An Interview with Robert Pinsky

It’s the wide range of readers and voices—famous poets and high school kids, trolls and scholars, churls and mensches, with insight and blather—that appeals to me.

This interview is a follow-up to our 2011 interview, in which we discussed the author’s long-standing work at Slate.

It’s a pleasure to speak with you again, Robert! Since we last talked, the “Classic Poems” project at Slate has come to an end. The reason we first reached out to you for an interview was because we were struck by the incredible energy in the comments sections on the poems, and with your own commitment to being involved in those conversations. After the end of the series, Slate left your introductions and the poems themselves online but deleted nearly two decades of conversation that had taken place in the comments. This strikes me as a loss to our national conversation about literature, particularly those of us who are interested in the ability of the internet to make those conversations possible and publicly accessible. Have the Fray and comment conversations been saved in any way that you are aware of?

It’s sad, and frustrating, but somehow all of those discussions—valuable in themselves and as part of a cultural-historical record—seem to be gone. The people at Slate were apologetic and sympathetic. Apparently, all sorts of rubbish, ads, porno, blather, survives in the electronic fossil-dom . . . but not the Fray discussions. Rather than remain heartbroken, I hope to build it again, in the spirit of Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli.”

On a more positive note, the work that you began and developed at Slate over those two decades now continues in a new forum on your web site, robertpinskypoet.com, and although only a few months old, it’s already beginning to facilitate comments and conversations. It makes your passion for continuing this work clear—the Slate series ended in the summer of 2013, and by September you had launched the new forum. Why is this work so important to you?

It’s the wide range of readers and voices—famous poets and high school kids, trolls and scholars, churls and mensches, with insight and blather—that appeals to me. A forum or agora in American life—not academic or institutional—where people can share their experience and knowledge of particular poems, and of the art of poetry in general. The variety, the democratic spirit of it. I’ll add that I have learned a lot from the discussions: not in a vaguely benign way—I mean specific learning, facts and ideas and references. And I think I’ve learned something about the American appetite and audience for art.

Pinsky Singing School Cover

I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about your new book, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. For readers who don’t know, the book is an anthology of classic poems, each with a brief introduction by you, very similar to the style of your new online forum. As the title suggests, it is geared toward writers, although anyone could enjoy the poems and your insights, often suggesting “prompts” for poems that readers might try to write based on the classic poems. How do you view the relationship between the anthology and your ongoing work on your online forum?

In a way, “geared toward writers” as you say, and as the title declares, means “geared toward writing.” That is, the idea is to appreciate poems as works of art, made things. Made not by a publisher or a zeitgeist or a curriculum but by individual artists. Emily Dickinson, for example. Wallace Stevens. Ben Jonson. Sylvia Plath. Sterling Brown. Inter alia!

In your introduction to Singing School, you suggest that readers start an anthology of their favorite poems and maintain it for life. It seems that your online “Classic Poems” project, as well as Singing School itself, is in some ways a public version of your own anthology—are the poems literally lifted from your personal anthology of favorite poems? How long have you been keeping yours and what prompted you to start?

Yes, I have a personal anthology of a few hundred poems. It’s in a computer file that I add to from time to time, and print out every year or two. It’s not systematic or consistent. If I type something out for a book review or an essay or a class, I’ll paste it into my anthology, which is alphabetical by order—with plenty of “Anonymous” near the beginning. (The file is called—ta-da . . . “Anthology.docx.”)

In a 1980 interview with Mark Halliday in Ploughshares, you talked about studying with Yvor Winters at Stanford, where you did your graduate work as a Stegner Fellow. You said that Winters and the other poets in the program, including Robert Hass and James McMichael, “assumed that part of their training as a poet would include reading and writing about poems from the tradition. It would include reading new poems by oneself and others, published and unpublished, in a way very similar to the way you would read Beowulf or Herbert’s ‘Love’ or the ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’” It seems that much of the work you’ve done in your career, including the Favorite Poems project, the Slate series, and now the forum on your web site has been undertaken with the aim of encouraging poets and readers of poetry to engage in conversations about literature, and to give them a platform to have those conversations. What do you think we gain, as individuals and/or as a nation, from being given both access to such conversations and the opportunity to engage in them ourselves?

Like music, film, visual art—like sports, brand-names, games, ads and fads—poetry is part of the culture that “is-among,” which is to say “inter est.” The language roots of “interest” go down into what is shared-among, what is important and interesting to us.

I happen to be interested in what, among such shared things, has endured and will endure. In the great fool and seer’s words, “News that stays news.”


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