Short Conversations with Poets: Robert Pinsky


It’s not always clear why some things call for a song and others for a story. The answer is probably a matter of rhythm, rhythm of concentration or rhythm of elaboration, both of which overlap the rhythms of language. These are simplifications, of course, but I think they are useful in relation to the poetry of Robert Pinsky, because one way to enter his work is to understand his work as a back and forth – in the same book, sometimes in the same poem — between song and story. He is there early and continues in his poetry of the last days. Let us return, for example, to “The Want Bone”, which sings of a shark’s jaw, half-buried on a beach, whitening and yawning, a figure of desire itself:

The bone had no taste and smelled nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, not crushed, not strung.
The joined arcs formed the shape of birth and desire
And the welded open form continued to articulate O.

This is highly crafted music designed to sound almost laid back. The first and third lines rhyme in an innocuous gerund ending, a descending ending. (Harmless in part because “-ing” endings are so common in English.) Meanwhile, lines two and four do not rhyme, but end with a strong accent, rising ending. The point-counterpoint of these elements – the relationship between rhyme and rhythm – is exact, beautiful, graceful. Spondee-like effects – accents in immediate succession, “tasted bones” and “joined arcs” and perhaps even “preserved form” – are nestled in a softening envelope of lighter syllables: after the “joined arcs ‘ comes the unemphasized – to my ear – ‘does the’ which precedes the emphasis on ‘form’ which leads the line to resolve into an iambic flow of ‘birth and desire’.

Which is not to say that when Pinsky chooses to lean into a narrative – often woven from disparate strands into flashes of lyrical vertigo – the lines aren’t taut and tight; they are. But a discursive relaxation infiltrates. The effect is enchanting. Take “Créole”, in the last book of the poet, At the foundling hospital:

I’m tired of the gods, I’m pious of the ancestors: afloat in
The wake widening behind me in time, those wayward designers.

My dad had a job from high school until he got fired at thirty.
It was 1947 and his boss, planning to run for mayor,

Wanted to hire an Italian veteran, he explained, saying
In plain English. I was seven years old, my sister was two.

The poem tells his story, about the poet’s father, Milford, and the job he had as an optician, the job he lost, and the career that loss led to. It’s a story about the origin of the poet, where the poet’s name comes from, a story about what it means to be a mixture of many strands, culturally, genetically and figuratively – Milford, for example, a Jew named (with a variation) for the great Christian poet Milton. There’s something exciting about the way the line stretches and breaks, the way its “simple English” veers in and out of its supposed subject, digressing without ever digressing, giving us the measure of the Pinsky’s mind as he travels from “the woods” around ancient Rome to “1947” to “Damn in every sense of the word”. The line is always a musical way of seeing, and Pinsky’s line of narration sees the vastness of the world.

These new poems favor the latter mode, but Pinsky’s singing voice is still as prominent. “Genesis”, for example, seems to emerge from a riff or a beat: “Where was the kiln, what was the clay?” is followed by “What drove the wheel that turned the ship?” You can hear it develop into music before you think about its meanings, hear it keep its shape but vary its accents, so that in the third line we get: “Who started the engine so late at night ?” giving way to “What was the highway through the hills?” It’s a tighter line than the line in the poem about Milford, and although it nods to a story, one of the oldest stories, it sings its investigation and leaves behind a granular narrative for the priorities of the story. a sound, a rhythm and a melody. and consonant and vowel harmonies. Such poetry ratifies and develops from the intelligence of music.

– – –

JESSE NATHAN: What is your relationship to improvisation, in the writing of your poems? I’m interested in the extent to which they are (or appear to be) premeditated, as opposed to “getting on the nerves” as Frank O’Hara put it. I imagine a certain chemistry of the two. What does this mix look like to you? Do you do research before writing? Often your poems have a knowing feeling at their fingertips, as if flowing from the top of your head…

ROBERT PINKY: For me, everything is improvisation. . . and hard work. The very word “preparation” freezes me. But allow me to quote a master. In his 1965 Paris review interview, Dizzy Gillespie says a few things I’ve kept in mind throughout my life as a writer. About improvisation, he says:

It requires total concentration. Sure, some nights you’re just complacent. You’re doing new things, but… you see, there are thousands of ways to play any chord. You have to figure it out in a split second and play it at the same time. It’s not instinct. It’s hard!

Not instinct but spontaneity. Immediate but difficult. These seeming paradoxes, which strike me as very sensible in poetry, apply equally to sport: ten people running around the field, each and both teams trying to anticipate what will happen next – the person with the ball hears all the beats at a time. , and performs a no-look-in-the-back pass at the right time without thought, about that, exactly. It’s more a question of having thought many times before, less and less consciously over time: the decisive moment of action based on experience. As if the body had made the pass at the right time, all by itself. (Musicians talk about having a piece “under their fingertips.”)

A word that doesn’t freeze me is “practice”, because it means real action or experience – to do something – in music and basketball, but also in legal or medical practice. The point guard works hard in training in order not to have to think about what to do at the crucial moment of the game. It’s not instinct, it’s hard.

I don’t want to belittle someone who likes making plans or making plans, because I can’t. There is no one right way to do these things. I read that William Butler Yeats wrote in prose what he wanted to say in a poem. I couldn’t do that. But Yeats also said of writing poetry, “I have a melody in my head,” and I know what it means.

I don’t do systematic research, but all day, every day, I hope I could do what will one day turn out to be research, just by following my nose, my random curiosities. I like to read. I love learning the words for parts of a window, or a typewriter, or a cat. When I wrote my poem “Chemise”, I already knew the yoke and the button placket. And I had read Eric Hobsbawm’s essay in The invention of tradition, where he argues that the history of the kilt involved the capitalist exploitation of conquered peoples. The poem called for research. At best, even revision has the joy of improvising.

My most intense form of practice as I strive to improvise is paying attention, especially to works of art, especially great poems. I’ll quote another guideline I take from a master musician, Dexter Gordon, who was asked, “Where do you get your inspiration from?” »

In answer to this question, the first two words that come out of the mouth of the great saxophonist are “Lester Young”. Then he names Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. He remembers the feeling their music gave him, he says, and he would like to pass that feeling on to other people. Art inspires art. William Carlos Williams says he memorized the Palgrave anthology when he was young. Emily Dickinson may have memorized poems by John Keats.

A woman who knew Keats as a toddler, barely learning to speak, remembered that if an adult spoke to him, the child would make up a nonsensical rhyme for the last word he heard and laugh. Is it a fable about something innate, or an early practice, or a bit of both? Anyway, I hope to keep a living particle of it in my practice of poetry.

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