Robert Pinsky’s The Figured Wheel is an impressive collection of poems which includes a number of new poems, three of his earlier volumes, and a few translations. The organization of the book is curious; it begins with a group of Pinsky’s recent poems and moves from there to his recent books of poems and ends with his earliest poems. So it is, perhaps, best to read the book backward and start with Pinsky’s earliest book and trace his development from there to his latest poems. Pinsky is an unusual contemporary poet in his use of discursive and narrative elements in his poems. There are a number of long poems in the collection that, in some ways, do not differ significantly from an argumentative essay. He uses imagery extensively—and strikingly—but does not make the image the poem but subordinates it to the narrative or argument. In addition, he uses rhyme and a loose iambic meter in some of the poems, especially in the earlier ones. What is, perhaps, more important is his use of the poetic line, especially in the way he uses run-on lines, even run-on stanzas and run-on sections of poems.
Sadness and Happiness (1975) is Pinsky’s first book of poems; it is divided into five distinct sections. The first section is called “The Time of Year, The Time of Day,” and the poems in it are various, although there is an emphasis on the people and places of Pinsky’s early life in Long Branch, New Jersey. The first poem, for example, is “Poem About People.” The speaker first describes types of people: “Women in grocery stores . . . ” and “Balding young men in work shoes.” He feels for these types a “diffuse tenderness”; however, that vague feeling is contrasted to the demands made by a unique “Soul.” He then uses popular art—music and film—to affirm the theme. What is being asserted is the self against the type, the individual against the group. “Hate my whole kind, but me/ Love me for myself.” The poem ends with an image to define the permanent “wide spaces between us.” The movement of the poem from a sentimental “tenderness” to the fact of separation is a strategic opening for the book and the collection as a whole. It also touches on the theme of “desire” that is at the core of Pinsky’s poetry.
The title poem of the section, “The Time of Year, the Time of Day,” continues the problem of our connections to others. In this poem, the bond between man and woman is to “alleviate,/ The weather. the time of year, the time of day.” That need is defined by an incident in adolescence when the boy returning home, “cold” even in July, is overwhelmed by the burden of using the time. This desire is, for Pinsky, what sends humans to “bodies,” to “kitchens,” or in a very different reference that sends the settlers of the plains to “couple in a fury/ To fill the width of their tillable fields.” Desire is disturbing and, at times, destructive, but it is the source of all created things.
The next section, “Sadness and Happiness,” is made up of one long poem with linking parts. Pinsky has each part run on into the next since the last lines have no end punctuation. The effect is of a meditation as the poet-speaker sorts out the place of sadness and happiness in human lives. First of all, sadness and happiness are only found in memory and in that mode they cannot be distinguished. They do, however, “organize” people’s lives into the patterns they create. The speaker of the poem varies his tone; at times he is serious while at other times he mocks himself and his false idealism. For example, in part 6, he comments on the expectations others had for him to become a “Jewish-American Shakespeare.” He also mocks his chivalric and idealistic attitudes in love. At the end of the poem, he sees that sadness and happiness are only an attempt to escape from the finality of art or nature; these emotional states that seem to be so real are a process or illusory “games.” The poem as a whole is interesting in its taking on different points of view as it wends its way through the argument. In Pinsky’s critical book on poetry, The Situation of Poetry, he spoke of the need for poetry to “help us.” Placing sadness and happiness in a proper context is an example of how poetry can accomplish that.
The next two sections are devoted to memories of people and of “The Street of Furthest Memory.” Pinsky is a poet of memory, and his evocation of his father in his shop and the world of childhood in suburban New Jersey is very powerful. The most interesting section, however, is the last one called “Essay on Psychiatrists.” It is a long poem with linked parts and is very discursive. Indeed, it is saved from prose only by a sharp use of imagery and the tone of the poet. It is also a poem that attempts to sort out the role and place of the psychiatrist in modern life and times. One way to place the psychiatrist in a context and so understand his role better is Pinsky’s use of Euripides’ Bacchae. He compares a psychiatrist to both Pentheus and Dionysius, although the cunning and withholding God may be a more appropriate model for the psychiatrist. Pinsky also compares the psychiatrist to a figure in the comics—Rex Morgan. Rex is like Pentheus, completely unflappable and untouched by what goes on around him. Pinsky often uses images and allusions...