The former American Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, came to Ottawa for the Writers Festival, and I got to sit in on the second half - regrettably only the second half - of the Masterclass session he gave this noon. (I was out doing some driving, in fact taking an author to Osgoode Township High School, and missed the first half.) But the half I did get to see was remarkable.
I stole in through the back door of the basement auditorium at the Ottawa Public Library on Laurier. There was a really big crowd, for a noon poetry show. The immediate impression I got was of the quality of Pinsky's voice: quiet, resonant, measured, quite compelling. He was talking about, as I expected he would be, how the sound of poetry relates to the subject. In fact, he pretty much seemed to be saying that the sound to an extent dictates what is said. He was reciting lines of poetry - and I was amazed by the amount of poetry (other people's poetry) he could recite from memory. It's a lost art and shouldn't be. He was able to illustrate every point he was making with extended recitations of poems that he held up as examples.
The first line to grab me was "The grammar is the melody; the lines are like the rhythm section." He was talking about how to think of a poem not in terms of each individual line (and how it ends, or rhymes, or enjambs, or scans) but in terms of the grammar of it. After that, you can futz with the beats, but they're not the melody, they're the drum line. (When he answered a question, later, about his translation of Dante, he said something similar; that because of the difference in word length between Italian and English, English translations are syllabically much shorter. So, he had translated Dante by translating the sentences, and then trying to shape them with half rhymes, but had not, as many translators do, translated the poetry line by line.)
The next thing to grab me was watching him recreating the process he might go through to create a poem about being on stage in Ottawa by actually doing it, out loud, on the mike: coming up with a starting point - say, that the hotel was very close to the venue - and then ringing changes on the words, associated words, the reverse meanings of some of the words that spoke to him out of the sentence fragments he'd started with. It was absolutely fascinating. He said, "You pick out the elements, the words and ideas that seem to cluster together, and work with them: the other words are just words."
He also said, "The material psycholanalyses you. It determines what you need to say," and went on to explain that he discovers by working with the poem what it is he's saying. He doesn't start out with something he's burning to say or talk about and create a poem that talks about it. He lets the associations of sound and concept play themselves out in his mind and that way figures out what the poem is about as he's writing it.
After his Masterclass Session there was a reception at the American Ambassador's residence, where he recited some more of his own work: and I can't wait to hear the ghazal concert he's doing tonight along with Lorna Crozier, Rob Winger, and Sandra Ridley.