Bruce Springsteen and Robert Pinsky: Rocker meets poet at Fairleigh Dickinson University

Springsteen Pinsky

Bruce Springsteen and Robert Pinsky perform together at the Dreyfuss Theater at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham campus in Madison, on May 6, 2010.

On May 6, 2010 — 10 years ago this month — Fairleigh Dickinson University hosted a once-in-a-lifetime event: A joint appearance by Bruce Springsteen and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky in which they talked about their work and performed, both separately and together. Wesley Stace, the writer who has also performed music under the name John Wesley Harding, moderated.

Only 350 people (mostly FDU students) were able to fit into the university’s small Dreyfuss Theater, and a film or recording has never been released in any form — until this week.

David Daniel, the FDU professor who organized the event (part of the university’s WAMFest Words and Music Festival), has posted three videos to YouTube — with Springsteen’s management’s permission. You can watch them below.

He said more will be coming, too, with another video possibly on its way to YouTube as early as this weekend.

It’s a fascinating conversation, touching on the two artists’ Jersey roots and the similarities in the way they use language, the influence of Frank Sinatra on Springsteen, a late-night dinner with Luciano Pavarotti, and more. Springsteen reads poems of Pinsky, Pinsky reads a William Carlos Williams poem as well his own work, and the two even read and sing together. Though they had never met before, they were obviously very familiar with each other’s work.

I think the conversation is notable enough that I’ve transcribed what is included in the three videos (which is only a portion of the entire event). Here are the videos and, below each one, a transcription.

Wesley Stace: Bruce Springsteen. Robert Pinsky. Born in the same hospital, Monmouth Memorial, 10 years apart. Here’s a quotation: “I grew up in a small town, but the town, Long Branch, N.J., was also very near New York, and a lot of New York people came to the town on vacation. It was a resort, there was a boardwalk, there was a merry-go-round. All of that was beautiful.” And what I want to know is, which one of you said that? (audience laughs)

Bruce Springsteen: We already figured out we don’t know.

Stace: It was you (points at Pinsky). But it could have been you, right? (points at Springsteen).

Springsteen: Absolutely.

Stace: Okay. So, here we are in New Jersey. And New Jersey … you are both known for being from New Jersey. And, you know, one of the most famous artists (Springsteen), to my right, really, to be … linked to a location. You have New Jersey identity, heritage and culture. Poets like William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg. Musicians, singers: Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, Dionne Warwick. What I want to know is, what New Jersey art did you both use to form your identities as a young artist and although everybody knows you as New Jersey artists, how much do you consider yourself a New Jersey artist. Robert?

Robert Pinsky: My standard answer: People say, “You’re from New Jersey?”; I say, “Only in the sense that the Pope is catholic.” (Springsteen laughs) I am completely … I’m not saying it because we’re here … I am completely loyal and proud of this state. When they were trying to find a new thing for the license plate, they asked me if I had a suggestion. I said maybe “The Best State.”

Springsteen: I actually believe people probably know us more as “The Fuck You State,” unfortunately. (Pinsky laughs) I think …

Pinsky: That, too.

Springsteen: … that’ll be going on the license plate next year. (laughs)

Pinsky: That, too. That, too. Anyway, I would name William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, in what I do. And when I was quite young, I did know they were great, and they did have a big effect on me.

Springsteen: I guess for me, as far as New Jersey heritage, when I was a kid, I grew up with Sinatra, always Sinatra in the house, you know. And the interesting thing that he did was, one, he sang, as we were talking about earlier, he sang very colloquially, the way that people speak, and he created … he had a world view that was very specific and quite complete. And if you want to know what the ’40s or the ’50s or a certain part of the ’60s felt like for a particular group of people in America, or in New Jersey, you could go to Frank Sinatra, and the minute the needle goes down on that record, a world is summoned up. So that interested me. I felt like, “Gee, well, okay, I want to catalog my times in a similar fashion. And the first thing is a sense of place.” So at the time, Frank had moved to Los Angeles, and nobody had laid claim on New Jersey in recent history (laughs). And when I first went to Sony, they wanted to package me as a sort of a Greenwich Village, N.Y., artist, in Dylan fashion. And I went down on the boardwalk and I picked out a little postcard that said “Greetings From Asbury Park.” And I brought it back and I said, (audience cheers) well, “That should be … that’s gonna be my album cover.” Then after the first record came out, actually, it was compared … there were some Ginsberg associations, and so I went and I got into “Howl.” There was so much rock ‘n’ roll in his poetry.

Pinsky: Related to Bruce’s music, I’m gonna do a very short poem by William Carlos Williams for you, and relate it to what Bruce just said about actual life and colloquial stuff. William Carlos Williams looks out his window, and he sees guys doing roofing. He sees the roofers. And he makes music out of just seeing … it’s “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper,” is the title. And listen to the way … it’s like it’s in the Key of Ehh. And then just Ooo. Listen to the sounds in “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper.”

Now they are resting …
in the fleckless light
separately in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly …

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be … strewn

The copper in eight
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

… at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it

That’s Williams Carlos Williams. (audience applauds)

Stace: And despite the slight age difference between you …

Springsteen: We didn’t say who was older (laughs).

Stace: No, I know, I wasn’t giving that away.

Springsteen: We just said we were 10 years apart. We didn’t say …

Stace: And don’t they actually look quite similar, in an odd way? It’s like maybe they were switched.

Springsteen: Give him your observation, Robert, earlier, about New Jerseyans.

Pinsky: Big heads.

Springsteen: Yeah. I don’t know what that’s about. But it seems to be true.

Pinsky: … and noses.

Stace: But despite the age difference, in fact, you entered the public sphere, as it were, in about the same time, in 1973 (points to Springsteen), I think, Asbury Park, and 1975 (points to Pinsky), your first book, “Sadness and Happiness.” What was the … I mean, well, in fact, you (Springsteen) just spoke to this a bit, but what was the atmosphere like then, because you (Pinsky) are famously influenced by the rhythms of jazz, and stuff like that, and Bruce, obviously, (is) a rock singer. So what were you bringing with you in those early ’70s? And what did you have to get out of the way, to say what you wanted to say?

Pinsky: I wanted to write about … it’s very similar to what Bruce said about Sinatra’s way of speaking, the way he pronounced words and his care with sentences. I wanted to acknowledge that I had read a lot of books by that point in my life, I had read a lot of things, and thought a lot. I also wanted to acknowledge who I was growing up in not the best section of Long Branch, and the boardwalk. I wanted to have it all. Not to pose as just the street kid, not to pose as just the intellectual, but to include everything. And it’s a thing … about our state. It is inclusive. The ethnic groups, the rural, the urban. And my ambition from very early was to say, “Don’t leave anything out.” You will, but you try to include everything that is inside you that you possibly can, and everything you see that you possibly can.

Springsteen: I found something in Robert’s poem, “An Explanation of America.” I don’t know if anyone … if you’ve read that. But that’s fundamental, necessary reading. It’s huge, it’s a huge poem. But in it, in the section “Serpent Knowledge,” I wrote something down. You say that, “I always feel as if I lived in a time when the country aged itself.” And I think that that connected. I felt that; that’s how I felt. We were both sort of operating post-Vietnam.

Pinsky: Vietnam was exactly what I had in mind when I wrote that.

Springsteen: Yeah. That was a huge cultural shift, in the way the country perceived itself. And I think most artists working in the shadow of that particular war had to take it into account, somehow.

Pinsky: Absolutely. No question.

Stace: Well, in fact, you (Pinsky) were talking about the democratics of voice and stuff like that. And you (Pinsky), of course, famously translated Dante, himself famous for writing in Italian, which was the language of the people, rather than in Latin, which was the language of high poetry. Was that part of that choice?

Pinsky: Dante also puts together a lot of different things. Classical stuff, pagan stuff, local politics, his personal grudges, cosmology. My favorite thing anybody ever said about me, my wife … my favorite compliment … I don’t think it was about something I wrote, it was something I made out of wood or paper. She said … it’s a Yiddish word. She said, “I love your patshke imagination.” Patshke is this gesture (pats hands together as if making a ball out of something). And Dante has a patshke imagination, too.

Stace: We’re going to talk a little bit more about that in a moment. But you (Springsteen) were talking about Robert’s poem, “The Samurai Song” …

Springsteen: Right, right. One of my faves.

Stace: … and you wanted to read it.

Springsteen: Sort of going to what Robert was just speaking, you know … speaking colloquially, using the colloquial voice. Somehow or another I met Luciano Pavarotti, the opera singer, and he made me spaghetti in his apartment one night, right? (laughs) I had seen an opera which I had never seen before. And at the end of the night, he goes, “Bruce, what do you think?” “That was great, it was fabulous.” And his voice was incredible … this was later in his career, but it was still the force of nature. And he says, “The pop singer. The pop singer has it over the opera singer.” I said, “Really?” He says, “Yeah.” I said, “How?” He said, “He sings like people speak. He sings the way people speak.”

We were talking about sort of honing our language down. And you (Pinsky) had that great comment about your pal who’s a songwriter in Nashville.

Pinsky: Yeah, Pat Alger, who’s written a lot of country and western hits … Pat and I did a couple of shows together. We were interviewed in Texas by a disc jockey. He said, “What’s the difference between writing a song and writing a poem?” And before I could answer, Pat, who is a poetry buff, a Frost collector, Pat Alger said, “Well, a little poetry can really help a song. Too much poetry will sink a song.” (audience laughs)

Springsteen: I’ve practiced both disciplines. At least what I thought was poetry, on the first couple of records. But I want to do one of my favorite poems of Robert’s, called “Samurai Song,” into a song of mine when I was trying to pare that language down. So this is “Samurai Song”: (Springsteen accompanies himself on guitar as he reads)

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

Springsteen: (performs solo acoustic version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”)

(audience applauds)

Stace: Just a normal WAMFest event.

Stace: There’s a fairly well known song of yours (Springsteen’s) that some of Robert’s poem, “Explanation,” reminded you of.

Springsteen: Oh, no, no, no. You have to be careful if you’re a songwriter reading poetry. Because the temptation to steal is ever-present (audience laughs). It’s a very concise form, similar to songwriting. It’s not like a novel. It’s concise. Those little phrases are in there. You come across one, you go, “Damn.” And your mind starts to wander. So with that in mind, who wrote these words?

(Springsteen reads excerpts from Pinsky’s “An Explanation of America,” accompanying himself on guitar.)

… the road
Smokes under your wheels as everything falls behind;
The horses take fire, barely touching the earth;
And you become entirely a flow of air,
Inspired by God — America, where do you fly?

[Editor’s note: Springsteen said “I changed a word” after saying”America.” In Pinsky’s poem, he wrote “Russia.” since he was imagining something the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol might say.]

His country thundering madly down the highway …

While highways murmuring in the night are like
A restless river, grown unpredictable
A way that rivers don’t.

I love a car — a car, I guess, is like
One’s personality, corrupt and selfish,
Full of hypnotic petty pains and joys

I’m gonna use all of those on my next record, my friend.

(performs solo acoustic version of “Born to Run.” He adds one of Pinsky’s lines, I love a car — a car,” to the end of the song, before the audience applauds.)

We could get some co-writing going, I’m telling you, my friend.

Stace: Absolutely amazing.

Stace: You know, why don’t I actually move over, right now, so the two of you can look at and work on your (Pinsky’s) poem, “Jersey Rain,” the title of this presentation.

Springsteen: This was my first book of Robert’s I came in contact with. Patti, my wife, brought it home. I said, “Jersey Rain”? Who’s this guy writing about New Jersey? (laughs) Competitive instincts, always.

(Springsteen reads Pinsky’s “Jersey Rain,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Pinsky reads the last three verses with him.)

Now near the end of the middle stretch of road
What have I learned? Some earthly wiles. An art.
That often I cannot tell good fortune from bad,
That once had seemed so easy to tell apart.

The source of art and woe aslant in wind
Dissolves or nourishes everything it touches.
What roadbank gullies and ruts it doesn’t mend
It carves the deeper, boiling tawny in ditches.

It spends itself regardless into the ocean.
It stains and scours and makes things dark or bright:
Sweat of the moon, a shroud of benediction,
The chilly liquefaction of day to night,

The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather

To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
In ripples of heat the August drought still feeds
Vapors in the sky that swell to drench my state —
The Jersey rain, my rain, in streams and beads

Of indissoluble grudge and aspiration:
Original milk, replenisher of grief,
Descending destroyer, arrowed source of passion,
Silver and black, executioner, source of life.

(Springsteen performs his own song, “The Promised Land,” with Pinsky joining him on backing vocals. Stace is off camera but may be singing as well.)

To be informed when new Springsteen/Pinsky videos are posted, subscribe to the pTV YouTube channel here.

For Stace’s memories of the event, visit

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