The below is an excerpt of Andrew Kuhn’s interview of Robert Pinsky. Full interview text is available in the book How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request.
Robert Pinsky read for the Katonah Poetry Series on April 17, 2016
Andy Kuhn: With such an impressive and impressively large body of work, it’s hard to know where to begin.
It’s conventional to think of the Big Novel (and more parochially the Great American Novel) as the ultimate in literary ambition, but one could argue that when it comes to swinging for the fences (America again) the trajectory of some of your poems soars over any mere narrative project. Some of your poems seem to encompass not just the usual human themes of attachment and disastrous loss, for instance, but the whole laughable, tragic, tenuous place of man in the history of a small planet full of marvels.
“The Hearts” is one astonishing example among many. Anatomy, Enobarbus, Shakespeare, the Buddha, the destruction of the Temple, the seraphim of the Lord, and Lee Andrews and the Hearts circa 1957 vividly surge and mingle in a hallucinatory flood of 29 incantatory three-line stanzas.
You have written a great deal of great poetry since you wrote “The Hearts” (The Want Bone, in which it appeared, came out in 1990). But can you recall how you came to make such a poem, and if you were intentionally staking out a vast territory as the proper domain of poetry (and in particular your own)?
Robert Pinsky: In my late teens I responded deeply to a definition of the epic: “a poem containing history.” So said Ezra Pound, a terrible man who said many good things. I liked the way “containing” can mean not just “including” but “comprehending, mastering, making sense of” the past.
And as a patriotic American I take “history” to be larger than just the doings of rulers and armies: to include, in the example of “The Hearts,” the music of Lee Andrews (recently deceased father of Questlove) along with the Buddha, the Jewish prophets, Antony and Cleopatra: all belonging to whatever heart embraces them, all part of what James Baldwin calls our “birthright” as distinct from our “inheritance.”
So, the poem tries to sing about the eccentric, layered inheritance, as part of one person’s emotional life.
“Sing” is an important word here, I guess. In relation to your question, the novel, with those perfectly rectangular blocks of print, that concern with property and marriage, is an Industrial Revolution form. Poetry is much older than that, as old as song.
(And thank you, Andy, for what you say about the poem. The idea of a wide embrace, and headlong, inclusive music– important to me.)
AK: Among the non-poetry books you’ve written is your extraordinary meditation on the life of the Biblical David (youthful slayer of Goliath, later King David). As a sustained effort to wrest a blessing from the spirit of Jewish history, scripture and myth, the book is extraordinary in its intensity, integrity, and dogged wonder. As poets do when writing successful poetry, you make strange the stories we thought we knew.
How did you come to write this book?
RP: The Life of David is the only book I’ve written at someone else’s suggestion: Jonathan Rosen, a wonderful writer and editor, was starting a series for Nextbook/Schocken of Jewish lives. He invited me to write the first book in the series, about David. I protested that I didn’t have knowledge of the subject, that I had never studied Torah or the Bible, that I knew no Hebrew, that I had left my nominally Orthodox upbringing behind me, long ago, that I practiced no religion.
Jonathan said none of that mattered. This was not a scholarly series, but a series of writers responding to specific lives. (The series went on to include Sherwin Nuland on Maimonides and Douglas Century on Barney Ross.) After declining at first, I couldn’t resist Jonathan’s persistence . . . and, the realization that David’s life is maybe the most remarkable, many-sided one ever lived or made up. A great killer, a great poet, a trickster and a lover, a king and an outlaw, etc.