DG: Let’s begin with your earlier work, mainly the book-length poem, An Explanation of America, published in 1979—there are two passages in different parts of the text I would like to focus on: “Americans, we choose to see ourselves / As here, yet not here yet—as if a Roman / In mid Rome should inquire the way,” and the following one: “Nothing can seem more final than the mountains, / Where empires seem to grow and fade like moss— / But even mountains have come to need protection, / By special laws and organized committees, / From our ingenuities, optimism, needs." Throughout the work, Rome serves as an important model for understanding the growing ambitions of America, a nation that Noam Chomsky, in a 2008 Boston University lecture, described in the following way: “the United States is the one country that exists, as far as I know, and ever has, that was founded as an empire explicitly.” Irrespective of the previous statement, how, in your view, has the country changed since 1979—are we truly at the point where not just the empire, but the mountains themselves might be in danger, and if so, what can poetry do about that?
RP: Forty-two years! In my life, a long time. In the life of American imperial ventures, a revealing time. In the life of the mountains, horribly, a time of more change than the country has been able to know.
Near the end of the book-length poem, addressed to a child, to write that “even mountains have come to need protection” is to include the decades of destruction, the unraveling of nature, in the coming decades of that child’s life.
It has become a formula—was it one already in 1979?—the guilt or shame of us the living for the mutilated natural world we have left for our descendants.
The optimism of empire is a blade of destruction? Can it, like the mythical weapon of Achilles, heal the wounds it makes?
Poetry, maybe, is the art that can best ask that kind of question in the name of truth.
DG: A 1995 New York Times article quotes a very touching passage describing how it felt to translate Dante’s Inferno: “This was like being a child with a new toy. I called the translation a feat of metrical engineering, and I worked obsessively. It's the only writing I have ever done where it's like reading yourself to sleep each night. We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night—you know, one more tercet, one more tercet.” Many translations have been done and many of them not well. Yours has received much praise from scholars and poets, including Edward Hirsch. Why did you ultimately choose Dante—whose Italian even Italians find difficult?
RP: Your thoughtful response to the quotation makes me want to think (and say) a lot. I’ll focus on two words you use: “choose” and “difficult.”
Undertaking an idiomatic Inferno in terza rima was not a choice. As often happens with writing, I tried a bit of it and the difficulty was an intense pleasure. The technical challenge thrilled me. I couldn’t get enough of that. In some ways, it was more like a lover of video games or crossword puzzles finding the most difficult game possible. I can hope that in some region of my mind I was thinking about Hell and despair and religion and many other serious matters. But the experience of working on the poem was more athletic or musical than that.
DG: Serving as US Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000, your crowning achievement, at least according to many, was the Favorite Poem Project—around eighteen-thousand Americans participated, according to the official website, “from ages 5 to 97, from every state, representing a range of occupations, kinds of education, and backgrounds.” Can you speak a little about the inspiration behind this project and whether it was an attempt to distance poetry from the ivory tower?
RP: As with dancing or sports, everyone enjoys poetry when they are small. In school, people—often meaning well—teach us that our pleasure needs correcting. The videos at favoritepoem.org, many people have told me, restore the fundamental, human pleasure of musical speech.
DG: In your book of criticism, The Situation of Poetry, written in 1975, you make the argument that contemporary poetry is more prone to continuity than change, writing that "we learn many of our attitudes toward language and reality from the past," which seems like a sensible philosophy in the real world, but in the MFA classroom the techniques of Milton, Shakespeare, and even Keats—much less Chaucer—are very rarely taught. How has the study of poetry changed since 1975 and how can we ensure that its so-called tradition is kept alive in the midst of all the ongoing innovation?
RP: The more you love something the more you want to learn about it. If the love is intense, you want to learn where it came from. If you love work by a contemporary poet who considers herself a descendant of William Carlos Williams, you will discover that Williams says in his youth he had learned Palgrave’s Treasury by heart. So if you are serious you will find a copy of Palgrave’s Treasury. In that book you will find many pages of tedious, trite poetry of a certain time, along with a few pages poetry that is moving, unforgettable, splendid—just as in the magazines and anthologies of your own time.
And you will have learned something—a great reward.
DG: Let’s return to Italy and our discussion of its language. Like Chaucer who began writing literature in the informal English instead of the aristocratic French, so, too, did Dante slowly abandon Latin and began writing in the vernacular—the Tuscan dialect of his region, which eventually became standard Italian. It’s a little known-fact, however, at least outside of Italy, that the great poet’s regional language was and continues to be only one such example; there are, in actuality, a great number of so-called “dialects,” which are different from standard Italian to such a degree that they can be considered separate languages. Sicilian is the one example that many non-linguists may immediately recognize. Standardization can be good or bad, depending on motives. What’s your view on this?
RP: If I could design a school for poets, a required course would be “History of the English Language.” Regarding Sicily, the island was invaded many times, with successive raiders, enslavers, invaders, colonizers, conquerors and religious fanatics learning some of the local languages and forcing some of their own language on the locals. The history of Spanish, French, Italian, German may not be quite as violently polyglot as that, but those languages descend from the need felt by soldiers and officials of Imperial Rome to communicate with sexual partners, employees and trading partners—long term—in various parts of the Empire.
DG: Many scholars consider Italy a type of Disneyland for linguists, yet strangely, the use of regional languages in everyday life is mostly frowned upon by citizens—like our own dialects, their use is mostly associated with “backwardness.” As a lover of not only languages but also Italian culture, what message would you transmit to everyday citizens here, who, at best, are doing nothing to stop this decline, and at worst, perhaps, actively encouraging it?
RP: I am opposed to purity in many things. For me, Pound’s “To purify the language of the tribe” is consistent with his fascism.
“Decline” creates its own natural resistance. Cultures improvise against purity, all the time.
DG: What are you working on at the moment and what has been the most interesting thing you’ve read lately?
RP: I am working on an autobiography, Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet. Norton will publish it in Fall, 2022. I revise and amplify a lot.
The most interesting thing I’ve read lately is Moby Dick, my first time through it in many years. This time, it seemed more than ever about writing. The writer (call him Ishmael) stays with his megalomaniacal quest, even after his creation sinks from view into the mysterious depths.
by Lara Alcantara-Lansberg
The Groves of Academe