Change Trains at Summit

Becoming a poet

Robert Pinsky

Dave Pinsky, the author's grandfather. Courtesy the author

I used to follow the self-imposed rule that you should not presume to call yourself a poet. “It’s for the world to say,” said Robert Frost. So for years, even after I began publish­ing my work, I would avoid “I am a poet” and say instead, “I write poems.”

But in the meantime the exalted word poet went its own way, becoming more and more a term for all kinds of things, including an academic job category. (“We need to hire a poet.”)

Following Frost’s principle started to feel like an affectation. His cunning declaration that poet is something for other people to say was like him: under what may look like a modest surface, a covert, underlying superiority. There’s also a bit of superstition involved—bad luck to claim the word for yourself. That kind of backspin has its appeal. But a couple of books into my career I let myself say out loud, at times, that I was a poet.

It wasn’t modesty that made me shy to use the word about myself, but a matter of where I came from—a covert, stubborn, and provincial pride in what you are and shame at the very idea of pretending to be anything you might not be. In the watchful small-town neighborhood of lower-middle-class Jews, Italians, and Black people where I grew up, the phrase “trying to be something you’re not” was a heavy accusation. It might be fine to be a poet, though possibly less valuable than to be an optometrist. In certain limited ways, it might even be acceptable to be a criminal. What was not acceptable was vaunting bullshit about yourself. Poet was a great thing to me—none greater, really, so not to be desecrated.

Given my background, a dear friend recently asked me, How is it that I became a poet rather than a criminal or an optometrist?

I could quibble. My father, Milford Pinsky, was an optician, not an optometrist. (A common mistake.) And it’s true that his father, Dave Pinsky, was a criminal. But as my aunt Thelma used to say, her pop was in the liquor business, and it happened to be during Prohibition. That was the era when Dave, my Zaydee Pop, as I called him, pursued the liquor business in our hometown, Long Branch, New Jersey.

I like toying with bits of remembered conversation, maybe half-remembered lines by Keats or Dickinson mixed in with a joke or a bit of gossip.

Trivial and significant, stupid and profound, like a family oppressive and nurturing, like the larger world seductive and treacherous: my feelings about the town are as confused as can be. My bedeviled patriotism, my need for the lofty outcast art of poetry, my C− student’s distrust of worldly rewards and punish­ments, the inward voice that spurs me to bring together disparate times, places, and things, that attraction to a mishmosh. All began in Long Branch.

If I have a story to tell, it’s about how the failures and aspira­tions of a certain time and place led to poetry.

even saying “i write poems” is inaccurate. Write is not precise. I work to produce not marks on paper but something more like a song or a monologue, or both. I was never that precocious child or teenager who would sit down to produce work on a page with a pen or a typewriter.

I know that there are people who think by writing. But I tend to think by speaking, often to myself. Even now, as throughout my life, my poems don’t usually begin on paper or on a screen. It’s a matter of humming and muttering, grunts and echoes in the vow­els and consonants of speech, the melody of every sentence. I get a tune in my head. Like noodling at a piano, I like toying with bits of remembered conversation, maybe half-remembered lines by Keats or Dickinson mixed in with a joke or a bit of gossip. Sometimes you discover something new.

Early on, this obsession with how words sound seemed like a bad habit, a nervous tic. I remember gently rapping the sounds of sentences on my headboard in the dark, with drumming fingers. Possibly I did that in my crib. I thought about how pitch affected rhythm, and about the harmonies or discords of consonants. Before I fell asleep I listened to the voices in my head, not for their meaning but for their shapes. It was a compulsion, like chewing one’s fingernails.

I thought about things like how saying the first s in sounds didn’t vibrate in my throat but the second s did, and how in the same way mouthing the th in think didn’t vibrate there but the th in the did. Noticing such things felt like a minor but distinct men­tal disorder I would have to live with. Many years later I learned the terminology for what I heard: voiced and unvoiced consonants. Voiced and unvoiced. I had thought the difference was my own invention or delusion, but people had studied it. There were words for it, which made it real.

I thought about scarf and carve and how those words were fun to say for the contrast between the k sound happening way in the back of my mouth and the v or f sound in the extreme front, teeth on lower lip. In the lyrics to the song “Open the Door, Richard,” I liked how the r sound at the end of a slow word became the r sound at the beginning of a fast word.

A few years ago, I discovered my first-grade report card, surviv­ing in an ancient carton of family photos. “Robert is always courte­ous,” wrote Miss Philips, “but he has taken to dreaming and talking to himself. He doesn’t keep his mind on the job at hand.”

I heard melodies in sentences. For example, “Passengers going to Hoboken, change trains at Summit”: those three triplets at the beginning, each slower than the one before, the name of the New Jersey city so much slower than the same rhythm in “passengers.” Then the long pair of “change trains” followed by the quick little Dizzy Gillespie fillip with a second place-name “at Summit.” At thirteen, beginning to play music, chanting a train conductor’s chant over to myself, playing its rhythm in my mind against a 4/4 time signature, listening for the relation of pitch and length to cadence, immersed in all that, I might get so distracted that I forgot to change trains.

For me, poetry is a vocal art but not necessarily a perform­er’s art. I compose poems with my voice for your voice.

As a child in the age of commercial jingles on the radio, I was fascinated by the anonymous parodies we would learn on the play­ground at school: “Pepsi-Cola is the drink / To pour down the kitchen sink. / Tastes like vinegar, looks like ink— / Pepsi-Cola is sure to stink.” Like a folk song, the anonymous lampoon had a communal genius. When the excellent Mill Valley Public Library in California asked me to suggest a short poem to be projected digitally onto their footpath, I proposed a great folk poem I had learned and admired when I was ten years old. It was composed by some soldier or series of soldiers in World War II, building on the information that Adolf Hitler suffered from an undescended testicle. It can be sung to the tune of the “Colonel Bogey March”:

Hitler
Has only got one ball.

Göring
Has two, but very small.

Himmler
Has something similar,

And Goebbels
Has no balls
At all.

This brilliant bit of rudeness is a marvel of economy. The rhym­ing of “Himmler” and “similar” encourages playing with an accent. The imperfect rhyming of “Goebbels” and “no balls” adds to the insolence with the triumphant final rhyme. I can’t hear the “Colonel Bogey” tune without thinking of those lyrics. (The soldiers in The Bridge on the River Kwai are no doubt thinking of them while they whistle the tune for their captors, Hitler’s allies in the Pacific.)

An anonymous, funny, antifascist poem seemed to me a patri­otic selection. But wisely, the Mill Valley librarian asked me for a safer choice, and we settled on Emily Dickinson’s “Fame Is a Fickle Food.”

one of my repeated nervous jokes, when recognition comes my way—or a check—has been to say, in (more or less) iambic pentameter:

“And all of this—for ta-da ta-da ta-da?”

Something like a protective superstition underlies that pre­tended belittlement. The wonderment is sincere. The reductive ta-da may mask something as lofty for me, and as vulnerable to scorn, as the Boy Scout’s oath was for my father. I have in mind the Yiddish expression (spelling it as I have heard it) “kinahora.” For years, I heard that phrase on joyful occasions: the birth of a beauti­ful baby, a new dress or medical good news. I thought it meant “our happiness is complete.” I was in my mid-twenties when I learned that the words mean something like “Go away, Evil Eye,” a shield against the risk that enjoying good fortune might be punished.

To go into it a bit, the rhythm of ta-da is secondary in what we call poetry’s “music.” A conversation about actual music with Stan Strickland, the master saxophone player, vocalist, and teacher, helped my understanding of spoken sounds.

“Everybody knows,” Stan said, “that all music has three elements: rhythm, melody, and harmony. But which came first? Nearly every­body says rhythm. They talk about the heartbeat, about drums. But I don’t think so. Melody is primary.”

He explained: “A baby cries or laughs an expressive tune, before it can keep time. My dog sings his anger or fear or contentment, but he doesn’t keep time while he does it. It’s the sequence of pitches, their emotional meaning—the melody—that comes before the regular beat of rhythm, or the combined sounds of harmony.”

Stan Strickland’s contention that melody comes first confirmed my impatience with elaborate notation for rhythm or meter, the taxonomy of obsessive scansion, primary and secondary stresses, amphibrachs, pseudo-spondees, dactyls. I can shuffle or deal iambs and trochees, or discuss the prosodic equivalent of 4/4 time or 6/8 or exotics like 5/4. Arcane, secondary matters have their inter­est. But the unique, expressive sequence of pitches and quantities in each sentence and line is primary. The propulsive spoken tune of poetry is what first drew me to lines by Shakespeare or Yeats. Later I listened to the same energy in the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Elizabeth Bishop, the pitches of the grammar singing through the rhythm, in the clangs and chimes of our profoundly mongrel, improvised, and Bible-ridden American language.

I am not talking about dramatic vocal performances of poetry, still less about poems as graphic presences on a page: these are possibly important, but not primary for me. A few years ago, a New York poetry series called “Page and Stage” brought together two poets, one from each category, for an evening performance in which they read from their work. They invited me to appear repre­senting either category, whichever I chose. My honest answer was that my gifts and interests were neither Page nor Stage. If I give a poetry reading I hope not to bore the audience, and when I pub­lish a book I hope the poems will look inviting in print. But the medium I think about most is not performance and not print, but any reader’s actual or imagined voice.

For me, poetry is a vocal art but not necessarily a perform­er’s art. I compose poems with my voice for your voice. It’s all in the sounds written into the words—and it’s true for free verse or metered, rhymed or not.

Ezra Pound says poetry is a centaur. That is, a thing of body and mind, in that order. If you are too cerebral to hear it, you miss the point. A busy compulsion to understand may be more common than its opposite, an unwillingness to think. Both extremes under­mine pleasure, and both are often acquired in school. Like singing and dancing and playing sports, poetry is something nearly all of us enjoy when we are small. Somehow, we learn to fear or dislike such things. You have to be taught that you can’t dance, for exam­ple, and until then you can. Same with poetry.

Robert Pinsky is the author of Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet, an autobiography forthcoming in October.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022

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