Robert Pinsky


Robert Pinsky was a U.S. Poet Laureate and is the founder of the Favorite Poem Project. He was inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Disting­uished Alumni in 2002.

Eric Antoniou

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate, founder of the Favorite Poem Project, 2002 inductee into the Hall of Distinguished Alumni, and Boston University professor, is the author of Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying With the Masters (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), in which Pinsky RC’62 invites readers to look closely at “monumental examples” of more than 50 poets, from Shakespeare to Dickinson to Ginsberg.

Rutgers Magazine: Who is your intended reader?
ROBERT PINSKY: Someone who values learning from examples rather than precepts, with more autonomy than instruction.

RM: What was your motivation for writing Singing School?
RP: For people who ask “What should I read to learn about poetry?” I tried to put what I know into a compact, challenging, inviting book.

RM: Is the book only about learning to write and read poetry?
RP: As the many references to music and athletics indicate, I hope it is about learning. Also, about “art” in the widest sense, as in the art of pitching or the art of diagnosis.

RM: Where does the title come from?
RP: In “Sailing to Byzantium,” William Butler Yeats says that studying examples of magnificence in an art is the only way to learn that art. A great poem that I first encountered in [the late] Paul Fussell's freshman composition class at Rutgers, and great advice, I think.

RM: Which college did you attend, and in what primary way did it influence your life or work, or both?
RP: Rutgers College, in New Brunswick, was a wonderful place for me. Along with the ethnic vitality of New Jersey, and the valuable spirit of a public university, I had great teachers. I’ve mentioned Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory. Of great importance to me was Francis Fergusson, author of The Idea of a Theater, and one of the very few literary critics I have found worth reading.

RM: Why is reading aloud the poems you include important?
RP: Well, for me, poetry is an art based on the sounds of words. Reading a poem by Emily Dickinson or Allen Ginsberg, I feel why and how one might need to say these words. The actual, physical sensation of saying the words conduces to that end.

RM: In what ways are poets similar to musicians, athletes, and actors?
RP: The spirit masters the body, and the body instructs the spirit to produce what is sometimes called “second nature.”

RM: How does a writer develop his or her “voice”?
RP: Find things you love that are very different from you. Learn them by heart and study them. For example, writing in a different language from yours, or a different time from yours. You hope to inhale the alien magic, which will come out in your own breath.

RM: Why should people have poetry in their lives?
RP: I don’t think people “should” have poetry in their lives—as I don't think people “should” have cuisine beyond nutrition, or love beyond procreation, or dance beyond walking. It’s not a matter of should. As creatures, we love these things, apparently. Manifestly.

RM: It’s been said that a great way to introduce the uninitiated to jazz is have them listen to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. If you were introducing someone to poetry, which work(s) or poet(s) would you suggest?
RP: Singing School is an answer to that question. To choose a couple of poems from it, “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper,” by William Carlos Williams, and “To Earthward,” by Robert Frost.

RM: You write in the preface that the magnificent poems a person studies closely should “thrill” him or her. What do you mean?
RP: Like when you choose what to eat in a restaurant, or when you fall in love with a person, there's a limit to how much you can explain the feeling.

RM: What can aspiring poets learn from Dizzy Gillespie?
RP: As Dizzy says in the useful, wise Paris Review interview I quote, phrasing is essential, and hearing two (or more) rhythms at once requires study. It's not instinct, he says; you need to work at it.

RM: You seem to suggest that mastering poetic form is only half the battle. Is that the case?
RP: “Poetic form” sometimes means something trivial and external, a certain pattern of words, etc. True form, as in sports or music, is the most refined means toward a purpose. Without thought and emotion, the pattern of words is vacuous.

RM: You make reference to The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm as examples of work that has its own creative principals and cadences. Are they, in a way, poetry?
RP: Poetry is an art made from the sounds of words.

RM: Aside from the five senses, do you believe we also have a sixth—imagination?
RP: Memory, too, is a kind of sense.

RM: What’s the value, in your book, of placing Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and Pound’s “The Lake Isle” side by side?
RP: Parody, like kidding and quarreling, can be a form of love.

RM: Does the public read, let alone consider writing, poetry, anymore?
RP: Yes, certainly. For evidence, just look at the videos at

RM: During your tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate, you founded the Favorite Poem Project. For those not acquainted with it, please tell us what it is.
RP: Best answer? Go to and look at the videos: a construction worker reading and commenting on poetry by Walt Whitman; a young Cambodian-American immigrant doing the same with poetry by Langston Hughes; the Jamaican guy reading Plath. Or, buy one of the Favorite Poem Project anthologies from Americans’ Favorite Poems (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999) or An Invitation to Poetry (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004), which comes with a DVD of the videos.