Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Robert Pinsky. (Photo: Steven Barclay Agency)

Robert Pinsky is one of the most central figures in American poetry, with works including “At the Foundling Hospital,” “The Sounds of Poetry” and the Pulitzer-nominated “The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996.” During his years as U.S. poet laureate, in which he received an unprecedented third term, Pinsky created the Favorite Poem Project, in which he invited Americans of all races, ages and cultures to share videos reading their favorite poems. Thousands of people describing memories, love and loss were shown, introducing a side of poetry that veers away from the academic and toward the everyday. As New York Times reviewer Joel Brouwer said, “No other living American poet – no other living American, probably — has done so much to put poetry before the public eye.” Now 82 and living in Cambridge, Pinsky’s most recent project is his autobiography, “Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet,” filled with experiences that he brings to a Thursday reading at Grolier Poetry Book Shop. We spoke with Pinsky over Zoom on Wednesday; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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How did you get started writing?

Writing isn’t the right word for what I did as a kid. I liked to make parodies, I liked jokes and I liked memorizing things for school. In a way, it was composing more than writing – in high school I was trying to be a musician. It wasn’t until college that writing took on some of the glamour that playing music, playing jazz, had for me before.

What drew you to poetry?

Since I was an infant, I’ve been thinking about the sounds of words. It was only when I got to college that I realized that there was an art behind this obsession with melodies of sentences. I read Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats, and saw how they used that melody, the melodic quality of sentences. I felt a kind of relief and exhilaration with that, and as I began to practice music less, I made that transition to poetry.

Do you have a favorite poem?

I have many favorite poems. Today, it might be a two-line poem: “On love, on grief, on every human thing/Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.” It was written in the 19th century by Walter Savage Landor.

Which work of yours are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my new book, “Jersey Breaks.” I feel that it is germane in relation to identity, politics, fragmentation of the culture and anxieties about immigration. I come at all of those things through my own experience. I am from a family that was not well off but full of ambition, and am very much the product of immigration. I’m proud that I found  a personal and honest way to write about that as an elderly, grown-up man.

What inspired you to begin this autobiography?

I was inspired by a wonderful friend, my literary agent, who said to me, “Robert, you should write a book explaining how, given your background, you became a poet rather than a criminal.” That wonderful person, Jill Kneerim, gave me that assignment, and it’s the first sentence in my book – I sometimes think it’s the best sentence in my book.

Another one of your famous works is the Favorite Poem Project. What did you learn from the journey of working on that?

I got a wonderful confirmation that poetry is not an arcane, peculiar, troublesome outlier art, but that it is like dancing, singing, cuisine – a fundamental human art. I also learned that, contrary to the stereotype of Americans as dumbbells, there are many Americans who love poems by Pablo Neruda or Emily Dickinson, or Frank O’Hara. That was a great booster for me, in my writing, my teaching and in my life as an American.

What do you think is important about that project?

You see a construction worker reading Walt Whitman aloud and having very potent things to say about Whitman’s poem. You see a Cambodian American high school student say very cogent things about a poem by Langston Hughes that she relates to her family’s experience fleeing the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. It is very important to realize this is not academic literary criticism. It is not show business. It’s a very real, very powerful representation of American culture.

I know that you’ve written many works about America, and the American people – what hopes do you have for us as a nation?

Our patriotism, at its best, is based on our mysterious variety. This is a variety embodied by great comics like Buster Keaton, Margaret Cho, the movie “Blazing Saddles,” the poems of Emily Dickinson and the writing of Mark Twain. My hope is that the eccentricity, many-centeredness and hierarchical excellence of those cultural products will provide a model that a patriotic person can be proud of. That’s the importance of the Favorite Poem Project videos to me. I feel that I can show those videos to people in Africa, Asia or Europe, say, “Here are some Americans,” and that I can be proud of those people.

Have you ever been surprised by a reaction to your poetry?

There are many beautiful, pleasant surprises. I was leaving a poetry reading last night, and as I was going down the steps, this very young person said to me, “Oh, Mr. Pinsky, I just read your book, ‘Jersey Breaks.’ I really enjoyed it.” I was very happy to be surprised. Sometimes, I’m surprised when very favorable, serious writing about something I’ve written is portrayed in a way that I don’t recognize. And maybe it’s right – I think a poem is something that happens when someone says it. Within reasonable bounds, I don’t exact a specific interpretation of my work. Of course, if somebody said “Oh, this is a white supremacist speech you’ve written,” or “This is an endorsement of Donald Trump,” I would say, “What? Were you reading the words backward?” But, by and large, if somebody enjoys it, and they want to say what it means for them, I’m content.

  • Robert Pinsky reads at 7 p.m. at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, 6 Plympton St., Harvard Square. Free, but registration is required. Proof of vaccination and masks are required. Information is here.