How Do You Compose?
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: How do you compose poetry?
Robert Pinsky: For me it has to be the sounds. For me there is a constant sort of flood of ideas and perceptions and you are not writing a poem until you manage to slow the flood down or shape a little bit by thinking of what’s flood backwards. Duffle what is it inside out? fold? So you unfold whatever has been cramped into the duffle bag of your consciousness blah blah. So it’s like noodling at a piano or smooshing paint around or I suppose a carver widdling or just getting the clay and the table clicking about how you or do response to different shapes that you make your hands into. So it starts very much with a physical sense of the language though you hope and starts with a kind of a very short easy way to say. You hope something that started in emotion. Something your heart or some thought you have had. You didn’t know who is starting upon. You don’t feel like you are making a work of art until you have the physical materials there. So someone’s painting or someone’s Jescarf [phonetic] or an actress performance starts with the position of the body or particular circumstance or particular tune. That’s when the work of art starts that the emotion, the ideas may have started when you are three years old.
Question: What do you do next?
Robert Pinsky: You write with your breath then your ear, so if you go back in the silly duffle bag palm you fiddle with it and you think why should fiddle mean a word than it’s just something aimless. Woofer said about near other fiddled burned. Is there any historical reality and where are those double "ff" words affable ineffable and then you go back to what you actually want talk about and it turns out to be yes, so what if so why does any of this matter and you say “well there is something about work and fiddling.” It sounds like its not serious work. It’s moving serious work. It’s said to be the most brutal of all the trades. It’s dangerous. They are always very hot or very cold. The material themselves compared to wood that you are framing with or plaster on your dry wall and the materials are kind of obdurate and ugly and in a way it’s a simple of civilization. What’s civilization? Duffle. The roof of a civil when he asked me if he can use the bathroom. I tried to be then yeah. So you are thinking vaguely about work and you are thinking vaguely about this befuddling set of consonants and vowels and you are hoping that between work, roofing and fiddling you might say a sentence where aligned that actually sounds meaningful and beautiful to you.
Question: How do you know when a poem is done?
Robert Pinsky: You run your hand over it if you are sandpapering and you play it in tempo with the cords in your left hand putting the base and you trace the harmony. It’s physical to say the poem aloud. Sometimes you try to say it yourself when the light is out you really go to sleep and if you come to part you can do you turn the light on. Ask yourself is that a part I can better. So it’s you try it on just like if you have made an airplane.
Recorded On: 3/25/08
The former Poet Laureate describes how he knows a poem is finished.
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