Book World Live

Robert Pinsky
Tuesday, April 18, 2006; 3:00 PM

Robert Pinsky , who was featured in Book World's annual Poet's Choice issue, was online Tuesday, April 18, at 3 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about his work and the state of poetry in this country.

The author of six books of poetry, Robert Pinsky teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University and is the poetry editor at Slate . Pinsky served as the United States Poet Laureate between 1997 and 2000.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


Fargo, ND: Mr. Pinsky,

In your opinion, what makes a poem a good poem? Of all the good poetry out there, what are the characteristics of a truly sublime poem? Many thanks.

Robert Pinsky: If I say Dickinson's "Further in Summer Than the Birds" or Williams' "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper" or Keats' "To Autumn" over to myself, even in a muttered undertone, I feel inhabited by a great work of art.

It's a physical sensation, the play of the cononants and vowels and sentence-shapes, as well as an emotional and intellectual sensation.

That feeling of engaging the mind and the body at once, and maybe especially where ideas turn into speech, that mind-body connection, where the sounds of the poem become meaning.


New Paltz, NY: They are certainly different art forms, but do you listen to much popular music? are there any songwriters that strike you as writing lyrics that could stand on their own as great poetry?

Robert Pinsky: By definition, good song lyrics are meant to go with music. Cole Porter, Bob Dylan, Mitchell Parrish, etc.-- the words are meant to be sung.

The defining thing about poetry, for me, is that the words sound wonderful, the "music" is there, in any reader's actual or imagined voice.

There are some sixteenth century poems-- in John Dowland's Book of Airs, for instance, or by Campion-- that also sound great with tunes.


Gaithersburg, Md: Am I just too stupid to understand, or do all poems nowadays just seem to be prose? I don't understand the difference. For instance, a poem in the Post article can be written like this without line breaks:

She wanted a little room for thinking: but she saw diapers steaming on the line, a doll slumped behind the door. So she lugged a chair behind the garage to sit out the children's naps.

Does this mean that poetry == line breaks?

Robert Pinsky: Try saying it out loud,

Try to hear what "diaper" has in common with "line" (a vowel) and "doll" (a consonant.

The rhythm of "steaming on the line" is the same as the rhytm of "slumped behind the door." Does that have any effect?

Most poems are not very interesting in rhythm-- so called "free" verse or not.

All we can do is try to listen.


Ovid, NY: I'm sure you are asked this all the time, but do you have recommendations for good books to improve a person's literacy in poetry?

Robert Pinsky: I'm inclined to say "The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats" or "The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson" or "English Renaissance Poetry," edited by John Williams (U. of Arkansas Press).

Everybody is different, but I think general, how-to books ae less useful that starting with something you already love-- even if it is one poem by, say, Robert Frost or Allen Ginsberg or W. C. Williams-- and reading more by that author. If it is say, Sylvia Plath, try to find a second and third poem by her you like.

Then, find out what she read, what did she admire?

Listen to the music, shoot some baskets, play with the piano keyboard, taste the food, look at the pictures--- those things seem more important, or more primary, than a General Approach.

And, try reading aloud. Try typing out or writing out the words of a poem that interests you.


Arlington, Va : I want to read more poetry, and be well versed in it -- but I don't know where to start. Any suggestions?

Robert Pinsky: My anthology "An Invitation to Poetry," published by Norton, comes with a DVD that shows "ordinary" people reading aloud poems they love, and saying why they love them. Construction worker reading Whitman, etc.

Forgive me for advancing my own product but I think those videos, the comments on the poems in the anthology by readers-- provide a good introduction to the art. (cf )


Washington, D.C.: How is the Poet Laureate chosen? You are certainly the perfect choice. You served for three years. Is there a term of office with this title? How does this position operate?

Robert Pinsky: The person is appointed by the Librarian of Congress.

It should be an honor recognizing excellence as an artist. I sometimes worry that Rita Dove, Bob Hass and I ruined the position by making it seem that the Laureate must be active and extroverted or public.

Shy people like Elizabeth Bishop, older people like Stanley Kunitz, private people like Louise Gluck, have brought honor to the post.

Such poets should never be excluded, or the position would be diminished.


Arlington, Va: What was it like doing a Simpsons episode? What did you think of how they treated 'Impossible to Tell"?

Robert Pinsky: I am delighted that Lisa Simpson knows and appreciates my work.

It was a pleasure to work with those brilliant actors, and an honor to have my poem-- a poem that contains jokes-- treated as an enjoyable work on this unusually literate, intelligent TV show, surely one of the smartest, best-written programs in the history of television.

And those drunken fans changing "Basho"!


Seattle, Wash.: having read your book sounds of poetry, i am interested in your perspective on the state of poetry education in America. it seemed like in that book you were trying to get away from a lot of the jargon and such that may intimidate or just throw off readers who are not poetry scholars. is that right?

Robert Pinsky: Yes, I don't much like jargon or pedantic categories. Sometimes special terms are necessary, but people tend to fall in love with them as covert substitutes for actual knowledge, actual pleasure.

I thinnk of that book, The Sounds of Poetry, as quite demanding, despite the absence of jargon: it demands that the reader LISTEN. That is the point of the Invitation to Poetry, FPP videos as well: the art is vocal. (Though not necessarily performative.)

Knowledge is good. Hearing is primary. (This is probably true of dancing, as well as poetry.)


Oxford, Miss: I've just discovered Frank O'Hara and have completely fallen in love with his poems. What effect do you think he had on the world of poetry? He seems to intertwine the sacred and the profane more than anyone I've read and even more than many people writing forty years after his death. Is he considered a Great or just another american poet?

Robert Pinsky: Depends on who you ask. I think O'Hara is a great poet-- the True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island, for example. Many poets (including me, I hope) have learned from his way of putting a poem together. (Mark Halliday, David Rivard, Dean Young, Tony Hoagland occur to me.)

Bishop and O'Hara are examples of poets whose recognition (generated by other, younger poets) has increased after their death. It is a process in which critics seem to be followers, not generators.


Washington, DC: Just wanted to say thanks from a former student. You always taught us to "notice" something about a poem. It was good training not just for poetry but for life.

Robert Pinsky: Paying attention-- noticing-- does seem to be an ethical as well as an aesthetic principle. It's possible to panic as you get older to realize how limited one's capacity for noticing can be, despite a lifetime of effort!

(Thank you back.)


Falls Church, Va: It seems to me that much modern poetry is purposely really obscure, or difficult to understand or parse, so that the impression is given that to enjoy modern poetry, one has to be a member of an inner circle of literati. Is this a fair impression?

Robert Pinsky: Difficulty is desirable: look at the kids with their GameBoys and Xboxes, look at the people on the golf course: they are pursuing canned, reliable difficulty.

Is Milton's Paradise lost "easy"? Would we value it if it was?

Inner circles and trends and schools are contemptible, and MERE difficulty is nothing. But a _worthy_ difficulty, the difficulty of Milton or Dickinson or Wallace Stevens, is a great source of pleasure and light.

Too much writing and entertainment is too easy.

Too much political discourse is too easy.

I find most of the newspaper harder to understand than Stevens or Hart Crane . . . and often less worth understanding!

A worthy difficulty about a difficult matter is a great, valuable gift.


South Bend, Ind.: do you find it hard to write serious poems about light-hearted, funny, or silly topics? do you need to be dour to write a good poem?

Robert Pinsky: Most comic verse seems complacent or stupid to me.

But there is wonderful comic writing it is true: W. S. Gilbert, Edward Lear, Kenneth Koch, Ben Jonson in the plays. Stevie Smith.

But when I think about it, each of those writers was a goad to complacency-- Lewis Carroll in the Alice books is very aware of death, Lear is melancholy, Koch rather savage toward bourgeois self-satisfaction in himself and others.

Twain, our greatest American comic writer, is full of anger and sadness.

Sweet comedy like Buster Keaton's is possible in poetry -- I sense it in Bishop and O'Hara at times. But most of the most successful, enduring "light-heartedness" in all art acknowedges the shadow.

The art of Stevie Smith seems likely to outlive that of Ogden Nash.


Bethesda, Md: In your opinion how does Shakespeare rate as a poet?

Robert Pinsky: He is a great, great poet in the plays and in certain of the sonnets-- as great as they get-- and parts of sonnets . . . but the sonnets are a bit over-rated.

Ben Jonsons elegy on him is a shrewd, great poem.


Alexandria, Va: From your perspective as a writer and literary artist, what arguments would you make for someone entering college to seek a liberal arts education today? There are so many different messages about the value of such education.

Robert Pinsky: Learn Greek and Latin, learn to play an instrument well, learn a couple of modern foreign languages, learn a little math and physics--

-- and is there anything you couldn't learn if you needed to?

If I were a potential employer, or a potential partner, and I knew you had learned those things, I would be inclined to pursue you.

Your own confidence would be high, too, perhaps?


New York, N.Y.: When I was in high school, teachers introduced us to poetry through such narrative poems as "My Last Duchess," thinking that lyrical poetry was too difficult. "Duchess" bored me to tears, but when I accidentally came upon "Windhover," I was hooked on poetry. What are your thoughts on how poetry ought to be taught to young people?

Robert Pinsky: The teacher must read aloud to the students and the students must read aloud to one another.

The teacher must teach poems he or she admires, and the students must be encouraged to find poems they admire.



Arlington, Va: Any thoughts on interpreting poetry?

Robert Pinsky: Read it aloud several times, attending to the sounds of the words and sentences, only very gradually, on the fifth or sixth reading, beginning to think about "interpretation."


Washington, D.C.: Why do you think the market for poetry is so small? It seems as if so few people read poetry, and so few poets can make a living.

Robert Pinsky: They are still selling copies of my INFERNO OF DANTE in numbers that surprise me, and I bet the same is true of Seamus Heaney's BEOWULF. The anthology AMERICANS' FAVORITE POEMS is now in its seventeenth printing.

The poets I know are aware that they make a product more like exquisite goat cheese than it is like velveeta. And most of them have day jobs. But they also have readers.

There is no reason to compare the art to pop music. It is more like jazz, I guess, to abandon the cheese metaphor.


Charlottesville, Va: I have recently started writing a lot of different kinds of poems. Do you have any advice for young poets still looking for "their" style?

Robert Pinsky: Find something you love to read and get it by heart.

Try to increase the list of things you love. Poems, poets, but also writing of every kind, film, music, etc.

Learn from art.


Washington, D.C.: What do you make of the recent reports that "Having poetry books around is actively harmful" to a child's academic achievement? I'm not making this up. The Post had a report on it last week.

Robert Pinsky: This may explain why I was in the dumb class in the eighth grade, and have never found "academic acheivement" to be my metier.

But I would not give up my Keats and Jonson and Stevens and Moore and Blake for all the "A"s in the world.

Maybe we need to re-evaluate "academic achievment." "A" sometimes means something, but often not much, eh?


Mexico City, Mexico: How immediately graspable should a poem's "meaning" be to be good or enjoyable? To read Eliot and other high modernists, for example, one practically needs glosses in the margins. On the other hand, poetry that is too direct just doesn't seem like poetry. It lacks the kind of startling metaphors that make us see ordinary things in a different light. What do you think?

Robert Pinsky: Lovers of Opera, rap music, rock, would be disappointed, I think, if they felt they understood everything on the first or second hearing of a work. Or the tenth.

Well-meaning teaching has given people the idea that a poem is first of all a challenge to say something smart about its meaning. Meaning is good, I approve of it. (My last book contains an Ode to it!) Ditto smart things.

But what should be "immediately graspable" about a poem is that it is a work of art, with all the appeal and command and pleasure and fear that the notion of art implies.

Ben Jonson is direct, Paul Celan is oblique, you could argue. And both are very great artists.


San Diego, Calif: Did your appearance on the Simpsons help the popularity of poetry?

Robert Pinsky: I am not as yellow in complexion as my appearance on The Simpsons (which had no effect on the popularity of poetry, I would say).


Washington, D.C.: What literary journals do you like to read? Which are publishing the best poetry, in your opinion?

Robert Pinsky: The Threepenny Review, published in California, is really extraordinary-- I read every word of it, poetry and prose. Poems by Frank Bidart, Louise Gluck, Seamus Heaney, quite often.

I also subscribe to Salmagundi, Agni and the revivified Poetry. The first issue of the newly revived Poetry Northwest is very impressive.


Washington, D.C.: What criteria do you use to select the weekly poem for Slate? Also, do you ever monitor the comments made on Slate's Poetry Forum about your selections--and are you ever tempted to "enter the Fray"?

Robert Pinsky: I check the Fray on Slate every few weeks, and there are often very thoughtful, interesting letters and poems there. Also, some rudeness by posters to one another and to the poets published in Slate-- pretty clearly, sometimes, written by someone whose poems have been rejected.

As a fan of the Web, I'll add a word about a shadow-side of it.

The anonymity of the Web sometimes fosters something like the bad manners we display in our cars; on the grocery line, in physical proximity, we are more courteous to one another than from behind the windshield or an internet monicker.


Washington, D.C.: Who were some of your earliest favorite authors?

Robert Pinsky: I'll interpret "earliest" literally.

I read the Alice books over and over. Dickens. Science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, A. A. Van Vogt, Isaac Asimov. Twain, perhaps the Connecticut Yankee especially. Stevenson's _A Child's Garden of Verses._ His Treasure Island and Kidnapped. The Walter Scott novels, which I now find unreadable-- unlike Stevenson's prose, Scott's now seems thick and ponderous, but I used to devour it!


Washington, DC: How do you feel about the usage of metaphor in poetry?

Robert Pinsky: It's sugar.


Washington, DC: Do you think that modern poetry will ever again undertake the epic poems that previous times generated?

Robert Pinsky: Every time is different. The Greek and Roman epics were about killers: a man with a sword.

Dante called his poem a Comedy (not Divine, others added that adjective), perhaps because his hero was himself: a man with a pen!

Pound defines an epic as "a poem containing history." By that definition, I consider James McMichael's book _Four Good Things_ a great modern epic.


Falls Church, Va: I submitted the earlier question about modern poetry seeming to be purposely obscure and difficult to understand. You said difficulty is good, "easy" not necessarily a benefit. It's not that I shy away from "difficult" literature (for example, I absolutely adore "The Iliad" and read it in several translations) but a lot of modern poetry is such a struggle to understand even with multiple readings that I think a lot of laypeople get turned off.

Robert Pinsky: There is a lof of bad, plausible or fake writing around. Always has been, but the garbage of antiquity was thrown out long ago.

So I am sympathetic to your pursuit.

Wallace Stevens once seemed difficult; now his ideas about art and meaning feel perhaps more familiar? William Carlos Williams once seemed jagged and barbaric; he might be disppointed to learn that he has become canonical and is much-imitated!

If you want to know what I recommend, look at my books about poetry.


Washington, D.C.: Is the Favorite Poem Project still receiving new submissions? Also, are there any plans to create new video documentaries, which for me are the crown jewels of the project?

Robert Pinsky: We are receiving submissions by email through the site at but I no longer have the staff to open actual envelopes!

Video production had to cease after making the fifty videos on the East and West coasts. I wanted to make more, knew who we would film, in the Midwest and Southeast and Southwest . . . but I never managed to raise the money for that.


Portland, Ore: Mr. Pinsky,

It's an honor to be able to ask a question of you. As I'm sure you know, poetry contests are under intense scrutiny these days. I wonder if you would comment on book contests in general, and also answer a question: Why is it that many poets of your stature are quite outspoken about social justice issues, but few are willing to speak out against the corruption documented on websites like

Thank you

Robert Pinsky: I can't speak for "poets of . . stature" but possibly "social justice issues" seem more important to them?


Robert Pinsky: Dear Readers,

This was fun! Apologies re the Q's I could not get to in our hour.

Thank you all, and goodbye.

Read 'em aloud!


Robert Pinsky


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