Former poet laureate reflects
Pinsky on poetry and politics, his latest anthology, and Bush’s effect on the arts
David J. Craig
Pov Chin thinks that Langston Hughes’ “Minstrel Man” is about her.
And after listening to the California teenager read the poem, Robert Pinsky thinks she’s right. Chin recites “Minstrel Man” on a DVD that accompanies An Invitation to Poetry, a new anthology edited by Pinsky, a CAS English professor and former U.S. poet laureate, and Maggie Dietz, director of BU’s Favorite Poem Project. The anthology, published by Norton and Company, is the third of the Favorite Poem Project, which Pinsky created in 1997 during his first term as poet laureate to celebrate and promote poetry’s role in the lives of ordinary people.
Like the project’s previous anthologies, An Invitation to Poetry features poems from around the world, by artists as old as Sappho and as current as Louise Glück, each introduced by a letter from an American who loves the poem. Serious works only are included, and a priority in the final selection was demonstrating the “infinitely various ways a poem finds its way to the reader,” Pinsky writes in the introduction.
The volume’s payoff, however, is its companion DVD, which compiles 27 film shorts of Americans discussing and reading their favorite poems. These artful documentaries, produced by the Favorite Poem Project and originally broadcast on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, are perhaps the project’s most compelling evidence of how readers experience poetry. In one, a 28-year-old photographer describes how the caustic energy of Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick” showed him that poetry is relevant to his life; in another, a 34-year-old Boston construction worker sitting on a backhoe says that the final lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” told him to continue learning to read verse. And Chin, a teenager whose family escaped Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the early 1980s, says that “Minstrel Man” helped her confront feelings of guilt she carries for having left her homeland, when so many died there. Never mind that the poem generally is understood as a comment on the isolation of blacks in early 20th-century America. “I’m better off than a lot of people in Cambodia — a feeling I’m not free to let out,” she says. “And that’s what Langston Hughes was saying.”
Pinsky, author of six books of poetry and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, recently spoke with the B.U. Bridge about the Favorite Poem Project, his forthcoming prose and poetry books, and American politics.
Bridge: A critic once wrote that a shortcoming of the project’s anthologies is that people too often say that their favorite poem is one that they relate to personally, whereas to fully appreciate art is to be broadened by it.
Pinsky: Probably a component of why anybody loves any work of art is finding oneself in it. That isn’t the only component of art: sometimes art brings you news about the world or another human being, and there’s an aesthetic response as well. But the mirror is part of it, I think.
But to say that a work of art “is about me” can mean many things. It can mean something narcissistic. Or, in the case of Pov Chin, the young woman who says that “Minstrel Man” by Langston Hughes “is about me”— that’s actually a spectacular example of the way a work of art has an urgency that goes beyond individual circumstances. Hughes was male and black and died before Chin was born. So in her case, “it’s about me” means an act of imagination — sympathetic imagination.
Bridge: The readers’ responses on the DVD seem like dream responses for a poet.
Pinsky: To have another person say that your poem in is his or her voice, or memorize the poem, that’s what you’re after as an artist. And if the anthology and the Favorite Poem Project constitute a critique of the conventional ways of approaching poetry, then I think of it as a critique from the point of view of the poet, of the artist, and from above, not below.
Bridge: Reviewers often use the words populist and democratic to describe the Favorite Poem Project. Is that accurate?
Pinsky: Only to a point. In many ways, the Favorite Poem Project is an elitist project. I’m not interested in taking a survey, counting numbers. I think this is from a vault superior. The emphasis on the intense responses of individuals respects the real nature of poetry.
Bridge: When do you write now? Are you disciplined about it?
Pinsky: I’ve never been a methodical person, so I can never tell you what I’m going to do on a given morning or afternoon. I need to waste a lot of time in order to use time well, so I read the Times and the Globe more thoroughly than can be justified. I like to talk on the phone with my friends. I bong on my keyboard, sometimes I play my saxophone. Somehow, I do get a lot of work done. It’s easiest for me to do it in the spirit of playing hooky — if you’re not supposed to do it, it’s easier to do.
Bridge: How did serving as poet laureate change your life?
Pinsky: Only in the numbers of people involved. The things I think about and the things I say are the same sorts of things I’ve been thinking about and saying all my life. But I didn’t used to say them on television.
Bridge: You have two new books due out soon.
Pinsky: A prose book about King David called The Life of David will appear next fall. There’s also a book of poems just about ready to go, but I keep thinking I have another page or two, or five, or six, in my head.
Bridge: What are your new poems like?
Pinsky: The book is about the nature of society. It involves thinking about what it means to be a citizen in this country and how issues of peace and war may affect a person. I hope there’s nothing conventional or stereotypical in it, in the way of political poetry.
Bridge: You read a new poem at BU recently entitled “Inman Square Incantation,” which seems to involve a person’s conflicted reactions to a beggar.
Pinsky: Emotions toward the panhandler are the kind of thing that interests me a lot. I always put money in the Salvation Army bucket because I know the Salvation Army is a particularly effective charity. Also, my dad, although he was Jewish, was the treasurer of the Salvation Army in Long Branch, N.J. It’s so much easier for me to put a dollar bill in that kettle than to give a dollar bill to an aggressive panhandler. And inspecting the reasons for that, inspecting the reasons why sometimes I give the guy money, and sometimes I won’t, is a way of inspecting my relation to the country and the world.
Bridge: The poem seems concerned with performances in society generally. The narrator wonders how, if he is confused about a beggar’s performance, he can possibly determine whether the president of the United States is telling the truth.
Pinsky: Yes, exactly. And there are all these other signs. There’s the president. There’s the panhandler with a stuffed animal. There are the commercial signs in Inman Square and all these signs are persuasive or trying to be persuasive. And I’m walking around, stopping at the ATM, going by the panhandler, hearing the president’s words on the radio and seeing them in the newspaper. Sorting through all that is a big part of life, and I don’t think anybody quite accomplishes it perfectly.
Bridge: At the end of the poem, the narrator gives the beggar a dollar and curses him. Do you think anger sustains something good or essential in us?
Pinsky: Skepticism and rage have a place in a democracy.
Bridge: Are you naturally interested in politics?
Pinsky: I’ve been very aware of it all my life. I grew up in a small town where politics was distinctly local. I’ve always been impatient with it too. I guess you would say that I’m someone who has always been interested in it and who has tended to resent how much it comes into my life.
Bridge: In a column in the Christian Science Monitor in 2000, you said that if George W. Bush were a poet he would be called decadent — that is, having elaborate form and no substance. How would you describe him now?
Pinsky: He and his advisors do seem to manage — in literary terms — a very effective manipulation of forms to avoid content. Dressing up in a pilot’s suit — who would have thought five years ago that anybody would try to get away with that?
Bridge: Has the Bush administration affected the world of poetry?
Pinsky: The administration has tended to unify the world of poetry, which sometimes is a very fractious and divided world. All those poets who have declined Mrs. Bush’s invitation to the White House, they were a very wide range of poets; they all seemed to agree that was a party they would not attend.
Bridge: How about arts funding?
Pinsky: The great problem with this administration is not its inadequate funding for the arts. That’s been part of an American problem for a very long time.
Bridge: Can poetry help Americans reconcile with one another, when we’re so divided?
Pinsky: Poets are not sages. They’re not necessarily wise people, the ones we should listen to. But the art of poetry itself puts a great value on the dignity of the individual person. And for that reason, poetry is a worthy part of democratic culture.
Bridge: You went to visit the great antiauthoritarian Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in Krakow shortly before he died this summer. What did he mean to you?
Pinsky: I worked with Czeslaw on translations of his work when I taught at Berkeley in the ’80s. He had a large conception of the importance of poetry as something more profound, and more effective in the long run, than anything in popular culture — that poetry has qualities of endurance that transcend political phenomena. That was a model. In addition to the greatness of his work, he had the authority of his experience, having survived the Nazis and the Communists, lived in this country for a long time, and then at the end having gone back to the country where he had been banned and his name forbidden. So he was a figure of great authority.
Bridge: Who’s writing the most relevant political poetry in the United States right now?
Pinsky: C. K. Williams comes to mind.
Bridge: Have you read any great poems yet inspired by the 2004 Red Sox?
Pinsky: None yet. Of course, I grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. But I never considered the Los Angeles Dodgers to be real Dodgers, and I adopted the Red Sox when I moved here in 1968. I went to a Red Sox game this year with Sandy Koufax, who’s become a friend as a result of my poem “The Night Game,” which doesn’t quite name him but is about him.
Bridge: “Once, when he was young/He refused to pitch on Yom Kippur,” the poem ends.
Pinsky: Yes — there is the resistant dignity of the individual again.