Dying --- 11 Poems of Robert Pinsky and an Interview
By Robert Pinsky
Nothing to be said about it, and everything ---
The change of changes, closer or further away:
The Golden Retriever next door, Gussie, is dead,
Like Sandy, the Cocker Spaniel from three doors down
Who died when I was small; and every day
Things that were in my memory fade and die.
Phrases die out: first, everyone forgets
What doornails are; then after certain decades
As a dead metaphor, "dead as a doornail" flickers
And fades away. But someone I know is dying ---
And though one might say glibly, "everyone is,"
The different pace make the difference absolute.
The tiny invisible spores in the air we breathe,
That settle harmlessly on our drinking water
And on our skin, happen to come together
With certain conditions on the forest floor,
Or even a shady corner of the lawn ---
And overnight the fleshy, pale stalks gather,
The colorless growth without a leaf or flower;
And around the stalks, the summer grass keeps growing
With steady pressure, like the insistent whiskers
That grow between shaves on a face, the nails
Growing and dying from the toes and fingers
At their own humble pace, oblivious
As the nerveless moths, that live their night or two ---
Though like a moth a bright soul keeps on beating,
Bored and impatient in the monster's mouth.
From Essay on Psychiatrists
XIV. Their speech, compared with wisdom and poetry
By Robert Pinsky
Terms of all kinds mellow with time, growing
arbitrary and rich as we call this man "neurotic"
Or that man "a peacock." The lore of psychiatrists ---
"Paranoid", "Anal" and so on, if they still use
Such terms --- also passes into the status of old sayings:
Water thinner than blood or under bridges; bridges
Crossed in the future or burnt in the past. Or the terms
Of myth, the phrases that well up in my mind:
Two blind women and a blind little boy, running ---
Easier to cut thin air into planks with a saw
And then drive nails into those planks of air,
Than to evade those three, the blind harriers,
The tireless blind women and the blind boy, pursuing
For long years of my life, for long centuries of time.
Concerning Justice, Fortune and Love
There may be wisdom, but no science and few terms:
Blind, and blinding too. Hot in pursuit and flight,
Justice, Fortune and Love demand the arts
Of knowing and naming: and, yes, the psychiatrists, too,
Patiently naming them. But all in pursuit and flight, two
Blind women, tireless, and the blind little boy.
By Robert Pinsky
". . . our language, forged in the dark by centuries of violent
pressure, underground, out of the stuff of dead life."
Thirsty and languorous after their long black sleep
The old gods crooned and shuffled and shook their heads.
Dry, dry. By railroad they set out
Across the desert of stars to drink the world
Our mouths had soaked
In the strange sentences we made
While they were asleep: a pollen-tinted
Slurry of passion and lapsed
Intention, whose imagined
Taste made the savage deities hiss and snort.
In the lightless carriages, a smell of snake
And coarse fur, glands of lymphless breath
And ichor, the avid stenches of
Their long train clicked and sighed
Through the gulfs of night between the planets
And came down through the evening fog
Of redwood canyons. From the train
At sunset, fiery warehouse windows
Along a wharf. Then dusk, a gash of neon:
Bar. Black pinewoods, a junction crossing, glimpses
Of sluggish surf among the rocks, a moan
Of dreamy forgotten divinity calling and fading
Against the windows of a town. Inside
The train, a flash
Of dragonfly wings, an antlered brow.
Black night again, and then
After the bridge, a palace on the water:
The great Refinery--impossible city of lights,
A million bulbs tracing its turreted
Boulevards and mazes. The castle of a person
Pronounced alive, the Corporation: a fictional
Lord real in law.
Barbicans and torches
Along the siding where the engine slows
At the central tanks, a ward
Of steel palisades, valved and chandeliered.
The muttering gods
Greedily penetrate those bright pavilions--
Libation of Benzene, Naphthalene, Asphalt,
Gasoline, Tar: syllables
Fractioned and cracked from unarticulated
Crude, the smeared keep of life that fed
On itself in pitchy darkness when the gods
Were new--inedible, volatile
And sublimated afresh to sting
Our tongues who use it, refined from oil of stone.
The gods batten on the vats, and drink up
Lovecries and memorized Chaucer, lines from movies
And songs hoarded in mortmain: exiles' charms,
The basal or desperate distillates of breath
Steeped, brewed and spent
As though we were their aphids, or their bees,
That monstered up sweetness for them while they dozed.
-------------------Ode to Meaning
By Robert Pinsky
Dire one and desired one,
In an old allegory you would carry
A chained alphabet of tokens:
Ankh Badge Cross.
Engraved figure guarding a hallowed intaglio,
Jasper kinema of legendary Mind,
Naked omphalos pierced
By quills of rhyme or sense, torah-like: unborn
Vein of will, xenophile
Yearning out of Zero.
Untrusting I court you. Wavering
I seek your face, I read
That Crusoe's knife
Reeked of you, that to defile you
The soldier makes the rabbi spit on the torah.
"I'll drown my book" says Shakespeare.
Drowned walker, revenant.
After my mother fell on her head, she became
More than ever your sworn enemy. She spoke
Sometimes like a poet or critic of forty years later.
Or she spoke of the world as Thersites spoke of the heroes,
"I think they have swallowed one another. I
Would laugh at that miracle."
You also in the laughter, warrior angel:
Your helmet the zodiac, rocket-plumed
Your spear the beggar's finger pointing to the mouth
Your heel planted on the serpent Formulation
Your face a vapor, the wreath of cigarette smoke crowning
Bogart as he winces through it.
You not in the words, not even
Between the words, but a torsion,
A cleavage, a stirring.
You stirring even in the arctic ice,
Even at the dark ocean floor, even
In the cellular flesh of a stone.
Gas. Gossamer. My poker friends
Question your presence
In a poem by me, passing the magazine
One to another.
Not the stone and not the words, you
Like a veil over Arthur's headstone,
The passage from Proverbs he chose
While he was too ill to teach
And still well enough to read, I was
Beside the master craftsman
Delighting him day after day, ever
At play in his presence--you
A soothing veil of distraction playing over
Dying Arthur playing in the hospital,
Thumbing the Bible, fuzzy from medication,
Ever courting your presence,
And you the prognosis,
You in the cough.
Gesturer, when is your spur, your cloud?
You in the airport rituals of greeting and parting.
Indicter, who is your claimant?
Bell at the gate. Spiderweb iron bridge.
Cloak, video, aroma, rue, what is your
Elected silence, where was your seed?
What is Imagination
But your lost child born to give birth to you?
Dire one. Desired one.
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.
Poem with RefrainsBy Robert Pinsky
The opening scene. The yellow, coal-fed fog
Uncurling over the tainted city river,
A young girl rowing and her anxious father
Scavenging for corpses. Funeral meats. The clever
Abandoned orphan. The great athletic killer
Sulking in his tent. As though all stories began
With someone dying.
When her mother died,
My mother refused to attend the funeral--
In fact, she sulked in her tent all through the year
Of the old lady's dying. I don't know why:
She said, because she loved her mother so much
She couldn't bear to see the way the doctors,
Or her father, or--someone--was letting her mother die.
"Follow your saint, follow with accents sweet;
Haste you, sad notes, fall at her flying feet."
She fogs things up, she scavenges the taint.
Possibly that's the reason I write these poems.
But they did speak: on the phone. Wept and argued,
So fiercely one or the other often cut off
A sentence by hanging up in rage--like lovers,
But all that year she never saw her face.
They lived on the same block, four doors apart.
"Absence my presence is; strangeness my grace;
With them that walk against me is my sun."
"Synagogue" is a word I never heard,
We called it shul, the Yiddish word for school.
Elms, terra-cotta, the ocean a few blocks east.
"Lay institution": she taught me we didn't think
God lived in it. The rabbi is just a teacher.
But what about the hereditary priests,
Descendants of the Cohanes of the Temple,
Like Walter Holtz--I called him Uncle Walter,
When I was small. A big man with a face
Just like a boxer dog or a cartoon sergeant.
She told me whenever he helped a pretty woman
Try on a shoe in his store, he'd touch her calf
And ask her, "How does that feel?" I was too little
To get the point but pretended to understand.
"Desire, be steady; hope is your delight,
An orb wherein no creature can ever be sorry."
She didn't go to my bar mitzvah, either.
I can't say why: she was there, and then she wasn't.
I looked around before I mounted the steps
To chant that babble and the speech the rabbi wrote
And there she wasn't, and there was Uncle Walter
The Cohane frowning with his doggy face:
"She's missing her own son's musaf." Maybe she just
Doesn't like rituals. Afterwards, she had a reason
I don't remember. I wasn't upset: the truth
Is, I had decided to be the clever orphan
Some time before. By now, it's all a myth.
What is a myth but something that seems to happen
Always for the first time over and over again?
And ten years later, she missed my brother's, too.
I'm sorry: I think it was something about a hat.
"Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair;
Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me."
She sees the minister of the Nation of Islam
On television, though she's half-blind in one eye.
His bow tie is lime, his jacket crocodile green.
Vigorously he denounces the Jews who traded in slaves,
The Jews who run the newspapers and the banks.
"I see what this guy is mad about now," she says,
"It must have been some Jew that sold him the suit."
"And the same wind sang and the same wave whitened,
And or ever the garden's last petals were shed,
In the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened."
But when they unveiled her mother's memorial stone,
Gathered at the graveside one year after the death,
According to custom, while we were standing around
About to begin the prayers, her car appeared.
It was a black car; the ground was deep in snow.
My mother got out and walked toward us, across
The field of gravestones capped with snow, her coat
Black as the car, and they waited to start the prayers
Until she arrived. I think she enjoyed the drama.
I can't remember if she prayed or not,
But that may be the way I'll remember her best:
Dark figure, awaited, attended, aware, apart.
"The present time upon time passëd striketh;
With Phoebus's wandering course the earth is graced.
The air still moves, and by its moving, cleareth;
The fire up ascends, and planets feedeth;
The water passeth on, and all lets weareth;
The earth stands still, yet change of changes breedeth."
To TelevisionBy Robert Pinsky
Not a "window on the world"
But as we call you,
A box a tube
Terrarium of dreams and wonders.
Coffer of shades, ordained
Cotillion of phosphors
Or liquid crystal
Homey miracle, tub
Of acquiescence, vein of defiance.
Your patron in the pantheon would be Hermes
Quick one, little thief, escort
Of the dying and comfort of the sick,
In a blue glow my father and little sister sat
Snuggled in one chair watching you
Their wife and mother was sick in the head
I scorned you and them as I scorned so much
Now I like you best in a hotel room,
Before I have to face an audience: behind
The doors of the armoire, box
Within a box--Tom & Jerry, or also brilliant
And reassuring, Oprah Winfrey.
Thank you, for I watched, I watched
Sid Caesar speaking French and Japanese not
Through knowledge but imagination,
His quickness, and Thank You, I watched live
Jackie Robinson stealing
Home, the image--O strung shell--enduring
Fleeter than light like these words we
Remember in, they too winged
At the helmet and ankles.
Veni, Creator Spiritus
Blessed is He who came to Earth as a Bull
And ravished our virgin mother and ran with her
Astride his back across the plains and mountains
Of the whole world. And when He came to Ocean,
He swam across with our mother on his back.
And in His wake the peoples of the world
Sailed trafficking in salt, oil, slaves and opal.
Hallowed be His name, who blesses the nations:
From the Middle Kingdom, gunpowder and Confucius.
From Europe, Dante and the Middle Passage.
Shiva is His lieutenant, and by His commandment
Odysseus brought the palm tree to California,
Tea to the Britains, opium to the Cantonese.
Horses, tobacco, tomatoes and gonorrhea
Coursed by His will between Old Worlds and New.
In the Old Market where children once were sold,
Pirated music and movies in every tongue,
Defying borders as Algebra trans-migrated
From Babylon to Egypt. At His beck
Empire gathers, diffuses, and in time disperses
Into the smoky Romance of its name.
And after the great defeat in Sicily
When thousands of Athenians were butchered
Down in the terrible quarries, and many were bound
And branded on the face with a horse's head
Meaning this man is a slave, a few were spared
Because they could recite new choruses
By the tragedian Euripides, whose works
And fame had reached to Sicily-as willed
By the Holy One who loves blood sacrifice
And burnt offerings, commerce and the arts.
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. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes--
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers--
Like Hart Crane's Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning."
Wonderful how the patern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone
Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinitely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In Sax's Belgian imagination
And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two
Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin's child
Becomes a "favorite negro" ennobled
By decree of the Czar and founds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife's honor, while the other cousin sails
In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing
His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths--the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:
It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face--the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.
From 'An Explanation of America'
Mr. Pinsky introduced this final passage from his book-length poem "An Explanation of America," by saying it tracks the growth of a daughter from ages 8 to 11. The father is a professor at a women's college, and she plays a part in a production of The Winter's Tale.
"... The Founders made
A Union mystic yet rational, and sudden,
As if suckled by the very wolf of Rome ...
Indentured paupers and criminals grew rich
Trading tobacco; molasses; cotton; and slaves
With names like horses, or from Scott or Plutarch.
In the mills, there was every kind of name,
With even "Yankee" a kind of jankel or Dutchman.
The Yankees pulled stones from the earth, to farm,
And when the glacial boulders were piled high,
Skilled masons came from Parma and Piacenza
And settled on Division Street and Oak Street
And on the narrow side streets between them. In winter,
Mr. Diehl hired Italian boys to help
Harvest the ice from Diehl's Pond onto sledges
And pack it into icehouses, where it kept
To be cut and delivered all summer long.
The Linden Apartments stand where Diehl's Pond was;
But even when I was little, the iceman came
To houses that had iceboxes, and we could beg
Splinters to suck, or maybe even a ride,
Sitting on wet floorboards and steaming tarps
As far as Saint Andrew's, or the V.F.W.
The Eagles, Elks, Moose, Masons each had a building:
I pictured them like illustrations from Alice.
As television came in, the lodges faded,
But people began to group together by hobbies,
Each hobby with its magazines and clubs;
My father still played baseball twice a week;
And even after you were born, the schools
And colleges were places set apart,
As of another time; and one time you
Performed in The Winter's Tale.
And at the end,
As people applauded louder and louder, you
Stood with young girls who wore gray wigs and beards,
All smiling and holding hands -- as if the Tale
Had not been sad at all, or was all a dream,
And winter was elsewhere, howling on the mountains
Unthinkably old and huge and far away --
At the far opposite edge of our whole country,
So large, and strangely broken, and unforseen."
On "Eve Tempted by the Serpent" by Defendente Ferrari, and in Memory of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas
By Robert Pinsky
Rare spirit remembered with a pang
Of half forgotten clarity or density
A quality, quilled, a learned freshness
Unshattered though not perfect not Eden
No rippled meander through new islands
The parentless leaves and branches tender
The green marsh the blue the white feet
Of our adolescent mother, myth of
Perfection painted just before unperfecting
Itself as if by impulse nor have we any idea
Where bright spirits are culled from, our
Admiration is a form of self exculpation--
Who is this strange bird we say as if that
Excellence were accident as in the documentary
About a guady parrot escapee from
Some domestic cage into azure margins
Of California with its green wing and crest
It joined a band of crows flew with them
Fed with them conducted itself as one brilliant
Crow accepted by them we prefer that to this other
Realized soul excellence eloquence made of our
Same eggs and flowers and waters plumed
As we are no scaly or feathered exception
Immune to that first of all Aprils where
The serpent spiraled in his tree petal-skinned
Has a man's head bignosed bearded
Stuck onto the tube of body already
Limbless old partner helpless knowing
Beholder leering full of our childish
Legend of our imperfection we fell
And not that she made it look difficult
Or easy but possible and we fall
Brief Biography of Poet
He began his artistic career as a saxophone player, but Robert Pinsky switched to poetry in college. Even as a child, "I enjoyed reading things that I couldn't understand. I liked the smoky atmosphere and haze of reading something too old for me or simply opaque. I liked the mystery of it and figuring it out."
As a poet, he seeks out the challenge of writing in an unusually public voice, conjuring "the way people spoke and the manners they had when I was a child in a largely black, working class neighborhood. I like thinking of them as part a continuum with people who have read a lot of books. In my work I've struggled to understand history not as the long-ago doings of kings and powerful people but as a kind of force, visible and sometimes subterranean, in everything people do."
Pinsky began his heralded 1995 translation of Dante's "Inferno" when he was asked to translate just one canto and couldn't stop. "I always feel most relaxed and comfortable doing something that seems unlikely and that I'm not prepared for or expected to shine at. I was always the kid who preferred the pop quiz. Thinking about trying something impossible makes me feel light-hearted."
An Interview (Source: http://www.poems.com/pinskint.htm)
An Interview with Robert Pinsky[The following interview originally appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of Meridian, a new journal at the University of Virginia, and is reprinted by permission of the editor.]
Robert Pinsky is the Poet Laureate of the United States. A renowned poet, critic, and translator, his most recent books are The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 (Noonday, 1996) and his translation of Dante's Inferno (Noonday, 1994), which received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.
The following interview was conducted by phone. Pinsky, at his home in Boston, was finishing a photo-shoot. Midway through the interview, we were briefly interrupted as Pinsky showed the photographers out. The break has been included here because of the shift in mood it illustrates. Pinsky was allowed to talk about the pressures of his office as well as his hopes, long enough to permit us to glimpse the man behind the post.
— Ted Genoways, Meridian
How did you find out you had been named Poet Laureate?
I came home from giving a poetry reading, and there were three messages on my answering machine from the Library of Congress. I thought it probably wasn't an overdue book. [laughs]
One of the things the Library of Congress mentioned that appealed to them was your effort to make poetry accessible to a broader audience by putting it on-line and seeing the web as an asset rather than a liability.
Like print and writing, the computer is just a kind of representation of what is the actual medium of poetry, which is the human voice. I'm the poetry editor of a weekly magazine published on the web by Microsoft; the magazine is called Slate. We have a poem in Slate every week and readers can click on the poem and hear it read aloud. There's a lot of poetry on the web.
What would you say to the people who complain that there's no system on the web for people to divide what's good from bad beyond their own critical faculties?
I think that's true, but it's also true when you walk into Grolier Poetry Bookshop [in Boston]. It's also true when you pick up a literary magazine. I don't think there's any guarantee of quality.
Another thing the Library of Congress cited was your other work in poetry. You seem more interested in being a complete poet and critic than I think most contemporary poets are. I think it was The Nation that drew the comparison to Robert Lowell. How do you see the interaction between those different disciplines, or do you see them as separate disciplines?
I grew up with the idea that to practice an art was to be involved in every part of it and to try to involve art in every part of life. I never took a creative writing course, so I don't have a creative writing degree. I never specialized in an academic way. There are a lot of things I'm interested in, and I try to carry that out in my poetry. The generation of T.S. Eliot and people influenced by Eliot, I think those people as a matter of course wrote in many different forms, were interested in translation, and it's never occurred to me to be any other way.
How would you remedy what seems to be a growing distance between the writer — as artist — and the critic?
William Butler Yeats says, "Nor is there singing school but studying / monuments of its own magnificence" [in "Sailing to Byzantium"]. That is, there's no way to learn to be better or to learn to do an art other than to study monumental examples of the art. Ezra Pound says, "The highest form of criticism is actual composition." That is, the poet must choose — the word "critic" is based on "krinos," which means "to choose" — and critics today get away with not choosing or not selecting but a poet every moment must choose: whether to use a long word or a short one, this adjective or that one or none. This constant process of criticism is part of the work of composition.
Is it a spider's web in that way?
Everything breaks off from the matrix; the decisions may not be conscious ones, but one is choosing at all times. With each step tens of thousands of new possibilites appear.
Which has implications especially in translation, because it's not only your own intentions you're trying to forward but also someone else's.
Yes, it's interesting.
Especially because you, in your introduction to Dante's Inferno, and John Ciardi [in the introduction to his 1954 translation] say almost identical things about the limitations of rhyme in English but come to the opposite conclusion. Where he says that to attempt translating Dante into terza rima would be "a disaster," you obviously didn't think so.
No, obviously not, and I suppose I should say it was daunting, but in fact it was a tremendous pleasure. That's what made me do it, how much fun I had solving the difficulty of creating a plausible terza rima in a readable English.
You employ a lot of unusual word combinations, similar to Old English kennings. For example, from the beginning of Canto XIII: "The leaves not green, earth-hued; / The boughs not smooth, knotted and crooked-forked."
Yes, it's so much fun to use all those Germanic roots, particularly when you're translating from a Romance language. Walter Benjamin says a wonderful thing about translation, that a restrung translation "records the change in the new language," brought about by the work that's being brought into it. I'm partly trying to record the impact upon English of The Inferno.
And it must not only have an impact upon English, but also upon your poetry.
Well, translating is a wonderful form of reading; it may be the most intense form of reading, and whenever you read a great work, it's going to affect your own work. I think working on this translation brought me a new intimacy with and appreciation of the physicality of poetry. Dante is so tactile, so sensuous a writer, and trying to get some of those effects in a parallel way or a simulacrum or an equivalent way in English gave me a heightened sense of the importance of physical sounds, like going to all those Germanic roots or the Old English roots in the passage you mentioned.
And I've noticed some of those appearing in the new poems in The Figured Wheel...
Yes, I think so, and...wait, excuse me a minute. [A brief pause] Excuse me, I had some photographers here.
It's all right; I'm sure your schedule must be constrained at all times.
Well, I do find that everything has to be written down, so it doesn't get completely crazy. Some guys were here taking my picture; I thought they were going to be gone when you called. They were finished, but they were still packing up.
You must have far more requests than you can handle. How do you make those decisions?
It's a great question. There are some things that just seem, to use my booking agent's expression — he will say, "This is just a good Poet Laureate thing to do." There will be some things that just seem as though this is what the post was created for, something that involves encouraging somebody who's doing a very good job, bringing poetry into schools or something where you what to enourage and support something that's very worthy. And sometimes it's a personal connection. Or if it's something that seems to involve some national thing, like I was invited to go to the birthday party of Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution here in Boston, which happens to be a ship that was saved by a poem. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that poem [after a newspaper article in 1830 proposed dismantling the ship], and it seemed like that was something one ought to do.
A few years ago, Rita Dove did a lot to help redefine what a Laureate "ought to do." How do you think the role of the Laureate has changed?
I think it has changed in response to the change in the times. I think that there's been a notable upsurge of interest in poetry and the practice of poetry, and in response to that change in the culture the office of Laureate in a typically American way has sort of improvised itself into something somewhat different.
So what are you hoping will be your trademark or your legacy?
I have a project that I hope to complete, which is to create an audio and video archive of many, many Americans saying aloud a poem that person loves. I hope to have a very wide range of regional accents, a range of ages, professions, kinds of education, and it will not concentrate on poets or critics or experts. The idea will be to establish a record at the millenium of the life of poetry in the United States, outside of any professional microcosm of poetry. This project will be sponsored by the Library of Congress, as part of their bicentennial celebration, and I hope it will also be part of the country's millenial celebration.