It’s not always clear why some things call for a song and others a story. The answer is probably a matter of rhythm, the rhythm of concentration or the rhythm of elaboration, both of them riding the rhythms of language. These are simplifications, of course, but I think they’re useful in relation to the poetry of Robert Pinsky, because one way into his oeuvre is to understand his work as veering back and forth—in the same book, sometimes in the same poem—between singing and storytelling. It’s there early, and continues in his latter-day poetry. Go back, for instance, to “The Want Bone,” which sings of a shark’s jawbone, half-buried on a beach, bleaching and yawning, a figure for desire itself:
The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.
This is highly crafted music designed so that it sounds almost casual. First and third lines rhyme in an innocuous gerund ending, a falling ending. (Innocuous partly because “-ing” endings are so common in English.) Meanwhile, lines two and four don’t rhyme, but do end in a strong stress, a rising ending. The point-counterpoint of these elements—the relationship between rhyme and rhythm—is exact, gorgeous, graceful. Spondee-like effects—stresses in immediate succession, “bone tasted” and “joined arcs” and maybe even “shape kept”—are nestled in a softening wrap of lighter syllables: after “joined arcs” comes the unstressed—to my ear—“made the” that precedes the stress on “shape” which leads the line to resolve into an iambic flow “of birth and craving.”
Which is not to say that when Pinsky chooses to lean into a narrative—often woven of disparate strands in flashes of lyric vertigo—the lines aren’t taut and tight; they are. But a discursive relaxation seeps in. The effect is enchanting. Take “Creole,” in the poet’s newest book, At the Foundling Hospital:
I’m tired of the gods, I’m pious about the ancestors: afloat in
The wake widening behind me in time, those restive devisers.
My father had one job from high school till he got fired at thirty.
The year was 1947 and his boss, planning to run for mayor,
Wanted to hire an Italian veteran, he explained, putting it
In plain English. I was seven years old, my sister was two.
The poem tells its story, about the poet’s father, Milford, and the job he had as an optician, the job he lost, and the career that that loss led to. It’s a story about where the poet comes from, where the poet’s name comes from, a story about what it means to be a mixture of many strands, culturally and genetically and figuratively—Milford, for instance, a Jew named (with a variation) for the great Christian poet Milton. There’s something thrilling about the way the line stretches out and breaks off, the way its “plain English” veers in and out of its supposed subject, digressing without ever digressing, giving us the measure of Pinsky’s sweeping mind as it moves from “the woods” around ancient Rome to “1947” to “Fucking in all senses of the word.” The line is always a musical way of seeing, and Pinsky’s storytelling-line sees the wideness of the world.
These newer poems favor this latter mode, but Pinsky’s singing voice is still prominent too. “Genesis,” for instance, seems to emerge out of a riff or a rhythm: “Where was the kiln, what was the clay?” is followed by “What drove the wheel that turned the vessel?” You can hear it developing as music before you think about its meanings, hear it keeping its form but varying its stresses, so that in the third line we get: “Who started the engine so late at night?” giving way to “Which was the highway across the hills?” This is a tighter line than the line in the poem about Milford, and though it gestures at a story, one of the oldest stories, it sings its inquiry, and leaves behind granular narrativity for the priorities of a sound, a rhythm and a melody and the harmonies of consonant and vowel. Such poetry ratifies and grows out of the intelligence of music.
JESSE NATHAN: What is your relationship to improvisation, in writing your poems? I’m interested in the extent to which they are (or seem) premeditated, versus “writing on nerve” as Frank O’Hara said. I imagine some chemistry of both. What does that mixture look like, for you? Do you do some kind of research before you write? Often your poems have a feeling of fingertip knowledge, as if it’s flowing right off the top of your head…
ROBERT PINSKY: For me, it is all improvisation . . . and hard work. The very word “preparation” freezes me. But let me quote a master. In his 1965 Paris Review interview, Dizzy Gillespie says a few things I have kept in mind all through my writing life. About improvisation he says:
It takes complete concentration. Of course, some nights you’re just complacent. You do some new things, but… you see, there’s thousands of ways to play on any chord. You have to figure it out in a split second and play it at the same time. It’s not instinct. It’s hard!
Not instinct but spontaneous. Immediate but difficult. Those seeming paradoxes, that make great sense to me in poetry, also apply to sports: ten people are running down the court, each person and both teams trying to anticipate what happens next—the person with the ball is hearing all the rhythms at once, and makes a no-look, behind-the-back pass at the right moment without thinking, about it, exactly. It’s more a matter of having thought about it many times before, less and less consciously over time: the decisive moment of action based on experience. As though the body made the well-timed pass, on its own. (Musicians talk about getting a piece “under your fingers.”)
A word that does not freeze me is “practice,” because it means action or actual experience—doing something—in music and in basketball, but also in a legal or medical practice. The point guard works hard in practice with the goal of not needing to think about what needs doing at the game’s crucial moment. It’s not instinct, it’s hard.
I don’t mean to put down anyone who likes to make plans or prepare outlines, as I cannot. There is no one right way to do these things. William Butler Yeats, I’ve read, used to write out in prose what he meant to say in a poem. I couldn’t do that. But Yeats also said about writing poems, “I get a tune in my head,” and I know what he means.
I don’t do systematic research, but all day long every day I hope I might be doing what will someday turn out to be research, just by following my nose, my random curiosities. I like reading. I like learning the words for parts of a window, or a typewriter, or a cat. When I wrote my poem “Shirt,” I already knew about the yoke and the placket. And I had read Eric Hobsbawm’s essay in The Invention of Tradition, where he maintains that the history of the kilt involved capitalist exploitation of conquered peoples. The poem summoned up the research. At its best, even revision has the joy of extemporizing.
My most intense form of practice as I strive for improvisation is paying attention, especially to works of art, especially to great poems. I’ll quote another guideline I take from a master musician, Dexter Gordon, who was asked, “Where do you get your inspiration?”
In response to that question, the first two words out of the great saxophone player’s mouth are, “Lester Young.” Then he names Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington. He remembers the feeling their music gave him, he says, and he’d like to give that feeling to other people. Art inspires art. William Carlos Williams says he memorized Palgrave’s anthology when he was young. Emily Dickinson may have memorized poems by John Keats.
A woman who knew Keats when he was a toddler, just learning to talk, remembered that if an adult spoke to him the child would make up a nonsense-rhyme for the last word he heard, and laugh. Is that a fable about something innate, or about early practice, or a little of both? Whatever it is, I hope to keep a particle of it alive in my practice of poetry.