Former Poet Laureate Pinsky: Poetry ‘Too Fundamental, Large’ to Need Advocate

May 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Much of former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's writing has focused on American life. He takes a look back at his career with Jeffrey Brown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, another in our occasional series about poets and poetry.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown talks with a writer NewsHour viewers will remember from many appearances on the program, former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky.

ROBERT PINSKY, former U.S. poet laureate: “Now, near the end of the middle stretch of road, what have I learned? Some earthly wiles, an art, that, often, cannot tell good fortune from bad, which once had seemed so easy to tell apart.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Pinsky, a Jersey boy turned 70, reciting from his poem “Jersey Rain.”

ROBERT PINSKY: “The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one.”

That’s it, Pinsky. You have got them right where you want them.

Related Video

JEFFREY BROWN: Since his stint as poet laureate of the United States in the late ’90s, Pinsky has been that rare thing in American culture, a public poet, who could appear on “The Simpsons”…

STEPHEN COLBERT, “The Colbert Report”: Please welcome former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.


JEFFREY BROWN: … and “The Colbert Report.”

And, of course, for several years, he regularly brought poetry to the NewsHour.

ROBERT PINSKY: “By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, here the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Pinsky has put out a new selected-poems volume that presents his work from the 1970s to today.

When we talked recently in Washington, he said that, in looking back at his writing, he saw constant reflections of his youth.

ROBERT PINSKY: I grew up in a small town, where my father was a local athlete and had a little shop. His father had a bar in the town. This is Long Branch, N.J.

And I can see the past, community, Jews and other ethnic groups, a kind of American lower-middle-class community life. I can see all those things, though, sometimes, they are reflected in mythology or politics or some other things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thinking about that beginning, you had to, in a sense, invent yourself as a — as a poet, right?

ROBERT PINSKY: I didn’t have a glorious academic record. In the eighth grade, I was in the bad class. I was suspended from school a few times.

I was saved by objective tests and by music. That was my identity in school. And I don’t think the word art as something that included music, poetry, dance, it wasn’t part of my milieu. But I was thinking about it without knowing that, my admiration for Sid Caesar, for certain movies, for certain music.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pinsky’s first love was jazz. He played and still plays the saxophone. And in a nice touch, decades later, he now regularly performs his poetry with jazz musicians.

ROBERT PINSKY: “Ten minutes ago, we raised our children. They cover the Earth. And they have forgotten that we existed.”

A sentence is like a melody. Lines are like a rhythm section. It is the same relationship to something that is changing and surprising and something else that is there. And the pleasure of working with other musicians was very important to me in my teen years. And I thought it was over, and now I have it back again.

JEFFREY BROWN: It looks like fun.

ROBERT PINSKY: It is embarrassingly much fun.


ROBERT PINSKY: It is — figuratively speaking, barbecue sauce is just dripping off my chin.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pinsky’s poems — you can sense it in titles like “An Explanation of America” and “Gulf Music” — are often examinations through verse of American life and culture.

ROBERT PINSKY: I pick up bits of things, and except for the sounds of words in English, what I feel I know enough about to write about is — culture is almost too fancy a word — is what Americans see, listen to, eat, make jokes about, are afraid of, build, live in.

I read the newspaper quite carefully, and I — my favorite part is the obituaries. But I read the comics. I read the sports pages. I read entertainment. I certainly read the political pages.

For me, it is more like the palette of information. And when you are going to need to know about the economics of NASCAR, or when you’re going to need to know about the childhood of Newt Gingrich, or you’re going to know about the founding of the new school, or some such thing, a slightly distorted, probably misapprehended chunk of it will be floating around in there somewhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other thing about your career, of course, is that you have — you inject yourself into the culture more than most poets. Is this personality because you’re a restless guy, or some commitment to bringing poetry into the world? What is going on?

ROBERT PINSKY: I don’t feel a commitment to bring poetry into the world. Poetry, for me, is so large and fundamental. It is in every culture.

I don’t — I won’t pretend that I go on “Colbert” or “The Simpsons” or the stuff I have done with you as a missionary. In fact, I’m sort of turned off by that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t like that notion the ambassador of poetry, or…

ROBERT PINSKY: Marketing or…

ROBERT PINSKY: I mean, I will smile politely. I will smile politely when people say he is an ambassador for poetry or an advocate.

I don’t think poetry needs an advocate. It is too fundamental and large for that. And if I go — if I find myself moderating — pretending I’m a quizmaster or moderating a debate between Stephen Colbert and Sean Penn…

JEFFREY BROWN: Which you did.

ROBERT PINSKY: … which I did, I just think to myself…

JEFFREY BROWN: Which most poets probably can’t say.


ROBERT PINSKY: I mean, I have just — like I — I just think, this is cool.


JEFFREY BROWN: And the extracurricular creative projects continue. For example, Pinsky recently wrote the libretto for an opera by composer Tod Machover.


MAN: In those last few lines, Whitman tells you what you’re thinking.

JEFFREY BROWN: One enduring legacy from his time as poet laureate is the Favorite Poem Project…

MAN: “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman.

JEFFREY BROWN: … in which average Americans talked about and recited the work that most moved them.

ROBERT PINSKY: The whole point of those is that I didn’t tell anyone to read poetry. It doesn’t market poetry. I asked — and it’s not a poll — I asked people to write sentences about why they liked a poem.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think that tapped into?

ROBERT PINSKY: A human need to feel what it is like to have a work of art come right out of you. I think we like that a lot.

It is a particular pleasure, to say, I want to recite this to you. And it is a risk. And it’s a nobler form of the risk when you’re going to tell somebody a joke. If I start, “Love at the lips was touch as sweet as I could bear, and once I lived on air,” it is a little bit like saying, the pope, a zebra and an optometrist go into a bar.


ROBERT PINSKY: It is a human impulse to amuse, or to say, look this is beautiful.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “Selected Poems” by Robert Pinsky.

Robert, it’s real nice to talk to you.

ROBERT PINSKY: It’s great talking to you, Jeff.