Monday, April 25, 2011

Pinsky: Poetry in a world of Facebook, Kindles

Originally printed April 23, 2011.

The following interview is with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who is in town today as part of the local celebrations of UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day.

» JCC: Since you're coming to Iowa City -- UNESCO City of Literature and home of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop -- how would you describe the role that this community has played in American poetry?

RP: Historically, the Writers' Workshop was the pioneer graduate program in creative writing. Like the GI Bill and the Morrill Act (establishing land-grant universities) the growth of MFA programs has made American education and culture, including the art of poetry, more available. Creative writing as a discipline has had a democratic effect. (That the degree-granting programs also incur the risk of becoming an obnoxious guild is part of the way things work, I guess.)

» JCC: How has the so-called "Program Era" (à la Mark McGurl) influenced American poetry and fiction in the past half-century? How is/isn't that influence waning in the present?

RP: I hadn't heard that phrase before. In a way, I'm not qualified to answer -- I've never attended a creative writing program or taken a regular creative writing workshop. And the MFA program where I teach, at Boston University, there is an unusually intense emphasis on studying literature, learning languages and other cultures, etc. Louise Glück, Rosanna Warren and I (and before that Derek Walcott and I) teach students who must complete four graduate-level literature courses -- the same courses that Ph.D. students take. And they must complete a foreign language requirement. In many ways, I remain an outsider to the world of "The Program Era" -- a mostly benign outsider, as indicated, I hope, by my answer about the democratizing nature of the MFA programs.

» JCC: How are your creative writing students different now than they were 30 years ago?

RP: I'm not sure. Possibly, they are more hungry for what used to be supplied by English departments?

» JCC: Why do people go to poetry readings to hear "famous poets"? And how has the poetry-reading circuit affected how you write/read?

RP: I think the best reason to attend a poetry reading is to get some hint of what the poet hears while writing. In other words, I personally don't put much value on the reading as a good show -- for that, I'd rather watch TV. Elizabeth Bishop didn't give an amusing or dynamite performance, but I loved hearing her read her work (though she hated giving readings) because it helped me think about the shapes of her lines and sentences. It gave me some insight into the work of a great artist.

» JCC: The role of poetry in the United States seems much less important to the lives of everyday people than the role of poetry in almost any other nation in the world. Which culture/nation do you think has the healthiest appreciation for poetry? And what are the key differences between what they do and what we do?

RP: I urge you to look at (and listen to!) the video segments at www.favorite (In a friendly spirit, not meaning to offend, I think you may sentimentalize "they" and underestimate "we.")

» JCC: How has social networking changed your approach to poetry and reading/writing communities?

RP: My main reason for being on Facebook is to help people know about the Favorite Poem Project-- the anthologies, the videos at, and the Summer Institute for K-12 Teachers. I fell into FB because, in some way I still don't understand, someone else started a "Robert Pinsky" page. I'm just a zaydee; I don't really know what I'm talking about.

» JCC: How is reading a poem on a Kindle different than reading it in a book, journal or magazine?

RP: I've never bonded with my Kindle -- I use it to read a chapter or two of Dickens or Bronte or Elmore Leonard on airplane rides. On the one hand, I guess it bothers me that visual lines are wrecked on it. On the other hand, those Latin poets wrote lines so firm in rhythm that the poems were read, and survived, on scrolls where they were all run together, like some wacky digital printout. Or am I wrong about that? Anyway, I'm not a Kindler. But I do have about 200 poems on my telephone -- a statement I wouldn't even understand a decade or two ago!

» JCC: I've been rereading "An Explanation of America." So much of what you wrote then still seems timely today. How did writing that poem help prepare you for the impressive, large-scale projects you undertook as poet laureate?

RP: I've never liked titles and official prizes like "poet laureate"; always felt I was not cut out for them. The Favorite Poem Project is in a peculiar way a critique or resistance to expectations: Instead of marketing or missionary work or telling people to read poems, the FPP asked people what poems they like. Instead of a poet reading his or her work, or a famous professor talking about a poem, the voices and responses of readers. Instead of "advocacy," attention.

Your question makes me wonder if in a similar way, the rather eccentric, drastically unconventional book-length poem "An Explanation of America" resists expectations about poetry. ... I'm not sure I've written anything else as nervy and cuckoo as that book.

» JCC: How would you approach "An Explanation of America" differently if you were publishing it in 2011 instead of 1979?

To think about this question is upsetting for me: I fear for the world, and for the future, more than I did 30 years ago. On the one hand, the poem tries to imagine disaster and ugliness as well as some hope -- its concluding passages express some disgust at hope itself. But on the other hand, I hadn't imagined that "nature" in the sense of something untouched by human industry would no longer exist. I hadn't imagined that the Supreme Court would confer on corporations the freedom of speech rights of actual people. I hadn't imagined the recurrence of something resembling the Thirty Years War.

» JCC: And given that "Explanation" was subtitled as "A Poem to My Daughter," how does she like the poem? Would you recommend the book-length poem as a form that other fathers should use for explaining concepts that "cannot be known or told in final terms"?

RP: The daughter addressed in the poem wrote the excellent notes to my "Inferno" of Dante. She has three children of her own. Like her and me, they enjoy poems by Walter de la Mare and Edward Lear. And William Blake and Emily Dickinson.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

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