“Ethics” was published in the early 1980s, when the U.S. economy experienced a decided upturn after two decades of civil unrest and an uncertain position in the global market. Perhaps it is no accident that an economics of worth is what drives the poem’s ethical question, “which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many years left anyhow?” When Republican Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, the country was ripe for economic reform. The former actor’s plan, later dubbed “Reaganomics,” involved drastic cuts in taxes and social spending, and resulted for a while in steep declines in interest and inflation rates, and the appearance of millions of new jobs.
In retrospect, however, that economic prosperity benefited only a few. The wealthiest five percent of Americans celebrated twenty percent gains, while three-fifths of the population, at the lower end of the economic scale, watched their income fall by nearly eight percent. Child poverty and homelessness increased exponentially. Not until October 19, 1987, the date of the biggest stock market crash on record, did Wall Street end its eightyear- long “party.” The nation’s apparent prosperity had thinly veiled its enormous trade and federal budget deficits, and there were signs that inflation and high interest rates were making a comeback. These trends were blamed for “Black Monday,” as it was called, when total share values plunged half a trillion...
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“Ethics” is written in the form called “free verse,” which depends on images and the natural rhythms of speech for its expression, not on meter or rhyme. Many modern and contemporary American poets in the last two centuries have written in free verse, revealing the range of its powers in the relative absence of “formal” patterns. Walt Whitman, for example, drew upon the “music” inherent in free verse, Robert Frost explored its capacity for drama, and William Carlos Williams explored the power of the image to provide meaning and design.
Pastan’s free verse poem tells a story about knowledge, beginning in a classroom in one kind of institution, and ending in another, a museum. However, the experience is not expressed academically or in institutional jargon. Most of the poemstory is told in the simple language, rhythm, and tone of a conversation. Pastan’s diction, or word choice, comes from accessible, everyday language. The first person pronouns I, we, my, and our increase the sense of intimacy by drawing the readerlistener into the poet’s experience. There are no stanza breaks, and the line breaks follow a natural breathing or pausing pattern. Punctuation is sparse, increasing the sense that this memoir is being spoken sotto voce to a listener close-by. Only the essential commas are retained, and there are no quotation marks to set off the spoken lines. Punctuation in a poem is analogous to the rhythmic markings and rests in music....
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Compare and Contrast
1979: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City experiences its first theft in the museum’s 110-year-old history on February 9 when an ancient Greek marble head valued at a quarter of a million dollars is stolen.
1988: Exactly nine years later, on February 9, two valuable Fra Angelico paintings are among the works stolen from a gallery in New York’s wealthy Upper East Side, in the city’s largest single art theft to date. Eighteen paintings and ten drawings valued at a total of $6 million are taken from the Colnaghi Ltd. gallery.
1990: The night of March 18, thieves enter Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and make off with $300 million worth of art, including three paintings by Rembrandt, five by Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, and the most valuable, The Concert, by Jan Vermeer. None of the paintings has been returned.
1997: In December, the Department of Justice and the FBI issue a statement regarding reports that certain individuals could broker the return of art stolen in March of 1990 from the Gardner Museum. The Department denies that any such reports are legitimate, and that photographs and paint chips purported to be that of the stolen paintings are carefully analyzed by museum officials and deemed fraudulent.
1999: On July 13, the night before Bastille Day, thieves steal Rembrandt’s Child with Soap Bubble, worth unspecified millions, from a...
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Topics for Further Study
Choose a painting by Rembrandt or another well-known artist and trace the path of its acquisitions, from studio to museum, private collector, or gallery, in as much detail as possible. What is its estimated worth today?
As a student “feeling clever,” Pastan posed the question, “why not let the woman decide herself?” in response to the question of whether an elderly woman or a Rembrandt painting should be saved in a museum fire. Render the old woman’s decision-making in the form of a dramatic monologue, poem, short story, or song.
Hold a debate using the question posed by the teacher in “Ethics” (“If there were a fire in a museum / which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?”). Prepare by becoming acquainted with several moral philosophies of famous philosophers, such as Plato, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Dewey.
Write a story based on your own encounter with an ethical dilemma. Let the story reveal the processes involved in seeking a resolution, whether it is found or not.
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The Cortland Review, an Online Literary Magazine includes a new poem by Pastan, “The New Dog,” in its May 1999 issue. The Cortland Review features poetry, fiction, and essays, and is issued monthly in both text and audio format at www.cortlandreview.com.
Pastan’s poetry also appears online at several other sites, including Poetry Daily, www.poems .com, and Atlantic Unbound, Atlantic Monthly’s online site, featuring Pastan and many other poets reading their own work in RealAudio. See www.theatlantic.com/poetry.
Reader reviews of Carnival Evening can be found through the large online bookseller, Amazon. com. Unlike book reviews published in literary journals and magazines, Amazon’s short “reviews” are unsolicited and quite varied.
Watershed Tapes recorded Pastan in 1986 reading poems about family life from several volumes of her work. The audiocassette tape, Mosaic, is available from The Writer’s Center. For listings and ordering information on the Web, go to www.writer.org/poettapes/pac15.htm.
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What Do I Read Next?
The opening poem of Barbara Ras’s Bite Every Sorrow argues that “you can’t have it all,” contrary to the myth, spawned by the American dream, that you can. However, says the poem, which is titled “You Can’t Have It All,” you can have “the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands / gloved with green,” as well as a host of other gifts the world freely gives: “You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd, / but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump, how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards, / until you learn about love, about sweet surrender.” Though not yet as well known as Pastan, Barbara Ras has been spoken of as a poet who “accurately captures the tug of war between the quotidian and the miraculous.” Bite Every Sorrow won the prestigious Walt Whitman Award in 1997 for a first book of poems.
Pastan’s most recent collection, Carnival Evening, spans thirty years of the poet’s career, and contains both new poems and a selection from nine previous volumes. If one reads through Carnival Evening chronologically, Pastan’s evolving skill with metaphor and her changing preoccupations with art, marriage, family, and aging become apparent.
One could argue that Pastan’s poetry is “confessional” in its treatment of personal, often private, emotions and situations. “Confessional poetry” emerged as a genre of American contemporary poetry in the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Gilbert, Sandra, “The Melody of the Quotidian,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol 11, No. 1, spring/summer 1983, pp. 147-56.
“Linda Pastan,” Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, Vol. 61, Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 364-67.
“Linda Pastan,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5, Part 2: American Poets Since WWII, Detroit: Gale, 1980, pp. 158-63.
Our American Century: Pride and Prosperity, the 80s, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1999.
Pastan, Linda, Carnival Evening, New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998.
Pastan, Linda, letter to the contributor, September 22, 1999.
Pastan, Linda, Waiting for My Life, New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.
Salter, Mary Jo, review of Waiting for My Life, in Washington Post Book World, July 5, 1981.
Smith, Dave, article, in American Poetry Review, January 1982.
Stitt, Peter, “Stages of Reality: The Mind/Body Problem in Contemporary Poetry,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, spring 1983, pp. 201-10.
Student Handbook: What Happened When, Nashville: The Southwestern Co., 1996.
Pastan, Linda, “Response,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, winter 1981, p. 734. Pastan was chosen along with several other poets to respond,...
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