Editor’s Note: Robert Pinsky was kind enough to answer some questions for Ampersand Poetry Editor Corey Zeller. It should be noted that he responded to all these questions very quickly, in a single sitting.
Corey Zeller: You are one of the most important poets in the country. You are also a highly respected literary critic. That said, I wondered if might be able to explain what makes a good critic? What makes a bad one? Also: are there any critiques or reviews of certain books you have made over the years that you wish you hadn’t written? Are there any essays or reviews you feel you were wrong about or poets you originally misjudged?
Robert Pinsky: First thing that comes to mind about critics: the pronouncements on the subject of Ezra Pound. A terrible person who said many good things. In An ABC of Reading, as I remember, he demands specific examples from critics, and he warns the student against trusting judges of writing who do not write well. Pound gives examples (the book is almost half anthology) and is not shy to give his judgments. I read the book when I was about twenty, in a course where my teacher, Paul Fussell, a true master, used it as a textbook. I guess it permanently made me think criticism must be fun to read and it must give judgments and examples.
With that as a start, what criticism have I enjoyed and admired? The English used to have a great vein of really well-written, amusing reviews. George Bernard Shaw on music and Max Beerbohm on theater. Not academic, but well-informed. Not pop, but plain and amusing. The Boston Globe is blessed with the art critic Sebastian Smee. The cartoonist Bill Griffith, in his brilliant Zippy the Pinhead strips and books, often supplies wonderful criticism, not only of cartoons, but other cultural stuff, too. They, too, supply examples and write well. So did my teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters. (Who also had a wonderful, funny prose style– like Oliver Hardy dancing.) Louise Bogan and Randall Jarell.
There are a lot of poet-critics today, who could be added to the list . . .
About changing my mind . . . that’s a good question. Either I’ve managed to forget my blunders, or I’m terribly rigid– but I can’t think of something I repent about. The Situation of Poetry mostly admires the examples I give, but there are negative judgments in it, too, And I can’t think of one I regret.
CZ: You have been around for many years and I often think of you as a poet who is really in touch with the sound and musicality of poetry (perhaps, in part, because of your book Singing School). Therefore, I am really interested in knowing at least ten of your favorite poetry readings of all-time since I assume you’ve seen many. Who gave these reading, where were they, and why were they so impressive to you? What did you learn from them? Also: do you a have a favorite reading of your own work? Why do you feel it was your best? Finally, so many modern poets are criticized for using the same bland and monotone voice at readings. What advice would you give these poets on how to be more dynamic?
RP: For me, poetry is a vocal art, but not necessarily a performative art.
To put the same idea differently, I’m much more interested in the reader’s voice (actual or imagined) than the poet’s performance. It may be the mind’s voice or ear, as in “the mind’s eye.” The moment that really interests me, that seems essential to me, is when the reader feels what it would be like to need to say “Further in summer than the birds” or “That is not country for old men” or “Now they are resting in the fleckless light’ or ”Body my horse/ my house my hound.” It’s that moment between the words in the mind as they are about to enter the breath.
So, in that sense, my favorite readings are those at www.favoritepoem.org: the construction worker reading (and discussing) Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the Cambodian-American high school student reading (and discussing) Langston Hughes’ “Minstrel Man,” the Jamaican immigrant reading (and discussing) Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick.” Those are more important to me, more near the center of the art, than poetry readings by poets. Or actors.
When I attend a poetry reading by a poet I admire, I am interested in what I can learn about the poems, and the work as a whole. For me, the point is not a great performance. Elizabeth Bishop was not a great performer at all, but I like her readings because I could learn about poems that mean a lot to me. A lesser poet might give a more charming or dramatic reading– so what?
When I give a reading from my own work, I try my best not to be boring, and I try to convey the verbal music along with the feelings and ideas. But the culmination of the art, for me, is in each reader’s response, not in a poetry reading.
It’s a vocal art, but not a performative art, for me. I write with my voice, for your voice.
CZ: You had an interesting relationship as a young man with Robert Lowell? What was that relationship like and how did he act toward you? Did you come in contact with any other famous poets of that generation besides your teacher Yvor Winters? Furthermore, how did you feel about being a poet during those years in the sixties and seventies? How has your idea of being a poet changed from Sadness and Happiness to your Selected Poems? What keeps you doing it and doing it well when so many others quit or fade into obscurity?
RP: It would be an exaggeration to say I had an interesting relationship with Lowell. He was kind to me, asked me to take his class when he was ill. He wrote a blurb for my first book. But I wasn’t as close to him as my friends Frank Bidart, Gail Mazur, Lloyd Schwartz. They attended Lowell’s famous “Office Hours” regularly, as I did not. His work had a large importance for them. With Winters it was similar: many of my contemporaries at Stanford were much closer to Winters. Jim McMIchael and Ken Fields both worked as his gardener, for instance. John Peck was closer to him. I was too soft on poets like Yeats and Whitman to be a core Wintersian. Elizabeth Bishop, too, was very kind to me . . . but I never was good at getting to know the living senior poets. Maybe this says something bad about my character, but I tended to stand off a bit, and to take my most important models generations back, among the dead.
CZ: You’ve been a champion of a more colloquial poetry and poetry that is more accessible to everyone. Do you feel that poetry is heading that way or do you feel poetry has become more elitist and abstract? What do you think poets of younger generations should be doing to make poetry more relevant in their communities? Finally, it seems every few months there is a new article which proclaims the death of poetry. What do you think of that sentiment? Do you think poetry is a dying craft or something that shall endure?
RP: Ooh, or oy, or something . . . oof? Umm? I don’t mean to be difficult, but I don’t think I’ve “championed” kinds of poetry in the way you describe. Certainly haven’t meant to. My ambition has been to be eclectic, open-minded, with a large and unpredictable range of taste.
And sorry, but I don’t think in terms of where poetry is “heading”– trends, schools, categories: not how I think. In The Situation of Poetry I use comparisons like Allen Ginsberg and George Gascoigne, Berryman and Tennyson. The years when I was working on that book, people who knew I was writing about contemporary poetry would ask about my chapter on “The Confessionals” or “The Beats” or “Deep Image” . . . and as I kept shaking my head and saying no, there’s not a chapter on that or no, that’s not a term I use, I could see them thinking “this guy isn’t really writing a book.” I think young poets should be reading and learning about other periods and other languages, not making poetry more relevant in their communities. Poetry is fundamental, it will take care of itself. I haven’t read these “poetry is dying” pieces but I’ve heard about them– can it be they are written by people who covertly are miffed that their own poetry, or taste in poetry, is neglected?
Poetry is basic, it’s deep in us, like dancing or music or cuisine as distinct from nutrition, lovemaking as distinct from procreation. Among the arts, it is the one that gets under our skin. It is right inside, where in your breath the mind joins the body. How can that be mortal? The Koran and the Bible get much of their power from their poetry, and they seem to be far from obsolete.
History indicates that journalists saying it’s all over usually precedes a spectacular great flowering. An historian, Joan Shelley Rubin, documents this in her interesting book Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America: As Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russel Lowell were dying off, people were saying American poetry was over, no successors on the horizon. Then, guess what?
Getting back to young poets: I hope they find conviction about what they are doing. Resist the various forms of deprecation: on one side, a chuckling, middlebrow dismissal of high ambition for language and meaning; on the other side, an automatic, cool, postmodern dismissal of language as an illusory social construct, incapable of meaning. Aim high. Learn from everything, including the kinds of writing I’ve alluded to– from rap, from Chaucer, from science, from movies, from music, from the news, from everything there is. And aim high.