Robert Pinsky is an American poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. From 1997 – 2000, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Pinsky is the author of nineteen books, most of which are collections of his own poetry. His published work also includes critically acclaimed translations, including a collection of poems by Czeslaw Milosz and Dante Alighieri.His honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, both the William Carlos Williams Award and the Shelley Memorial prize from the Poetry Society of America, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate. Pinsky has taught at both Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Question: Is hip-hop poetry?
Robert Pinsky: I don’t, I am not interested in making real strict lines about what is poetry and what isn’t poetry, for me a crucial thing about poetry, as it means the most to me, is that it is written for anybody’s voice in a culture in which we worship performance. Which performance is our aristocracy, much better than the old aristocracy, much better to idolize somebody because they can throw ball like hell or run like hell because they are beautiful and sing wonderfully or dance wonderfully than because their the great great great grandson of some of some big shot much better, but we do worship it and here is an ancient art, it is based on the reader’s voice. That’s one reason the favorite poem project is so important to me. If some kid comes to poetry in that sense through performance of course that’s a very natural and it’s very natural that at first you do things that ape what is so powerful in the culture. You imitate what is being turned out very very effectively and very powerfully and I think performances can be great art. I just make a distinction between an art in which the medium is the audience’s body. When I said that Ben Johnson poem to you or say the Landor poem to you when I say: On love, on grief, on everything human thing, time sprinkles Lethe’sWater with his wing It’s not like an amateur singing tune by the real pop artist. That’s the combination of work of art. It’s when someone other than the artist gives voice to it and that’s different. It’s different than performance and both can be stupid. Both can be great art, but I do make a distinction between the art of the performer and the art of the poet. I don’t write poetry readings. If I give one I try not to be boring, but I write poems. I write with my voice for your voice.
Recorded On: 3/25/08
Robert Pinsky: I think skepticism toward things like titles, good reviews, what the world calls distinctions, recognitions, can become mechanical, but it’s a good armor too.