“When I was walking out of the White House and across the lawn,” said Robert Pinsky, three-time U.S. Poet Laureate, at an informal gathering of about 50 people for the U.S. Embassy’s Distinguished American Speaker program at the home of Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of the United States Mr. Thomas H. Goldberger and his wife Eden Goldberger on Wednesday, February 6, in Herzliya, Israel, “after speaking to former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, I turned to my wife and said, ‘all this because of da-da-da-da-da-da.”
It was this love of sounds, the da-da-da-da-da-da, that inspired Pinsky to write poetry in the first place. The poet is in Israel this week to participate in Kisufim, The Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers and Poets. I went to hear Pinsky talk about poetry and writing and also to hear him read his poems out loud–most of which he read by heart–watching the way he relished the words in what he called “the corporality of poetry.” I could see the reason for Pinsky’s belief that poetry is a vocal art, meant to be read out loud.
“I don’t write a poem,” he said. “I compose a poem. I try out words. I use accidental grunts and make them meaningful. Like music. You don’t study the sheet music first, you listen. From as early as I can remember, when I hear a word, I want to turn it inside out.”
Pinsky founded The Favorite Poem Project to celebrate, document and encourage poetry’s role in Americans’ lives. As part of his project, people–ordinary people, not scholars–read famous, favorite poems in their own voice. “How great is that to hear a Jamaican man reading a Sylvia Plath poem,” he says. Pinsky says he wants to bring “the power of poetry” to people.
“’I remember the feeling that it gave me and I’d like to give other people that feeling,’” Pinsky said, quoting Gordon. Pinsky said that he “can’t remember the time I wasn’t interested in the sound of words…when I hear a word I want to turn it inside out.”
Pinsky spoke about his translation of Dante’s Inferno which has been widely praised. The challenge, Pinsky said, was translating an 11-syllable line of Italian iambic pentameter into an 11-syllable line in English because Italian uses more syllables than English does.
“I became an expert in metrical engineering,” he said with a laugh. “I was something like a trained dog: I knew how to make it move along and sound beautiful.” So “The Inferno” begins:
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita…”
Pinsky translates this:
“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough…”
Pinsky pointed out that the words “era smarrita,” which has five syllables, translates into English bluntly as “was lost.”
“You must inevitably add Styrofoam to the Italian,” Pinsky said, “you have to pad it.” But he added that “right road lost” sounds like a Robert Johnson blues song.
So what’s the best thing for an apprentice poet to do? How does a poet learn to write? How do poems get made? How do we write our best chapter, whether poetry or verse or memoir or song?
“Make your own anthology of poems you love,” he said. “Copy them down. Memorize some if you can. Art comes out of art.”
Here’s a link to some of Pinsky’s poems, including “Samurai Song,” and “A Love of Death.” I’m sharing all this because it seemed crystal clear. How do we transform our art or our lives. Practice, practice, practice. Submerging ourselves in the craft. Studying how it’s done by the masters.
Art comes out of art. We are all apprentices.