The following interview originally appeared in 1998 in The Cortland Review during J.M. Spalding's term as Editor-in-Chief.
J.M. Spalding: Why poetry, why not a musician or rock star?
Robert Pinsky: If I could play the horn like Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon, it would be tempting indeed to trade poetry for it. But the thrill I get from certain poems by Yeats or Ben Jonson or Dickinson or Cavafy—I like rock, but I've never gotten a thrill like that from it. In truth, no art has thrilled me quite as much as certain poems have. And why not try to emulate what has seemed the greatest to you, for you.
J.M. Spalding: When did you know that being a poet was something that you wanted to spend your life doing?
Robert Pinsky: Sometime in my late teens or very early twenties.
J.M. Spalding: How did you begin as a poet?
Robert Pinsky: One answer might be "Imitating Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Frost, Eliot." Another might be "Reading the dictionary and daydreaming about the sounds of words when I was a kid." Another might be "Liking entertaining people when playing the saxophone as a teenager."
J.M. Spalding: Eliot's The Waste Land—a poem I'm quite sure you're familiar with—what do you think of it?
Robert Pinsky: A great, personal poem once mistaken for a work about large historical and cultural materials.
J.M. Spalding: Poets are sometimes liked for their work but despised for their views. Clearly there are those who dislike Eliot for his anti-Semitism, Pound and Kerouac for their political views. In your opinion, can one truly like the poetry but not the poet?
Robert Pinsky: Maybe. Probably. But the limitations of all three of those artistsas artists—members of America's provincial upper-middle class, who warred with that class's attitudes while embracing them—are deeply related to the meanminded aspects of their social and political attitudes. Wouldn't Pound be a greater writer if he had attained something more like Joyce's complex humanism, for instance? Wouldn't Kerouac have more depth as a writer if he had managed deeper views of American politics and culture?
J.M. Spalding: What was your initial reaction to being named United States Poet Laureate?
Robert Pinsky: After the initial feelings of pleasure at the honor and fear at the work (I knew how much energy Bob Hass and Rita Dove had expended), I mused a little about the title itself: I had always preferred "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress" as more dignified and nobly American. But "Poet Laureate" has magnetic connotations for people, too.
J.M. Spalding: What is the most enjoyable thing about being Poet Laureate?
Robert Pinsky: The responses to the Favorite Poem Project have been various, enthusiastic and moving beyond expectation.
J.M. Spalding: What do you want to do when your term as Poet Laureate expires?
Robert Pinsky: Keep writing, keep enjoying my family. Maybe spend a little more time on music.
J.M. Spalding: What inspired you to translate the Inferno?
Robert Pinsky: It was an accident, an assignment to do one Canto for a group project.
J.M. Spalding: What text did you use?
Robert Pinsky: My main text was the Singleton en face in the Bollingen edition, with Singleton's wonderful notes. And I had much recourse to other translations (Sinclair, Musa, Mandelbaum, Binyon, Longfellow) as trots and consultants.
J.M. Spalding: When you sit down to write, what kind of setting do you have? Are there any objects that you keep around you?
Robert Pinsky: I don't care about all that.
J.M. Spalding: Who is the biggest critic of your writing?
Robert Pinsky: I am. Friends like Frank Bidart and Louise Gluck help, as does my wife and many other friends, but the main and most fearsome and important critic is the author.
J.M. Spalding: If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have three books and three music recordings, which would they be?
Robert Pinsky: Ulysses, Paradise Lost, The Complete Works of Ben Jonson. Toscanini, Parker, and Ellington boxed sets.
J.M. Spalding: If you were stuck on a desert island with Rod McKuen, what would you do?
Robert Pinsky: I'd ask him to tell me his candid, unexpurgated memoirs of people like Auden, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton. I imagine that the gossip would be spectacularly entertaining.
J.M. Spalding: What is the current status of poetry in America today?
Robert Pinsky: "Status" or "state"? Both seem amazingly high. As to the status of it, people are nearly pious about it, often, even though practice of it is uneven. As to the state of poetry's practice, writers like Frank Bidart, Louis Glück, James McMichael, Mark Strand, C.K. Williams, and Anne Winters have produced amazing work, despite the deplorable state of much reviewing and of much academic criticism.