Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States and 2019 headliner of the New York City Poetry Festival recently had a chat with PSNY intern and University of Leeds PhD candidate, Lucy Cheseldine.
LC: How does a poem start for you? Do certain lines appear first or does the shape come as a whole?
RP: The Yeats phrase “I get a chune in my head” seems to apply. It's a matter of the sentence-sounds, the melody of it, maybe without much meaning. Like a conversation heard through a closed door, to use another famous way of saying it: the sound of a meaning before the meaning. An audible shape in time.
LC: Lots of your poetry records snippets of urbanity. How do you understand the relationship between poetry and the city? What role, if any, do observation and experience play here?
RP: Back to sound, I guess: in the city, compared to the country or the suburbs, there’s more speech per square inch, more music per square mile, probably even more bird-song per square foot. Truth is, I grew up in an ocean-side resort town, so “snippets” may be exactly how I first encountered the city.
LC: You’ve spent time as the Poet Laureate of the United States. Does a poet have a civic duty? And to what extent might this be bound up with memory?
RP: The poet’s duty is to make poems. The “Laureate” title has that silly, anglo-phile cachet—“Consultant in Poetry” has more soul and dignity— but it’s true that laurel stays green, the bay leaf in the food of memory.
LC: In Democracy, Culture and the Voice, you call poetry “a vocal imagining”. Do you ever talk out loud when you are writing? How do you distinguish reading your poems aloud in front of an audience from the internal vocalisations of reading poetry?
RP: I always talk out loud when I am composing, or at least mumble out loud. Can’t do it any other way. In that sense “writing” is a kind of misnomer for what I do. The writing part, the pen or computer or Selectric is just for notation, like putting notes on the stave. The music itself is vocal.
LC: Do you think being a critic of poetry has helped your creative practice?
RP: “The highest form of criticism is actual composition.” The word “critic” comes from krinos, to choose, I think I have read. So the poet must be a critic every moment, in composition. Many so-called critics don't do much actual choosing, or are bad at it.
LC: You take “poetry as breath”. Do you have a poem or poet that you continue to return to when your own sources need replenishing?
RP: Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Fulke Greville, William Carlos Williams, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, Ben Jonson, Allen Ginsberg, John Keats, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, George Gascoigne, Michael Drayton, Stevie Smith . . . among many others . . .
LC: How would you define ‘poetry’ to someone who is afraid to read it?
RP: It’s a kind of art based on the sounds of words, partway between talking and singing. After saying that, I’d beg that person to watch a couple of the brief videos at the Favorite Poem Project.