America’s Wordsmith

April 2, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The next poet laureate is Robert Pinsky. His appointment was announced last week by the Librarian of Congress. He joins a select group, which includes Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Pen Warren, and current laureate, Robert Hass, whose second year in the post ends in May.

Pinsky has published five books of poetry, including “The Figured Wheel,” which came out last year and brings together 30 years of his work. In 1994 his translation of Dante’s “Inferno” became a selection of the Book of the Month Club and a bestseller. Pinsky is also poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate, and teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He joins us now. Thank you for being with us.

ROBERT PINSKY, Poet: My pleasure.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you welcome this appointment, or did you have some hesitations because it’ll take away time that you usually need for writing?

ROBERT PINSKY: All of the above.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: (laughing) Do you think it will cut into your writing a lot, or are you able to write even when you’re on airplanes and working in other things?

ROBERT PINSKY: Well, fortunately, I grew up in a rather noisy, disorganized household, and I’m accustomed to writing with noise around. And I have been known to write in airplanes and airports, and from what I hear I’ll have to try it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As I understand it, the poet laureate is supposed to promote poetry in the United States, in schools and other places. Is that necessary now? Does the United States need to have poetry promoted, or is it doing okay?

ROBERT PINSKY: We are a culture that compared to more homogeneous ones is very mixed. Our impurity is part of our glory, and that means when you take our prized possessions like jazz or movies or poetry, they’re things that probably will live thousands of years, but they also need caretaking, and I think the Library of Congress, itself, and the laureate position are part of the caretaking of poetry.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you have special goals that you want to achieve?

ROBERT PINSKY: One notion I have is to add to the wonderful archives the Library has of poets reading their poems, an archive of Americans of many kinds reading favorite poems. I might ask you. I might ask policemen, high school principals. We might ask government officials: “Do you have a favorite poem, and would you mind adding to an archive, a record of Americans and their poetry at the end of the 20th century?”.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us how you got started. When did you first recognize that you loved words?

ROBERT PINSKY: I can remember as a child loving things I didn’t understand. What it meant for the priest to be shaven and shorn and the man tattered and torn and the maiden all forlorn, I didn’t know, but I knew I liked the way it sounded.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When did you start writing?

ROBERT PINSKY: When I was in high school I was ambitious to be a musician, and probably the first things I wrote were songs.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read for us something, please.

ROBERT PINSKY: Well, I have a relatively recent poem called “To Television,” and that seems maybe appropriate: To Television, not a window on the world, but as we call you, a box, a tube, terrarium of dreams and wonders, coffer of shades, ordained cotillion of phosphors or liquid crystal. Homey miracle.

Tub of acquiescence, vein of defiance. Your patron in the Pantheon would be Hermes, Rasterdance, quick one, little thief, escort of the dying, and comfort of the sick. In a blue glow my father and little sisters sat snuggled in one chair watching you.

Their wife and mother was sick in the head. I scorned you and them, as I scorned so much. Now I like you best in a hotel room, maybe minutes before I have to face an audience. Behind the doors of the armoire, box within a box, Tom and Jerry, or also brilliant and reassuring Oprah Winfrey.

Thank you. For I watch. I’ve watched Sid Caesar speaking French and Japanese not through knowledge but imagination, his quickness, and thank you. I watched live Jackie Robinson stealing home, that image, oh, strung shell, enduring, fleeter than light, like these words we remember in, they too are winged at the helmet and ankles.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I love the mixture of the mundane and myth here, and the reference to Hermes. Hermes is, as I remember, the god of–he’s the messenger god, the god of science and invention, but he also leads people to Hades, and wasn’t he the god of trickery too and cunning? Which one are you referring to?

ROBERT PINSKY: Trickery, cunning, speed. You tell me which one’s a part of television. And he was also the comforter of the sick and he escorted the dying, and as we all, many of us, know if you go into a hostel, a hospice, or a place where very sick people are cared for, there’s often a television on and human voices and emotion are a comfort.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some people might find modern technology antithetical to poetry, even dangerous to the very personal art that poetry is, but you don’t, do you?

ROBERT PINSKY: Well, that’s the conventional idea, but poetry is, itself, a technology. Verse is a very ancient technology designed for memory and that also achieves a lot of speed. It’s a technology of the voice, of the grunts that a very resourceful primate makes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You were poetry editor of the “New Republic” for a long time, and now you’re poetry editor of an online magazine, “Slate.” Is it quite different? What do you find being editor of an online, a magazine in cyberspace, instead of in front of you on paper?

ROBERT PINSKY: A wonderful aspect of Slate and the poems in Slate that may seem contradictory in relation to that technology versus poetry idea is that you can hear the poems on Slate if you have a sound card in your computer; you can click on the palm and hear the poet read it, so that in a way in Slate the poems are more embodied, are more physical than in a text magazine.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you write? What do you write with?

ROBERT PINSKY: Everything I can. I use a pen. I use a pencil. I often type a rough draft onto the computer. Then I print out immediately and I write all over the rough draft, and then I type from that palimpsest again.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what inspires you? Give us a sense. For example, what inspired “To Television?”

ROBERT PINSKY: My favorite quotation on inspiration is from Dexter Gordon, the saxophone player. In the interview I heard they said, “Dexter, where do you get your inspiration,” and the first two words out of Dexter’s mouth were, “Lester Young.” I’m inspired by reading things I love. I think art comes from art.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So “To Television,” how did that poem come to mind?

ROBERT PINSKY: I think I was probably thinking about Sid Caesar and the amazing thing he does. It’s such a wonderful work of imagination when he sounds as though he’s speaking Japanese or French or Italian and it’s just his quickness, his wit, his ear, and some sound to do with Sid Caesar, maybe even his name, would get it going, but I can’t remember. I was interested in the idea of an ode–writing a poem to springtime or to something.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Finally to end this, would you read “December Blues?”You’ve had more than two feet of snow up there. It’s not December, but I thought this poem captured better than anything I’ve ever read the strange feeling of blues that many of us get in December around the holidays.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I love the words that you use to do this.

ROBERT PINSKY: December Blues. At the bad times nothing betrays outwardly the harsh findings, The studies, and hospital records. Carols play. Sitting upright in the transit system the widow-like women wait, hands folded in their laps, as monumental as bread. In the shopping center lots, lights mounted on cold standards, power and stir, condensing the blue vapor of the stars. Between the rows of cars people in coats walk bundling packages in their arms, or holding the hands of children.

Across the highway, where a town thickens by the tracks with stores open late and creches in front of the churches, even in the bars, a businesslike set of the face keeps off the nostalgic pitfall of the carols tugging. In bed how low and still the people lie, some awake, holding the carols consciously at bay. Oh, little town enveloped in unease.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Robert Pinsky, congratulations again and thank you very much for being with us.

ROBERT PINSKY: Thank you, Elizabeth.