NewsPoet: Robert Pinsky Writes The Day In Verse

Jun 14, 2012
Originally published on July 25, 2012 11:18 am

Today at All Things Considered, we continue a project we're calling NewsPoet. Each month, we bring in a poet to spend time in the newsroom — and at the end of the day, to compose a poem reflecting on the day's stories.

The series has included Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith as well as Craig Morgan Teicher, Kevin Young, Monica Youn, and Carmen Gimenez Smith.

Today, poet Robert Pinsky brings us the news in verse. He served as the United States Poet Laureate from 1997-2000. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Sadness and Happiness, Jersey Rain and The Figured Wheel which was a Pulitzer Prize nominee. His latest book is called Selected Poems. He is also the author of several works of prose, including The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. He is the poetry editor for Slate Magazine and he teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

Robert Pinsky sat down with Audie Cornish to talk about his day at NPR's All Things Considered, and about the poem he wrote for the show. But he told her that "write" was not exactly the verb he would have used. "I think 'compose' is more accurate. Because you're trying to make the sounds in your mind and your voice," he explained. "So I compose with my actual voice."

Writing on deadline can be daunting for a poet — but Pinsky said he finds that generating material is the easy part. "The polishing and the sandpapering and the worrying and turning around might be weeks... sometimes even months" he said. But was he concerned that he did not have enough time to fine-tune this poem? "I have the rest of my life to polish this if I want to," he told Cornish.

Pinsky differed from past NPR NewsPoets in another way too — when he came to the morning meeting, he didn't take any notes. That's because, as he said, he doesn't know how. "This was a disaster in junior high school," he joked, but he also added that "to me what you retain is a very important filter. And I can pretend to take notes, but it's not me."

And while other poets used structures to create verses quickly, Pinsky's poem was purely his own. "I love form, but I'm not interested in forms," he explained. I've never written a sonnet or a villanelle or a sestina or anything like that. For me it's a kind of line, it's a rhythm, its something musical." Pinsky said that his task was "to find a kind of line that seemed to generate something."

All Things Considered's NewsPoet is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman.

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Finally this hour, our NewsPoet. Each month, we invite a poet to spend the day with us here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and under what is decidedly prosaic deadline compose a bit of verse reflecting the day's news. Today, we're thrilled to welcome a former U.S. poet laureate, Robert Pinsky. Hello there, Mr. Pinsky.


CORNISH: So how long does it take you to write a poem that you're proud of usually?


CORNISH: I don't know if you found this deadline tough at all.

PINSKY: Write is almost the wrong verb for what I do. I think compose is more accurate because you're trying to make the sounds in your mind and in your voice. So I compose with my actual voice and my imagined voice in my mind, so I can, quote, "write," end quote, or compose while I'm driving or in the shower. And everybody is different. For me, generating material doesn't take a long time. And usually, it's a matter of anywhere between five minutes and a couple of hours. Then the polishing and the sandpapering and the worrying and turning around might be weeks, sometimes even months.

CORNISH: It's interesting because unlike the other poets, you weren't taking any notes during our meeting this morning.

PINSKY: This was a disaster in junior high school when I was in the dumb class and all through high school. I don't know how to take notes.


PINSKY: I delight sometimes in saying to - as when I'm a teacher, I love saying this is really important, so don't write it down. To me, what you retain is a very important filter.

CORNISH: Some of the other poets also looked towards a certain structure, for instance, the villanelle. For you, how did you approach this?

PINSKY: I love form, but I'm not interested in forms. I've never written a sonnet or villanelle or sestina or any of that. For me, it's a kind of line. It's a rhythm. It's something musical. So you get a kind of a tune in your head, (makes sounds), you know, every sentence has a rhythm, ya-dada-da, not only a rhythm but a melody.

CORNISH: Well, now, I want to hear it.


CORNISH: And your poem is called "From the River of News."

PINSKY: (Reading) "From the River of News." The president and his opponent are both speaking in Ohio. Both opposing speeches will be about the economy. The Egyptian high court has liquidated their parliament. In the Iroquois language, Ohio means a good river. Car industry statements defend the three-crew workday, though the three-crew system is hard on workers' households. In Mozambique, irrigation and agribusiness are expanding. In Russian, the word liquidate is especially sinister.

(Reading) Speeches and statements. Tongues, poems, reports, parleys. An Egyptian says this is the smoothest of military coups. We'd be outraged, he says, if we weren't so exhausted. Economy comes from household in ancient Greek. The saying is money talks; now, money is speech itself, according to our own high court. In Mozambique, the massive irrigation is bad for subsistence farmers, but Africa can feed the world, says a corporate spokesman.

CORNISH: That poem was titled "From the River of News." Our NewsPoet today, Robert Pinsky. Mr. Pinsky, thank you for talking with us.

PINSKY: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.