An Interview With Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky


Evelyn McDonnell: What do you think of the idea of the People’s Poetry Gathering?

Robert Pinsky: The emphasis on vocality appeals to me very much. Poetry is a bodily art for me, or it is nothing.

How do you answer critics who charge that things like the People’s Poetry Gathering, and even your own Favorite Poem Project, are commercial gimmicks that demean the serious business of poetry?

Surely the “serious” art is far too mighty and noble to be damaged by a little vulgarization. Just as the art of poetry in other centuries survived the toadying and
flattering that poets once directed toward ignorant royals and dimwitted nobility. As to commercial gimmicks, do poets object to their publishers taking out ads in newspapers and magazines? Along with some valid resistance to the tarnishing of “gimmicks,” those critics are perhaps unconsciously defending a coterie position? Whether it is avant-garde or academic or ethnic or populist or austere or performative, a broad public presence for poetry dilutes any coterie’s importance.

Do you think there will inevitably be tension between an exclusive institution like the Academy of American Poets and a populist enterprise like the Gathering?

In principle, I don’t think any tension is inevitable, and I don’t think all tension is bad. Is Eugene Redmond talking about Henry Dumas downtown not scholarly? Is high school student Jennifer Liu, uptown, reading Richard Wright’s poem about a lynching not “populist”? The smartest, most gifted artists usually evade or combine or transcend categories and camps.

Poetry has been used in advertising, featured on MTV, and sold on compact discs. Is that good or bad for poetry?

Writing poetry is a very personal, private art. Does performing it in public destroy that? No. Why exaggerate? For me, the culmination of the art is not the poetry reading but any individual reader’s vocal intelligence, in the body, an instrument of the soul. That is primary.

Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Anthology will be published by Norton in the fall.