Sunday, April 20, 2008

Robert Pinsky blows his nose

Former Poet Laureate and current Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky recently caused a stir , a small one perhaps, with a column he wrote for the online magazine’s Culturebox department where he offered up a Poetry Frequently Asked Questions. He gave a number of questions it seems the mildly interested have asked him over the years such as why don’t modern poems rhyme, why are they so hard to understand, or why don’t contemporary poets write about politics and current events? The selected questions tip Pinsky’s hand, and his own replies are terse, as he prefers to instead quote a poem at length to clarify his point or contradict an inquisitor’s assertion. The feature read like it was Robert Pinsky giving everyone the rasty raspberry with his version of Frequently Asked Questions, and the sarcasm and condescension of his replies and example poems reflect someone who is tired of being kicked in the groin each Tuesday for his selections. It's time for the poet to move on, or if you prefer, to move forward to other projects where he hasn't such an opinionated readers who are more than willing to flip him the bird and eviscerate his often quizzical selections . Pinsky tipped his hand answering the final question, a one word reply that sums up a few years worth of bottled aggravation:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?


The abuse the former Laureate has received is due more than his idiosyncratic choices; his refusal to engage the criticisms from PoemsFray commentators has put him at a remove. His silence is imperious, detached, reeking of contempt. When he was writing his Washington Post column about poetry, Pinsky could write lucidly , and concisely, on a topic and specific poems, and more than one of us at the PoemsFray had hoped that he would offer prefatory remarks to his weekly selections. Not to give away everything before the poem could be read, but with enough context and insight into style and technique that could well have been a launching point for more varied thinking on the board. But remark he didn't, and from anyone can tell he gritted his teeth , waiting for a chance when he might have his turn at the microphone. Yet even here he pusses out; it's worth remembering that what he presents in Culturebox is what he thinks are the most frequently asked stupid questions that have come his way, queries given him by legions of straw men to whom he gives poems as a way of saying "fuck off". We have, in effect, an editor who really can't understand the resentment he's created, cannot (or will not) talk with the posters, and gives vent to his congested anger in a messy, unsightly spectacle. Yeah, maybe he should go on to the next project, the next appearance on The Colbert Report. The point is that he should probably be someplace other than on Slate.


  1. I disagree- but you know that- I think his choices are as good as any other journal/zine and he doesn't need to explain them to me (who else does that anyway and why do i care?)

    I thought his column was brilliant!

    It's nice to see you BYW- the Fray no longer interests me- you and Maryann are the only ones who have much of value to offer- Whiterabbit- him, too.

  2. Great to see you, shann. You are missed, but you're right, the Fray isn't what it used to be. It's not likely to be close to its hey day again. It is a place for me to sketch out ideas for my blog entries,but the long conversations that actually had worth no longer happen for the most part. Plus SpiderMBA is back, under another name. Your blog is a sweet addition to my links list; your poems are the tops, and your views are knowing and succinct.

    I could well live with Pinsky's choices if he gave some editorial commentary each week, but as it goes he has been silent as stone, and this has , I think, caused a few posters to become gratuitously mean. The FAQ was amusing, yeah, but it strikes me odd that when the quiet one decides to actually let his voice be heard, the subject is at the expense of those who find modern poetry puzzzling. These are the folks he's been trying to convert to becoming poetry readers since he left his former job as Laureate, and I wonder if he did anyone a favor with his basic idea that these folks who don't "get" poetry are dense, dumb, and jerks.

    Rock the podium, shann!!

  3. LOL- well I dunno what he's up to, I had a dream the other night where he winked at me (I put it in the poem) and it was as real as real could be-

    maybe that's why I'm inclined to be kind to him right now-

    did you see where Silliman picked Aram Saroyan's collection for a big PSA prize?? I love it- the old biddies around here are all stirred up!

    (biddy's or biddies?)

  4. I thought the selection was brilliant, in keeping with Silliman's interest in innovative approaches, and with the legacy of WC William's work to make poetic language from the language as it's actually spoken. I have to admit I wasn't exited by the work of Saroyan when I first came across it in the Seventies while a graduate student, but the benefit of living long enough is that you have a chance to change your mind, IE "learn something" after all the urgent absolutes of youth. His minimalism has a pristine authority, and it must be said he was years ahead of the experimental pack on this score. A great choice, and the biddies needed to be shake up a bit.


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