(Cambridge, MA) It’s dangerous for political writers to wade into the world of literary greats. No matter what they say, there are weapons of mass destruction there, particularly around syntax and structure. One misplaced comma and you may never write “in this town again.” But how do you take a pass on Pinsky, even on a cold, wet, winter's evening.
Robert Pinsky, in case one lives in a cave and is unaware, is considered one of America’s finest writers. Pinsky has crafted six books of poetry. Pinsky has authored several volumes of essays. Pinsky has edited a host of anthologies, and his book length piece, An Explanation of America, first published in 1980, was awarded the Saxifrage Prize. He has won numerous awards, if you’re into that, and is a member of the Academy of Poets, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1997, Dr. Pinsky was named Poet Laureate of the United States. He was reappointed to that position the following year, one of the few occurrences in this republic’s capitol during that period which the Clintons were unable to fuck up. Perhaps the poet in Pinsky didn’t grasp their capacity for ill’n when, as “a new boy-professor”, he caught the act of the female of that species at her Wellesley commencement. All that said, Mr. Pinsky holds an appreciation of Coltrane, of Sonny Rollins, of Coleman Hawkins, among others, and shared with this writer his passion to be a poet resulted from his “inability, early on, to play the saxophone well enough to have a career in music.”
On a Thursday, in February, I caught up with Prof. Pinsky, and his long time friend, Dr. David Thorburn, Professor of Literature at MIT and Director of the Institute’s Communication Forum. They appear to have a long standing friendship, the kind many men, most often only wish for or lie about. Newman and Redford? No. Far more rich than that. They shared the graduate student experience together. For the literate, that can be grueling while simultaneously exhilarating. Prof. Thorburn, in his own right, has written many significant essays and reviews on literary topics. He is author of Conrad’s Romanticism. They were joined by Tod Machover, head of MIT’s Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group, and several faculty, students and locals at MIT’s Bartos Theater. There, Pinsky discussed his ongoing Favorite Poem Project, his concepts around poetry and democratic culture, and his new work of prose, The Life of David, a particularly interesting piece, enfolding and unfolding myths around the Biblical poet-king and Judasim. “It is David”, Pinsky writes in this work, “not Abraham” that has emerged historically as “pillar” of the faith, although Abraham holds the role as symbolic and synthetic “father”. “King David, like the six-pointed design he would not have recognized, gathered his meaning…in need and invention over centuries of containment and outrage, suffering and ordinary life….” A more critical exploration holds a place in the parking-lot of future writing. What stood out, however, was a glimpse of his latest project, an opera, (opera?) in collaboration with Machover and others, which ran on a loop outside of the theater like an out take from a Bertolucci movie...sorry, film.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the switches, changes and crossing of aesthetic boundaries and evolution of Pinsky’s writing, its excellence in style and substance. In The Night Game he writes:
Some of us believe
We would have conceived romantic
Love out of our own passions
With no precedents,
Without songs and poetry—
Or have invented poetry and music
As a comb of cells for the honey.
Shaped by ignorance,
A succession of new worlds,
Congruities improvised by
Immigrants or children
I once thought most people were Italian,
Jewish or Colored.
To be white and called
Something like Ed Ford
A rare distinction.
Possibly I believed only gentiles
And blonds could be left-handed.
When called upon to write a work relative to 9/11, Mr. Pinsky closed it with:
And if they blow up the Statue of Liberty-
Then the survivors might likely in grief, terror
And excess build a dozen more, or produce
A catchy song about it, its meaning as beyond
Meaning as those symbols, or Ray Charles singing “America
The Beautiful.” Alabaster cities, amber waves,
Purple majesty. The back-up singers in sequins
And high heels for a performance—or in the studio
In sneakers and headphones, engineers at soundboards,
Musicians, all concentrating, faces as grave
With purpose as the Statue herself.
Queried on the evolution of Pinsky’s work, Prof. Thorburn responded, “When he starts out, (early in his career) he writes a very conversational style. When he first comes out of school his first book is called An Explanation of America, and as he explained in the session (at the Bartos), it’s the fiction of the poem, it’s the poet speaking to his five year old daughter, and even though he understands she won’t understand what he says now, when she grows up she will read the poem and understand it. It’s a beautiful and moving poem, It even has fatherly elements in it. Essentially it’s an attempt to account for the bizarre, and to the weirdness of American society in the mid 70’s to a young child. So it’s very ambitious in one sense because it looks at all kinds of disparate phenomena of American society.” Thorburn continues, “As his career develops, he becomes real compressed, less willing to explain things, elusive. Most of all he becomes incantatory, his poems become to sound more like prayers. Some of them actually do read like prayers. In a way they become visionary. Some of them become fantastic, in a sense. There’s one called the Un-creation, from the late middle of his work, probably from some time in the 1980’s in which he imagines all the old pagan gods descending into the ocean, finding in the ocean all the books that human kind has made (humankind is now extinct), and the books are melting into pulp in the water, and the ink from the pages is about to go up into a kind of cloud. In many ways it’s a terrifying poem about the world beyond the human”, says the professor. “He begins to develop in his poetry a kind of visionary and almost science fiction, imaginativeness that you would not have predicted if you had looked at the plain spoken works from his earlier career.”
The most remarkable examples of Thorburn’s model may well be found in Robert Pinsky’s initiative as America’s ninth Poet Laureate, The Favorite Poem Project, and the leap to his current collaboration with Machover and others on the surreal and awesome opera, Death and the Powers.
As Poet Laureate, Pinsky initiated a phenomenal program, inviting ‘all American voices to be heard”. He invited any and all Americans to contact him via e-mail selecting their favored works accompanied by an explanation as to why it held such significance to them. This Favorite Poem Project, in its tender beauty, was his main undertaking during his tenure as “The Poet Launderette”, a kooky, loving title his young children referred to him as in that period. It was part of the nation’s Millennium Celebration driven by his and conviction that the “essential medium of poetry, the instrument on which poems are to be played, is the human voice.” The project involved construction workers, welders, children, doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs, and folk from across the nation’s spectrum to read aloud their favorite works.
Now, Pinsky has challenged, again, the constraint of the couplet, of form and norm, and of the word-smith vaudeville which all too often surrounds contemporary American writing. Although his work, Shirt is written in iambic pentameter, the like, including rhyme, was considered vulgar by the likes of Milton. The classical languages didn’t rhyme, he takes a hard left from that style to something radically new. Is it goodbye to:
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist.
His new thing, his “librettist” role for the opera Death and the Powers, commissioned by the Opera of Monte Carlo, about a man who wants to be a robot, sends everything else to date irrevocably plummeting toward the soil as useless bauble. Somehow the fall, for the thoughtful, becomes salvation. At a glimpse, it’s a disturbing experience which you gotta just let flow over you.
Simon Powers, “a great man obsessed with his death” is at the center of this piece. An inventor and businessman wants to go beyond the bounds of humanity. “He is the founder of the System, a human organism material experiment which investigated the transduction of human existence into other forms.” Comes now the g-forces. As his overview reads, unlike the responses Pinsky gathered to the Favorite Poem Project, Powers, “has received thousands of hate letters. To many, he is considered a pariah. Reaching the end of his life, Powers faces the question of his legacy: ‘When I die, what remains? What will I leave behind? What can I control? What can I perpetuate?’ He is in the process of passing from one form of existence to another in an effort to project himself into the future. Whether or not he is actually alive is the question. Simon Powers is himself now a System.” Whoa!
The work is “framed by a quartet of robots”, resulting in global havoc followed by visits from The United Way, The United Nations, and other “victims of famine, torture, crime and disease” seeking knowledge of the System.
Mr. Pinsky is joined by Diane Paulus, Randy Weiner, Cynthia Breazeal, and Alex McDowell, and “all the little people”, as they say at awards ceremonies, at which you can expect to see this crew picking up their trophies. It’s billed as a “one-act, full evening work (90mins) scored for a small ensemble of specially designed Hyperinstruments, and will include a robotic, animatronic stage- that will gradually ‘come alive’.” Breazeal, who directs the Robotic Presence group at the MIT Media Laboratory, convinced the team that robots could be portrayed, there was no need to use actual robots. In 2003, Breazeal’s work – Robotic Flowers- was featured at the Cooper-Hewitt/Smithsonian National Design Triennial in New York.
Concerns from the audience addressed the concept of humans being replaced by machines and if robots will ever be able to write poetry. “In the characters lines, you will see”, responded Pinsky, “you will see the opposite being the issue. He’s freeing himself from the mortal machine, the human body, he’s leaving that, he thinks he’s becoming pure spirit. The word ‘robot’ as I understand it is a Czech word which means worker. In that case, we always aspire to get our work done. I don’t think it’s that simple. I do want very much for that story to raise questions.” And surely it will. It’s not the Frankenstein story, Pinsky makes clear.
There’s a specialness about this man who links messages and words, hopes and threats through the generations, from Dickenson to Ginsberg to the postmodernism of today. In his role as editor of Slate, an on-line poetry journal his is more than generous and tolerant of those who push the envelope of contemporary writing. “In the year 2070, if the republic survives”, I asked the poet, “will the Poet Laureate of the United States be propped up by structure or subject?” “My strongest ambition, a hundred years from now, some woman who is studying English in Tanzania, or Uganda, or Belize, or Thailand will chose the same words that I have chosen. And in 2070, the Poet Laureat is not important. It is just a title. But if there is a poet from how I have gotten inspiration….whatever books I’ve read, I’m hoping that the person looks around has feelings for the sound of the words.”
Robert Pinsky moves about the arena of poetry, of words and letters, much like Ali moved about boxing the ring. And poetry, contrary to common opinion, is a bloodsport. Just take a look at the ‘Boston poets’, at Plath and Sexton, at Berryman and the hundreds that flowed in and out of MacLean Hospital or Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, and the depression that all that shit creativity can bring with it. I spent a gritty year or two on an island off the coast of Massachusetts trying on the trade for size. It was a bad fit. Yet Pinsky and I were able were able to connect on the rush of covering campaigns and conventions, he in 2000, me in 2004, and the crazy manic, rush that brings. I don’t play the sax either.
Pinsky is acceptable to the flexing of new writers. Even the ‘slam crowd. It brings them in. It’s a hook. “He is very reluctant to say openly what I know he believes”, said Dr Thorburn. “He’s sort of a public ambassador for poetry. I still don’t approve (of some of the stuff out there) I wish he’d speak out…I tried to make him do it. What I wanted him to say is what I know he believes, which that’s about 40 percent of the poetry that’s being written is terrible evil shit. Nobody can understand it no matter how hard they work on and the pretense that it’s poetry is an offense against the idea of poetry of rational intelligent human beings.”
Mr. Pinsky is yet to go that far, and probably won’t. He's larger than that. Remember his Ode to Meaning:
Or presence ever at play:
Let those scorn you who never
Starved in your dearth. If I
Dare to disparage
Your harp of shadows I taste
Wormwood and motor oil, I pour
Ashes on my head. You are the wound. You
Be the medicine.
I recently came upon an essay he'd crafted sometime back in which he wrote of W.E.B. Dubois and that "DuBois's cadences echo Ralph Waldo Emerson, and behind Emerson the Founders - those Enlightenment landowners and merchants educated in the classics, some of them slaveowners, some of them autodidacts, all of them imperfect idealists. The words American and idea", Mr. Pinsky continued, "make a provocative combination. The United States itself can be considered a partly realized idea."
I'm sure there's an alcove waiting somewhere for a bust of this cool and deep writer. And even though we didn’t get to chat about in detail about Lester Young, it was a gas to catch the laureat, albeit briefly, and in full flight.
"Gulf Music", is Pinsky's most recent volumn of poetry, his seventh.
"Gulf Music", is Pinsky's most recent volumn of poetry, his seventh.