Robert Pinsky grew up in Long Branch, N.J., a historic seashore resort described in his recent autobiography Jersey Breaks. His most recent book of poetry is At the Foundling Hospital, with a new book of poems, Proverbs of Limbo, appearing next year. Other works include the best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante and The Life of David, on the Biblical figure. Previous books include his Selected Poems and Gulf Music.
His honors include the Korean Manhae Award, the Italian Premio Capri and the Harold Washington Award of the City of Chicago. He has honorary degrees from institutions including Stanford University, The New School, and the University of Michigan.
Robert Pinsky’s first two terms as United States Poet Laureate met such enthusiastic national response that he was appointed to an unprecedented third term. As Laureate, Pinsky founded the Favorite Poem Project, in which thousands of American readers, of varying backgrounds, ages, and regions, read their favorite poems. Pinsky is a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor at Boston University. He is the only member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to have appeared on The Colbert Report and The Simpsons.
Robert Pinsky is one of the most eminent, eloquent voices in American poetry today, as well as a busy professor at Boston University. I first met him at a reading in the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he read from his new memoir Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet. He read, but more so he chatted. He fielded questions from the audience and expounded upon his own poetic ideas with a seriousness that honored his audience but also with a shoulder-shrugging casualness that loosened up the room to share their thoughts. After the reading, I bought a copy, which he was kind enough to sign, and went on my way. That, I thought, was that.
Then, I had the idea to interview him. Little did I know he would actually respond to my e-mail, let alone agree to the interview. But agree he did. I sent him my questions, and within hours, he responded with the answers you’ll read below. Though utterly spontaneous, they evince a profundity, charm, and wit present in all of Pinsky’s work: his translation of Dante’s Inferno and any of his poetry collections, his prose about poetry or his poetry about prose. Indeed, reading Pinsky’s poetry often feels as if he is speaking directly to you, the reader, during BU office hours or at a diner in Long Branch, New Jersey, his hometown. Whatever your familiarity with his work, this interview, in which we discuss Pinsky’s reception in Long Branch, the nightmare of history, and a provincial sense of time, provides insight into the life and career of one of the most important poets alive today.
Michael McCarthy: You write that, upon first encountering them, T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg struck you as very similar. Then, in school, you learned they were different. And then, you decided later in life that, in fact, they really were similar. What would you say makes these poets so similar to each other despite their ostensible differences?
Robert Pinsky: When I was twenty years old, I heard something I thought was similar in the cadences and sentence-melodies of Howl and The Waste Land. Both of those poems engaged the reality of modern, urban life with a double feeling of commitment and rejection. A doomed, angry nostalgia for something better in the past seemed to motivate, and frustrate, both poets. They both, for me, however dimly, reflected my own efforts to deal with my social setting and origin on one side, and the very different cultural presence I was discovering in literature.
I guess I was more or less ignorant of Eliot’s opinions, hadn’t read his declaration that he was “a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” I didn’t know about the anti-semitism or his repellent lectures at Virginia, the book of them he tried to suppress. And on the other hand, if I read anything about “Beats” and Ginsberg, none of that seemed important to my aspirations as a budding young poetry-snob. I held myself above two sets of facts about two poets who were important to me as poets. A stupid, narrow attitude, but the narrowness did give me a certain focus.
Many years later I read in Ginsberg’s journals the technical poetic exercises he set himself in blank verse, in ways that resemble, for example, the formal thrashing and intensity of Four Quartets. In those journals, Ginsberg recounts his dream about a parental, approving Eliot being kind to him and appreciative, tucking him into bed.
MM: Writing about a specific locale runs certain risks. Namely, others who hail from that place may contest an artist’s characterization of their shared home. Or, the risk pays off, and the artist becomes a hometown hero. With this risk in mind, how have the people of Long Branch responded to your poetry about the town?
RP: In November, I gave a reading from Jersey Breaks at Monmouth College in Long Branch, in conversation about the book with David Golland, the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences. I had not met Professor Golland, and I was a bit intimidated by the large auditorium scheduled for the event. Would I have to deal with hostile or uncomprehending questions, with a tiny audience in a big hall? The kindly, learned David Golland was perceptive, the room was full, and the audience was receptive. We laughed.
There’s another way to look at that: sometimes success is a sign of failure! When I visited Oxford Mississippi, I was impressed by how many people disliked Faulkner. Maybe local disapproval should be a measure of greatness? Anyway, the audience that night made me feel good, as have many high school classmates and other locals. A few people wrote with memories of getting eyeglasses from the handsome optician Milford Pinsky.
MM: Many of America’s ills were visible in Long Branch: inequality, segregation, bigotry. So, too, were many of its graces: families, business owners, individuals forging a life in adverse conditions. Many left this landscape for the suburbs, and as you describe in the book, your parents often argued over making such a move, if only they had the cash. If your family had moved to the suburbs like so many other families in Long Branch, how do you think it would have affected your poetry?
RP: Eventually—I was in graduate school by then—they did move to Elberon. I do think I was fortunate to grow up in a mixed-race, small town neighborhood. That was possible, sociologist Orlando Patterson has pointed out to me, during a brief period before the real estate industry amped up red-lining and White Flight.
MM: Growing up in Long Branch certainly had an immeasurable influence on your poetry, but perhaps equally important was your education at Stanford. Indeed, crisscrossing the country, studying the cultures of both coasts, seems to be a lifelong theme. It could even be said to mesh with your poetry’s resistance to categorization, its hybridity. Do you think coming of age on both coasts of the United States gives you a unique perspective on American culture?
RP: I’m tempted to make this question my opportunity for a one-word answer: Yes! Moving between the two coasts, New Jersey to Palo Alto, then to Massachusetts, then to Berkeley, then back to Massachusetts again . . . maybe it did give me a little opportunity to study and compare different kinds of provinciality (academic and poetic versions included). The places appealed to my own provincial heart, of course. And you may be right that I like moving away, or moving from here to there, and back, in all sorts of ways.
MM: You write, “I had the good luck to be raised among expert joke-tellers, complainers, arguers, schmoozers, boasters, and liars.” Surely, hearing so many diverse, contrasting voices influenced your poetry. Befriending such poets as Frank Bidart and Louise Glück also provided a plethora of voices to sample, transform, and modulate in your poems. But between all these disparate yet harmonizing voices, who was paying attention to yours? In your career, who has been your most important reader?
RP: I miss C.K. Williams every day. Charlie’s voice is the kind of absence I try to use by imagining what he might say. Same with another terrible loss, Jill Kneerim—in a class by herself as a literary agent, but beyond that, Jill taught me about writing prose. She is the friend I quote in the first sentence of Jersey Breaks, defining the purpose of that book.
I ask myself, why is my response to your question about my most important reader elegiac or memorial? Maybe because imagining Charlie’s response or Jill’s, as I write, is a version of something even more essential: imagining the voices of the ancestral dead.
I remember when my book Gulf Music came out, a very good literary critic asked me what I could possibly mean by a “bewildering couplet” in “Poem of Disconnected Parts”:
Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather.
When I wrote those words, in 2006, Charlie and Jill were alive and looking at new drafts of my work. I wrote for them then and I write for them now, as I write for Dickinson and for my grandfather. For William Butler Yeats and for Becky Eisenberg.
MM: The concept of awakening from the nightmare of history, a recurrent phrase in the book, comes from James Joyce. You write that you “loved Ulysses as a book about New Jersey.” Indeed, the nightmare of history seems especially present in the United States, where monuments to enslavers still stand tall. As a poet carrying American history’s fraught cargo, have you awoken from the nightmare of history?
RP: As Joyce and his character indicate, the project is ongoing, not completed. And “especially present” needs some kind of humble amendment that I feel not very qualified to give. But…including and beyond the nightmare of European history that Isaac Babel and Primo Levi endured, we maybe can strive to honor other nightmare histories in works like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, to give one minimal example.
Maybe for each place, each language, each person, the nightmare of history has a way of being especially present.
MM: You say of the provincial sense of time that “from a limited, intensely local viewpoint the centuries and hours might be understood through a particular place and its people.” The examples you give—such as Ulysses S. Grant buying booze from your Zaydee Pop during Prohibition—rupture historical continuity but create something totally new and resplendent. One potential stumbling block with this sense of time is that it can go on forever, dashing back and forth and to and fro past, present, and future. In poetry of yours that employs the provincial sense of time, how do you know when the poem has reached its end?
RP: In your words—the dashing back and forth and to and fro, the stumbling—I recognize an accurate account of a quality in my poems. How does one know when the poem has reached its end? It’s a physical sensation—something like what the hand feels on a sandpapered or polished surface, or what the ear feels when music returns to a root or reaches into an unresolved dominant chord. A feeling.
MM: You write that “the central issue of American life” is “the quest for a democratic culture.” The word “quest” seems to imply a centuries-long fumbling towards a civic ideal, more than a linear historical progression towards this ideal. Do you believe America is moving towards or away from democratic culture, as described in Jersey Breaks?
RP: This is a good example of a vital question that I don’t know how to answer, though I wish I could.
MM: Finally, are there any future projects you would like to discuss here?
RP: I have a new book of poems coming out next year, entitled (I think) Proverbs of Limbo. I’m working on a little book about Creative Writing as it is taught, I hope funny and contrarian and helpful to aspiring poets—maybe in the spirit of my book The Sounds of Poetry. And there are dim gestures toward a prose book that might think about your question about the surviving ideal of a democratic culture.