Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems will be published in March, 2011. His recent anthology with audio CD is Essential Pleasures. His honors include the Italian Premio Capri, the Korean Manhae Award, and the Harold Washington Award from the city of Chicago. His best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Pinsky is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. The videos from his Favorite Poem Project can be viewed here.
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—
Like Hart Crane's Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem began with a quite different direction. I was thinking of a character, a woman, a sculptor whose work involved black iron and varnished wood, forms vaguely like human muscles but with little wheels and so forth. When she was a child, her single-parent mother did piece-work, and the child was fascinated visually by her mother's treadle sewing machine, that supported them. It was mixed up with playing Solitaire or War and her fascination with the designs and faces of the royalty cards. An unusually plot-ridden, fictional notion for me.
Then I became hypnotized—much more characteristically—by the sounds of the consonants in the language for the parts of those handsome old machines: the treadle, the needle. And then, what else—the bobbin. And what might chime with that? Well, the union. Which led to the old terminology for different garment-worker jobs, and to Irving Howe's book, and to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the probably-fake, vaguely attributed account of the young man helping the young women and then jumping himself. A story in the attractive realm of what might-be-true. And that led to remembering the left-wing Englishman Hobsbawm's book The Invention of Tradition, where years before I had been delighted by his debunking of the kilt, along with the Coronation regalia and so forth: all nineteenth-century fabrications claiming to be ancient, he says. And the racialist part: the Highland Scots being considered sub-human by the English who tried to tame them as factory workers.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Very little once I abandoned the sculptor and her story, everything I've described came probably in an afternoon. The concealed blank verse helped it go quickly.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Inspiration comes from great works of art: you remember the feeling you got from something created by Charlie Parker or Emily Dickinson or Buster Keaton or Francisco Goya or Nikolai Gogol or Johannes Brahms . . . and you start wanting to create something that would give that feeling to other people. The spirit you breathe in, you want to exhale. It’s real. The process is visible in some of the videos at the Favorite Poem Project website.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
“Consciously” is not quite the right word for the way an old prizefighter or hornplayer like me works in iambic pentameter. I have done it for so long, lived with it so intensely, that it is like walking. The discovery and the difficulty is in where you walk.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I don’t remember. I think it was in The New Yorker, and they usually take a few months.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
A small number of friends and relatives help me decide a work is finished. (Or not!) Once it passes that test, I’m ready to sing it on the streetcorner . . . figuratively speaking.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The old newspaper account, which quotes “a witness” and from which I steal (and pentameter-ize) language like “into a streetcar, and not eternity” is probably a sensationalist fake. But nobody can prove that—it might have happened. In the realm of imagination, it is true: which means that in the realm of reality it has meaning. Even though it may originate with one of those guys hanging out with Rosalind Russell, playing cards, in His Girl Friday. More meaning, I can hope, than my true answers on a form, more meaning than the facts of my biography, date and place of birth, etc. More meaning than the term paper I didn’t write about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Meaning means a lot to me: matters to me more than fact and fiction.
Is this a narrative poem?
I'm too goofy and impatient to write a narrative poem, but it has chunks of narrative in it, I hope bouncing off one another and other elements like bumper cars on the boardwalk.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Hard to say. Howe’s book, Hobsbawm’s book, George Herbert’s poems, Sam Johnson teasing and debunking the sacred hippy baloney of Ossian, Gogol, Babel, Alan Dugan, Faulkner . . . who knows. All of them in the realm of might-have-happened.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Sometimes, at some point, I try to imagine myself if I hadn’t written it. Sometimes—I'll confess—I try to imagine some dead master of craft—Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens or William Butler Yeats—looking at it and saying something like “I don't know what he’s trying to say, but he has spent his time practicing in the woodshed, he has the chops.” I try to imagine that! I’m not saying I succeed . . . and it’s just about making lines and sentences.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
A small number of poet friends. Ones I admire; I’m very fortunate in that.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Hard for me to say. It may speak more directly than most from my lower-middle-class background, the scarey time in my childhood after my father got fired. And the implicit chutzpah of claiming the upper-class Englishman George Herbert as my spiritual or poetic ancestor.
What is American about this poem?
Every damn thing about it—especially the parts about European history, the Kilt and Herbert and Ossian.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I have done my best with it. Apollo or Dionysus might be able to improve it.