Bill Moyers
October 10, 1999
Poet Robert Pinsky

BILL MOYERS: He is our best known abecedarian. His mission is to arouse our love of language from A to Z. As a kid in New Jersey, he imagined a life in music, but when he gave up the saxophone, America gained a Poet Laureate. I'm Bill Moyers. Join me for the Sounds of Poetry with Robert Pinsky.

Funding credits

Montage of poets' voices

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

Waterloo, New Jersey

ROBERT PINSKY: This poem is 26 words long. It also has marks of punctuation. One of them's an equal sign and I will pronounce it. "A, B, C. Anybody can die evidently. Few go happily irradiating joy, knowledge, love. Most need oblivion, painkillers. Quickest respite. Sweet time unafflicted. Various world. X = your zenith."

PINSKY: I'm an abecedarian — when my mind is sort of on idle, it often goes to the alphabet — giving itself little puzzles to do with the alphabet. And for me, the alphabet is an example of an arbitrary meaning that becomes satisfying. And I think one day I tried to make a sentence with no prepositions or articles — so, I thought anybody can die, evidently. And once you've gone that far, you want to see — anybody can die evidently, few go happily. It becomes irresistible to finish the alphabet, though you know as an experienced abecedarian that around 'X' it's going to get very tricky. That's part of the challenge.

MOYERS: What makes that a poem?

PINSKY: What makes it a poem is the cadences. I hope that as well as going through the alphabet, it has rhythms that make it deserve to be called a poem.

MOYERS: Is it enough for a poem to sound beautiful?

PINSKY: It may not be enough, but it's primary. The first thing is the physical encounter. This is true about any human interest. If you fall in love with a person, kind of cuisine, an animal, a kind of animal or a sport — eventually, you'll analyze it, you'll want to know its history, you'll want to know what the most intelligent people have said about it. But the first thing is — you like to touch the animal, want to eat the food, you want to look at the person, then comes — after that primary experience, then comes intelligence. You know, Ezra Pound says poetry is a centaur. A centaur. Which I take it to mean that in prose you try to fire an arrow and hit a target with the arrow. Poetry you do the same thing, only you're riding a horse at the same time.

PINSKY: I am a frustrated saxophone player. If I could I would abandon all of my books and I would trade it all if I could play the way people I admire play. And I do play with tapes, with electronic sidemen. The saxophone is a very important symbol of culture to me. It was invented by a guy named Adolph Sax. Which makes it a European instrument in its origins, but it is an American instrument, isn't it? Indeed, it is a black American instrument. In this poem in certain passages to emulate the kind of rhythms and harmonies and sounds I wish I could make with the horn.

"Ginza Samba"

A monosyllabic European named Sax invents a horn. [IMITATES HORN]. A kind of twisted brazen clarinet but with its column of vibrating air shaped not in a cylinder, but a cone widening ever outward. Owah.

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, calicoes and slaves, slave laborers and slave girls, two cousins in a royal family of Niger known as the birds or hawks.

In Christendom, one cousin's child becomes a quote, favorite Negro end quote, 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 slave ship to the port of Baltimore where she is raped and dies in childbirth. But the infant will marry a Seminole and in the next course 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 ether, the unimaginable wires and circuits of an ingenious box here in my room in this house built a 100 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, golden bell full 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 harkening instrument of my skull.

MOYERS: Did the world lose a wonderful saxophonist when you became a wonderful poet?

PINSKY: There's no question in my mind at all that the world lost a 4th rate saxophonist when I became a poet.

MOYERS: How did you find your voice as a poet?

PINSKY: I use the expression — find it — literally. When I talk about a poetic voice, I mean the thing that vibrates in my throat here, that I shape with the membranes in my mouth and my teeth. And I believe in physically — we all fall in love with language. Language is a way to communicate with our parents and our peers and get the things we want. And the way you fall in love with a sport or with your own body and the things it can do, with cuisine — we fall in love with our way of expressing ourselves. And you —when in doubt — go back to what sounds good. Go to what feels good.

PINSKY: It's called "Poem with Refrains." The refrains are from the 16th and 17th century English poetry I adore, I love, by people like Thomas Campion and Walter Raleigh and Fulke Greville. They wrote ear candy. They wrote the sweetest, sweetest things you can hear in English. And the story I tell is a story that is painful, kind of smells bad to me. And the refrains are like little nosegays to encourage me through the poem.

"Poem with Refrains" The opening scene. The yellow, cold 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 her 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.

PINSKY: I write with my voice. And as I try out saying — I write with my voice. It was with my voice that I wrote. Writing for me is a matter of the voice. And I get the "F" and the "V." To me, writing is a matter of voice. I think like that. The expression I sometimes use to myself is "actual song." That what I do is somewhere on the line between speaking to you as I am now and actual song. And the things I love when I say one of those poems to myself — it's a little bit like singing, it's a little bit like speaking.

"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.

[Note: See the entire George Peel poem here:]

She sees the minister of the Nation of Islam on television though she's half blind in one eye. His bowtie 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 and the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened.

But when they unveiled her mother's memorial stone, gathered at the grave side 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 passeth striketh with Phoebus' 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."

MOYERS: What is it that makes — that attracts you to a festival like this?

PINSKY: For an American, there's no automatic place where people love the art of poetry. There's not a social class that considers poetry its property the way in some countries there's a snob value to the art. And I'm patriotic about that fact, but it's also nice to get somewhere where the kids and the people my age and the people older than me — everybody I see around me is thinking about the art that I've given my life to. And that's inspiring. That feels good.

STUDENT: I wanted to ask about the difficulty of the poems that you write. You know, a lot of people find them very, very difficult to comprehend and understand. And I wanted to ask if, do you intend for a specific audience? And has your audience changed since you have become the Poet Laureate?

PINSKY: The question is a very cruel question about the tremendous difficulty of some of my poems. I envy you if you ever do write those things that seem simple. lt's a very rare experience for me. I may never have had that experience of saying writing is just like a gesture, like someone says where is it and I go like that, it's over there. Or I see someone I know, recognize, and say oh hiya. I've never written with that oh hi ya, or - back there. For me there's always some sense of what you feel when you're playing a sport or a video game or a crossword puzzle. For me part of the relish of it is - an almost athletic challenge or like the challenge of playing a piece of music that is challenging. So what I hope for in my poems is that they sound beautiful. And that if the person loves the sound of the poem and the feel of the poem, which is primary, gradually more and more meaning may come through.

MOYERS: You said inspiration comes from common places like — shopping malls. Television. Why did you write on television?

PINSKY: I can give a personal answer. When I was a kid there was unhappiness in my family — was dealt with partly by escaping to television. And from a very early age, for whatever reason, I became scornful and resistant to and angry about that. And some other time in my life, I realized that there's a lot I loved in television. Television to me seems a wonderful example of something that, like it or not, we respect. We respect its economic power, its appeal, its magnetism — we respect its ugliness and stupidity. The scam, power of it and, a force as powerful as that, if you live in the islands, you write about the ocean. To ignore it would be peculiar. If you live near a volcano, you're going to write poems about a volcano. This is a powerful thing and I live near it. So, of course I would want to write about it.

"To Television." Pierced chamber. 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

Raster dance, 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, Maybe minutes Before I have to face an audience: behind The doors of the armoire, box inside a box -- Tom & Jerry, or also brilliant And reassuring, Oprah Winfrey.

Thank you, 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, that image -- O strung shell -- enduring Fleeter than light like these words we Remember in: they too are winged At the helmet and ankles.

PINSKY: There are two things you can say about poetry. You don't need a lot of expensive equipment or technology for it. All you need is a human body with a voice inside it or if it didn't have a voice inside it, an imagination inside it. And the other thing about poetry is, there's not a lot of money in it. And that can be beautiful, too. And it's on an individual scale. Poetry is the art of one human voice. And without denigrating arts that are on a mass scale — I love my TV, love my computer and my VCR — there's a craving and satisfaction available in an art that in its nature is on an individual scale.

PINSKY: This poem is really about one human artifact, the word 'Jesus'. Such a powerful word. Such a beautiful word. And also a frightening, terrifying, ugly word for me when I was a child. A word that involved people saying it when they were very angry. People saying well the Jews killed him and you're one. The poem is an attempt at the impossible. The poem is an attempt to take the word out for a spin as though I could drive it. Which I know cannot be done.

"From the Childhood of Jesus" One Saturday morning he went to the river to play. He modeled twelve sparrows out of the river clay

And scooped a clear pond, with a dam of twigs and mud. Around the pond he set the birds he had made,

As evenly as the hours. Jesus was five. He smiled, As a child would who had made a little world

Of clear still water and clay beside a river. But a certain Jew came by, a friend of his father,

And he scolded the child and ran at once to Joseph, Saying, "Come see how your child has profaned the Sabbath,

Making images at the river on the Day of Rest." So Joseph came to the place and took his wrist

And told him, "Child, you have offended the Word." Then Jesus freed the hand that Joseph held

And clapped his hands and shouted to the birds To go away. They raised their beaks at his words

And breathed and stirred their feathers and flew away. The people were frightened. Meanwhile, another boy,

The son of Annas the scribe, had idly taken A branch of driftwood and leaning against it had broken

The dam and muddied the little pond and scattered The twigs and stones. Then Jesus was angry and shouted,

"Unrighteous, impious, ignorant, what did the water Do to harm you? Now you are going to wither

The way a tree does, you shall bear no fruit And no leaves, you shall wither down to the root."

At once, the boy was all withered. His parents moaned, The Jews gasped, Jesus began to leave, then turned

And prophesied, his child's face wet with tears: "Twelve times twelve times twelve thousands of years

Before these heavens and this earth were made, The Creator set a jewel in the throne of God

With Hell on the left and Heaven to the right, The Sanctuary in front, and behind, an endless night

Endlessly fleeing a Torah written in flame. And on that jewel in the throne, God wrote my name."

Then Jesus left and went into Joseph's house. The family of the withered one also left the place,

Carrying him home. The Sabbath was nearly over. By dusk, the Jews were all gone from the river.

Small creatures came from the undergrowth to drink And foraged in the shadows along the bank.

Alone in his cot in Joseph's house, the Son Of Man was crying himself to sleep. The moon

Rose higher, the Jews put out their lights and slept, And all was calm and as it had been, except

In the agitated household of the scribe Annas, And high in the dark, where unknown even to Jesus

The twelve new sparrows flew aimlessly through the night, Not blinking or resting, as if never to alight.

PINSKY: Thank you.

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