A Conversation with Robert Pinsky
published: March 20, 2014, recorded: February 2006, views: 1908
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There’s much to please the literate listener in this feast of spoken (and sung) words.
First, Robert Pinsky and his composer collaborator Tod Machover offer a glimpse of their opera-in-progress, Death and the Powers. A story about the evolution of humans, Pinsky reassures that it won’t be “a trite Frankenstein story.”
David Thorburn guides the subsequent conversation, with an occasional poke here and there for his old friend and graduate school classmate. They discuss the rationale behind Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project, where ordinary Americans read their favorite poems. Says Pinsky, “We’re establishing a true elite of people who understand a poem, can incorporate it and read it aloud in a way that other people can perceive it, against the false elite of people who get tenure at Yale or Harvard or BU and often don’t know anything about what a poem actually is.” Pinsky describes the difficulty of writing a good poem: “You’re much more like trying to keep an airplane in the air or save the patient. You’re desperately trying to make something that works.”
He reads from a recent book of prose, The Life of David. The character “is a killer and poet, artist and politician, a terrible and great person.” Pinsky is “interested in the yin and yang, the quality of David to be all of the above and of Jews to be all of the above,” which is related in his mind “to the ambition of writing a kind of poetry where anything can be included.”
Thorburn and Pinsky reminisce about their Stanford teacher, Yvor Winters, whose poetry inspired a Pinsky parody, including the following couplet: “I now insert a seedless roll into/ My lunchbox, but I shall be shortly through.”
About contemporary poetry, Pinsky notes: Lots of people want to write poetry, but are afraid of being clumsy….I feel every time I write I’m risking seeming stupid, banal. You have to confront your own ambivalence.” As for writing a good poem, “it’s like this: You have to climb a mountain, find your way through a maze, get to the field that has the tree in it, climb up to the top of the tree and wait for a thunderstorm. Then it’s easy once you’re hit by lightning. You go through a lot of froufrou before you get there.”
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