In 1976, Robert Pinsky published The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions, where he examined influences exerted upon contemporary poetry by the traditions of modernism, essentially Romantic and post-Romantic trends. His insightful criticism derived from a fairly straightforward thesis: “that we learn many of our attitudes toward language and reality from the past, and that it takes considerable effort by a poet either to understand and apply these attitudes . . . or to abandon them.” He noted, too, that modern poetry’s ambition had something “to do with giving the poem some of the status of an object or phenomenon, rather than a statement.” This leads to a curious conflict between the poet’s abstract medium (words and sentences on a page) and “his convictions about reality and art,” which tend to emphasize concrete particulars.
An Explanation of America might well be seen, if not as a resolution of this conflict, at least as an attempt to use the conflict to advantage. Indeed, having read An Explanation of America, one might look at The Situation of Poetry as working out the rhetorical stance from which An Explanation of America makes its assertions. The poetry is bold and ambitious, nearly Whitmanesque, although decidedly more refined; it carries tradition to logical extensions, unafraid to make statements yet creating itself as a phenomenon; it is wonder full, filled, as Pinsky phrases the idea in The Situation of Poetry, with “our most significant feelings in response to nature,” “an abrupt and non-referential awe”; and finally, it proceeds with a definite motive for its emotion. The effect is stunning: a cohesive, sophisticated address sensitively offered to Pinsky’s daughter, explicating mysteries of this entity one learns to call America but can never apprehend save in the imaginary way one constructs all realities in which to believe.
The most obvious result of Pinsky’s effort here is tremendous unity, an unswerving central purpose: to communicate something of his vision to a daughter, herself only an unknown quantity. In the “Prologue: You,” Pinsky speaks directly:
I want to tell you something about our country,Or my idea of it: explaining itIf not to you, to my idea of you.
He affects no mask or persona, establishes no fictional context, perhaps because the essential relativity of all contexts has been established by the simple words “or” and “if.” Unity gathers around the intention to articulate something of value, to create an artifact that mirrors experience yet transcends that experience by force of poetic will. The artifact, because of its attempt to reflect something so multifaceted as America, must by definition include disparate elements, a collation of themes, a diversity of images, and must define its terms in ways suitable to discourse between strangers.
In fact, the whole of An Explanation of America seeks to define the terms of existence, just as
In a way, every stranger must imagineThe place where he finds himself—as shrewd...
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