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  • Poetry, Computers, and Dante's Inferno

    An Online Conference with Robert Pinsky
    April 19, 1995

    The following is the transcript of a live online conference with Robert Pinsky as it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly Online on the America Online network.

    Hosted, with an introduction, by Wen Stephenson

    Welcome to the Atlantic Monthly Auditorium. Tonight we have with us Robert Pinsky, a distinguished poet and recent translator of "The Inferno of Dante" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994). Pinsky is the author of four previous books of poetry -- "Sadness and Happiness" (1975), "An Explanation of America" (1979), "History of My Heart" (1984), and "The Want Bone" (1990) -- as well as three works of criticism, the most recent of which is "Poetry and the World" (1988). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, has held faculty positions at Wellesley College and the University of California at Berkeley, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

    A poet and professor with wide-ranging interests, Pinsky is also the author of an interactive text adventure game, "Mindwheel," which he wrote in collaboration with computer programmers some twelve years ago. In a recent essay for the New York Times Book Review, "The Muse in the Machine: Or, The Poetics of Zork," Pinsky commented on the surprising similarities between poetry and computers. Tonight, in addition to answering questions about his own poetry and his experience translating Dante, Pinsky will offer some of his thoughts about the relationship between poetry and computers.

    In a review of Pinsky's translation of the "Inferno" in The New Yorker, the poet Edward Hirsch points out that "The journey into the underworld is one of the most obsessively recurring stories of the Western imagination," and cites the classical examples of Orpheus, Heracles, Odysseus, and Aeneas, as predecessors to Dante's pilgrim. All of these descend into the nether regions of death and survive to tell about it -- tales that hold a distinct fascination in the way they open up vast, mysterious, complex worlds.

    Putting a tantalizing electronic-age spin on Hirsch's observation, Pinsky opens his NYT essay, "The Muse in the Machine," with the intriguing idea that poetry and computer software "share a great human myth or trope, an image that could be called the secret passage: the discovery of large, manifold channels through a small, ordinary-looking or all but invisible aperture." Pinsky goes on to say, "This opening up, the discovery of much in little, seems to be a fundamental resonance of human intelligence....this passage to vast complexities is at the essence of what writing through the machine might become."

    In the same essay Pinsky mentions that the unlikely pairing of poetry and computers has attracted a fair amount of intelligent activity, including several electronic poetry magazines on the Internet, as well as various hypertext programs, poetry databases, and other multimedia applications. At a time in our history when the fate of *reading* in an electronic age is in doubt, let alone the fate of poetry, this may also be the time to ask whether interactive online media can serve as effective means of disseminating serious literature in our culture. Does the Internet hold any promise for poetry? What applications of multimedia technology seem to be most successful in bringing poetry to a wired generation?

    With these questions in mind, it may seem a dizzying leap to Dante and his "Inferno." But in fact, the "Inferno" -- which is the first part of Dante's "Divina Commedia" -- remains a popular and compelling poem for modern readers; there have been at least fifty English versions of the "Inferno" in this century alone. Of course, any translator must rely on previous translations and commentators in undertaking such an ambitious task, and Pinsky has said that he depended largely on Charles Singleton's scholarly, painstakingly literal prose translation (1970), and on the best-known nineteenth-century American verse translation, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867).

    Now Robert Pinsky is the first poet to participate in a live online conference with The Atlantic Monthly, the magazine that his precursor Longfellow helped found in 1857. While we won't hazard to guess what Longfellow would have thought about computers, AOL, or the Internet, it's probably safe to say that he would have welcomed the chance to discuss Dante, and poetry in general, with as accomplished a poet and translator as Robert Pinsky.

    WenSatl : Welcome, Robert Pinsky. We're glad you could join us.

    RPinsky136 : Hello--pleasure to be "here."

    WenSatl : Tonight we're going to be talking about poetry, computers, and your translation of Dante. Here's something, to start off, that I'd like to know:

    Question : In an essay on Dante, T. S. Eliot wrote that the love of poetry should precede the scholarship of it. He said that he was "passionately fond of certain French poetry" before he could translate any of it correctly, and that with Dante, "the discrepancy between enjoyment and understanding was still wider." What drew you to Dante's poetry?

    RPinsky136 : I agree that poetry does not begin with understanding, but with attraction--like love or hunger for food. The Inferno had an interesting reputation, and looked delicious, but I had never been able to get to know it in the translations I knew.

    WenSatl : An audience member has been following the reviews of your Inferno. GHun asks:

    Question : Edward Hirsch, in a review of your "Inferno" in The New Yorker, describes terza rima and says the effect is like "moving through a series of interpenetrating rooms...or going down a set of winding stairs." Is there any connection between the spiraling form of Dante's poem and the way computers appeal to our imaginations?

    RPinsky136 : I think so: there is the elegance and compression of something systematic or technical; and then there is the wildness or variation of our feelings--a grid, and a flow--that is the essence of terza rima, and in a way the essence of the many swirls and dips and abundance that flow from the binary guts of computing.

    WenSatl : Here's a question from our audience that deals with the current poetry scene on the Internet:

    Question : What do you think of online media as a means of disseminating poetry? Is there any kind of interactivity that's possible on the Internet that is not possible in a traditional, non-virtual environment, like a real classroom, or a poetry reading?

    RPinsky136 : There is already a tremendous amount of poetry on the Internet: magazines, archives, spontaneous poems in chat groups. On the other hand, I believe that the medium of poetry--real poetry, for me--is ultimately breath, one person's breath shaped into meaning by our larynx and mouth. So like print, the computer is still a servant or a conduit--not the ultimate scene of poetry, which is in the ear.

    WenSatl: This is a follow-up, of sorts, to the last question. What about CDROMs, databases, etc.?

    Question : What do you think are the most interesting and promising applications of multi-media technology and literature?

    RPinsky136 : Predicting the future is so hard: whatever we think, or say will be hip, is sure to seem quaint within a short time. But the compression of information in letters, the capacity to download what used to require a publisher, a bookstore, etc.--like the medium of poetry as I just described it--breath--that compression and availability have amazing potential for freeing individuals from control, from the treatment of people as masses. In that, poetry (an ancient technology) and new technologies are potential allies in the service of individual creativity, orneriness, imagination.

    WenSatl : TS Flanagan, using another screen name, asks:

    Question : Have you seen the CDROM Poetry in motion? Specifically the Bukowski piece? Why is he seemingly underrated by the academic establishment?

    RPinsky136 : Hi, Tim--sorry, Bukowski seems to me a very appealing

    and charming children's author...

    WenSatl : Here's something I've certainly never thought about,

    but I suppose it might work...

    Question : Would you do or have you been asked to do a screenplay for the 'Inferno'?

    RPinsky136 : Yes, there is a woman in NY working on a screenplay,

    using my translation as a voice-over; and some people are doing an Inferno installment for the Discovery Channel; and this fall, the director David Wheeler will be directing some well-known actors in a dramatization of the Inferno for the Cambridge MA Poet's Theater.

    WenSatl : What do you think of this proposition from Barron3?

    Question : I would venture that with the new multimedia technology, we would see a new awareness unfold. The sudden "rediscovery" of the classics for students lost in the perils of public schools.

    RPinsky136 : Yes: school does so much harm: teachers should take an oath like doctors to "do no harm." And I have plenty of faith that things that are called good--Shakespeare, Dante, & co.--if they are truly good, will find an audience for whom they are not Required Reading. They never MEANT to write "Required Reading.".The pleasures of the Net certainly don't feel Required.

    WenSatl : I suppose this question from Kittycorner must plague anyone who translates the classics...

    Question : What is the rationale for translating a work that has been so frequently translated, and by such eminent scholars?

    RPinsky136 : The only possible rationale is --forgive the immodesty--that I have made a work of the imagination: something that satisfies what I'll call "the art appetite"--as the translations I knew did not do.

    WenSatl : Here's a blunt question:

    Question : Is being a poet fun?

    RPinsky136 : There is a lot of misery in fitting the sounds of words together, sometimes wondering what for--as Yeats says, the world will think you an idler. But the pleasure of memorizing a few words or lines one has put together--there's nothing like it. I had a friend who while dying of throat cancer began writing wonderful poems. He told me how much pleasure he got saying them over to himself at night. And yes, of course it is fun--look at me now.

    WenSatl : Ejmontes follows up with an interesting take on something you said at the beginning of the conference:

    Question : You put the word here in quotation marks; compare the reality of your "here" with Dante's "here" in the dark wood.

    RPinsky136 : Yes, excellent--many of our most energetic and vivid "here"s-- one might almost say our most physically vivid "here"s--are in the imagination. Even while making love or playing a sport or eating, most of us are also "here" in our imagination, here in a series of quotation marks--as Ejmontes implies.

    WenSatl : PerryS282 is interested in your background.

    WenSatl : How does it affect your poetry?

    Question : Mr Pinsky, where are you originally from?

    RPinsky136 : I am from --let's say "from," given the last question--a lower-middle class family in a small town in New Jersey. My grandpa had a bar there. My family was nominally Orthodox Jewish. My work, I think, tries to pull together as many of the different kinds and levels of American speech and experience as I can. I think the class and place I am "from" are good for the imagination--but what "here" is not?

    WenSatl : SamHank is interested in Tibetan culture, and wonders if there are connections to Dante:

    Question : I am reading Sogyum Rinpoches' The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and find parallels between Dante's view of Heaven, Purgatory, Hell and the World and the Tibetan Bardos.

    RPinsky136 : Crossing water between realms of life and death, and the soul as a pilgrim, are two motifs that occur to me. Also the mixture of illusory and real "here"s. Dante's feet displace the stones of Hell, but the shade Virgil his companion--his feet do not; yet Virgil carries Dante about. That resonates with what I know about the Book of Living and Dying, --which is very little.

    WenSatl : WakeUpFly has a specific question about the Inferno's political allegory:

    Question : Regarding Canto IV of the Inferno, why do you think Dante chose this particular canto (the canto of the gluttons) to concentrate also on political factionalism in Florence? What's the connection?

    RPinsky136 : Suddenly I wish I were still answering a question about Tibetan thought.... I don't know, in other words. I suppose that materialism's bottomless quality, the incapacity of gluttony to fill itself--might've been linked in his mind to the ultimately self-defeating avidity for power of factions? (My own bullshit meter is gonging a bit.)

    WenSatl : Following up on your earlier comment about "Required Reading," JDevine asks: Does that mean that you don't think Dante should be taught in high school?

    RPinsky136 : I think that pleasure in the sounds of poetry should be taught in school first. The truth about teaching seems to be that a skillful, loving teacher can teach just about anything, and no text or system can survive brutal, inept teaching.... I always wish for a way to help students follow their desires--to require enough to entice a lot. Utopian, I know. My best answer is probably, "yes."

    WenSatl : Here's a questioner who's curious about becoming a poet. How does one "become" a poet? When did you decide--or did you--to become a poet?

    RPinsky136 : Read, read, read, read, and read aloud. And memorize poems you love. And type them out, and keep them in an anthology. As

    Yeats says, there is NO singing school, except for studying MONUMENTS of singing's magnificence. You become a poet as you become a ballplayer: a combination of love, devotion, inability to stay away from the pursuit and its great models.

    WenSatl : This person doesn't seem to think Dante's terza rima is possible in English.

    Question : Don't you think terza rima in English could be called a misnomer?

    RPinsky136 : No, not at all: the term refers to an abstract pattern; as I say in my preface to the book, by loosening the definition of "rhyme" only slightly, one can fulfill that pattern. It may be possible to think I have not done it well, but I don't think you could read this version aloud and deny that I have done it somehow. I HAVE sometimes called my own way of doing it--rhyming, say, quiver, flavor, never..."terza doggerella." But it is not a misnomer, no. Binyon's version and Sayres's demonstrate that, too.

    WenSatl : I believe Claude Levi-Strauss said poetry is what is lost in translation. Here's a tough one:

    Question : Isn't the translation of poetry written in other languages inherently suspect? Isn't poetry essentially untranslatable?

    RPinsky136 : Yes. Poetry is basically a technology of the sounds of language and one set of sounds is not another; in this sense "pane" does not "translate" as the different sound "bread." "Translating" the Latin for "carry across" is an impossibility, strictly speaking. But as a WORK OF IMAGINATION one can--to use a very old term--"English" a work of art into another, derived work of art, meant to give pleasure and an idea of the original in the new language. In this sense, because the art-translation conveys the uncrossable space between, it is perhaps a more valid pursuit than so-called "literal" or scholarly translation.

    WenSatl : We have time for this question and maybe one more. Referring to your essay on poetry and computers:

    Question : In the NYT Book Review you wrote of "the peculiar terrain of literature-for-the-monitor." Space seems to be a recurring metaphor in our talk of computers: we refer to cyberspace as if it were an actual, tangible landscape. How does this metaphor connect poetry and computers?

    RPinsky136 : Putting together sounds that SOUND vivid: "Beaded bubbles winking at the brim" for instance, gives an ILLUSION of physical vividness, a spatial "presence" or "here" that is made by vibrating air as the human animal grunts. Similarly, the vibrations of highly organized electronic media give the ILLUSION of this "auditorium."

    WenSatl : A Boston-area poet who wished to remain nameless asks this intriguing question:

    Question : "Memory" is a common term in our technical vocabulary--quantified in so many bits and bytes, to be "random-accessed" at will. But at the dawn of culture, poetry itself was memory. Now that computers do much of our remembering for us, are we less impelled to learn poems "by heart," to prove them upon our pulses, as Keats would have it?

    RPinsky136 : The human appetite for memory and entertainment is so immense that we seem to want to add every new technology we can; the model of one technology (TV, movies, cyberspace, whatever) replacing older technologies (print, poetry, memorization, etc.) seems to me faulty--it underestimates our ravenous appetite for All of the Above.

    WenSatl : I know you've commented on this before. Haila is interested in how your religious background fits into your translation of Dante:

    Question : Jewish? How do you respond to Dante's Catholicism?

    RPinsky136 : I turned my back entirely on Judaism as a religion when I was around fourteen: I chose baseball, rock and roll, bacon, free Saturday mornings, and ultimately English poetry, European culture, etc. But (to use an analogy) when the descendants of slaves started blowing that European instrument, the saxophone, they changed it. They brought something to it that it hadn't expected. That is a lofty ambition. I would like to emulate at least a little. The Catholic idea of sin--a hole, a space, an absence, that is its own pain--that idea appeals to me considerably.

    WenSatl : Thanks for joining us Robert Pinsky. It's been a pleasure. All we were missing was your "voice"... which, of course, is a lot.

    RPinsky136 : And polite applause, for god's sake! Bye, everyone, thank you--the Q's were extremely intelligent & challenging.

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