truly as possible. To undertake the most challenging and important subjects. To respect the art and to hand it on, transformed if you can manage that.
As a person, the responsibilities are many and complicated, of course.*
You have also taught students to write poetry for many years, and you are currently teaching at Boston University. What do you believe young poets need to learn in order to strengthen their craft?
*The poet must read the way a cook eats, or the way a filmmaker looks at film, or a musician listens.*
I noticed that on your website, “Poems Out Loud: Celebrating National Poetry Month with Robert Pinsky,” there is a recording of you reading Milton’s “Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint.” I teach this poem to my students every semester, and I am drawn to its references to Alcestis, since I also enjoy teaching Euripides’ play, “Alcestis.” What drew you to this poem originally, and what inspired you to include it on “Poems Out Loud”?
*All of that learning, that immense gift, all that ambition and mastery– all concentrated on a single, poignant, human moment of personal emotion.*
National Poetry Month is a busy time for poets. I’ve been participating in Robert Lee Brewer’s “Poetic Asides” challenge to poets to write a poem-a-day this month (and it is a challenge!). “Poems Out Loud” alone is enough to keep you busy, but have you been enjoying any other poetic projects this month?
* I have some reservations about the idea of marketing poetry: an art is not a brand of soap. Poetry is fundamental, like dancing or cuisine. I have recently enjoyed reading poems by Joel Brouwer, Terrance Hayes, Jay Hopler, Elise Partridge, Louise Glück. Also reciting to myself some of the poems I mentioned in response to question 1. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, but those personal, particular experiences of poems mean a lot to me. Official celebrations and promotions, less.*
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me and readers of The Poetry Place! Do you have a sweet, invigorating viaticum, some words of wisdom for poets and poetry-lovers, to share in closing?
*Here’s a two-line poem that has been rattling in my head for months now, pleasing me and inspiring me — there was a wonderful discussion of it on Slate’s “Fray”:
*On Love, on Grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.
There’s just something about it — the sounds, the ideas, the brevity, all coming together. It’s a good example for me of why I love the art. (Author is Walter Savage Landor.)*
Many thanks, Robert!
*Thanks back to you, Jane, for asking.*