new england writers at work

Sound is part of the process for Robert Pinsky

Poet laureate emeritus Robert Pinsky.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
Poet laureate emeritus Robert Pinsky.

When I arrived at poet laureate emeritus Robert Pinsky’s Cambridge home, he greeted me with the poem that appears here. It was inspired by that morning’s Globe commemorating the day before the JFK assassination; it took him about 20 minutes to write.

But then, Pinsky has had a lot of practice: He published his first collection, “Sadness and Happiness,” in 1975. Since then, in addition to his 1997-2000 tenure as America’s official bard — during which time he began recruiting regular readers to submit verse for his Favorite Poem Project — he has published eight more poetry collections, six works of prose, a libretto, and a record called “PoemJazz.”

He writes in a book-lined office filled with knickknacks, family photos, and baseball memorabilia.


MAKING IT LOOK EASY: I play my keyboard [throughout the day] for just a little bit [at a time], to clear my head. When musicians are improvising or athletes are playing, it seems very fluid and intuitive. In a way, it’s without thought, but that appearance or feeling of being without thought — being second-nature, as we say — that feeling is the product of a lot of practice, a lot of thought, and a lot of close attention to what seems to be happening very quickly. The way somebody might be improvising on a keyboard or with a ball, dribbling and getting the rhythm before you shoot a basket [has] a strong element of the physical, and it seems almost like chance. You dribble the ball a certain number of times before you fake left, then you make a jump shot. You’re all by yourself, and you’re imagining an opponent guarding you, and you’re just doing it. When things are going right, you can’t say whether it’s premeditated or automatic — it’s all of the above.

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A BEAT YOU CAN WRITE TO: You’re not writing a poem until you’re putting sounds together to hear a sentence, and that can happen almost anywhere. The tune of the sentence, the pitch pattern of the sentence, the cadence of the sentence, the kinds of harmony and disharmony of the vowels and the consonants — all of that comes together to make it feel like you maybe have a chance to make a work of art.

JUST LIKE I TOLLED YOU: A poet friend bought me the jawbone of a shark that wound up becoming the title poem of a book. I don’t have the kind of mind where I think immediately, “I’m going to write a poem about a shark bone,” but all the associations you have with everything are waiting for you. Take [the first line of “The Want Bone]: “The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth’s bell.” Tolled is interesting because it sounds like, “I told you a story.” To tell is to count. You’re not necessarily thinking about that, but it’s moving around.

REPEAT AFTER ME: [The Favorite Poem Project] confirms my feelings that I write with my voice, and the compositions I make are for my voice and for somebody else’s voice. That’s confirmed when I see the video of a West Indian man who reads a poem by Sylvia Plath, or when a young man from South Boston reads a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks . . . I’d like to make something that somebody in the world would like to say that way.

HIS MASTER’S VOICE: I hear every word I write. I hear it mumbling to myself, or I hear it in my mind’s ear. The first, most important part [of writing a poem] is not “writing” at all, strictly speaking: I compose the main body of the poem with my voice, actual or imagined. I listen to the sentences and words. Maybe the first 61 or 92 percent. Then I write that out or, less often, type it on a computer, revising as I go. Then, many printouts that are muttered and scrawled on, to get that final 8 percent or 39 percent or something in between.


KNOW IT WHEN I HEAR IT: The guides are: How does it sound, and what does it mean? [I know when a poem’s done when] it sounds right — kind of like feeling the surface you’ve been sandpapering or playing the musical piece. A feeling.

OBJECTS D’ART: [I keep the following around me while I write]: Refrigerator. TV. Telephone. Newspaper. Books. Web. Any handy distraction that has nothing obviously or directly to do with work.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson