Poetry and the World

Certain myths die hard. One is the notion that poetry and criticism are antithetical. In fact, from John Dryden to T.S. Eliot some of the finest critics of poetry have been poets themselves. Robert Pinsky works in that tradition. He is the author of three books of poetry and one previous volume of criticism, THE SITUATION OF POETRY: CONTEMPORARY POETRY AND ITS TRADITIONS, published in 1976 and still one of the best guides to its subject. Pinsky’s new book, POETRY AND THE WORLD, is equally perceptive and fresh.

If poetry and criticism are not antithetical, neither should the distinction between them be blurred, as it is in the hubris of so much contemporary literary theory. Pinsky remarks that he has developed “a kind of pitying mistrust toward all literary criticism,” and as a critic one of his greatest virtues is his modest realism, closely allied to his wry sense of humor. His range in these essays is wide. There are pieces on William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and George Oppen, who could be said to represent a single tradition, but also discussions of Eliot, Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop; Seamus Heaney is the only contemporary treated at essay-length. A two-essay sequence, “American Poetry and American Life,” ranges from Philip Freneau, “the Poet of the American Revolution,” through Walt Whitman to the contemporary American scene. The title essay and two other thematic essays, “Poetry and Pleasure” and “Responsibilities of the Poet,” all center on “poetry and the world,” but each with a different emphasis. Finally, there are several autobiographical pieces connected by reflections on Pinsky’s Jewish heritage, concluding with the marvelous and moving essay “Some Passages of Isaiah.” This is a book that will be worth rereading when changes in critical fashion have consigned the much-debated theories of the 1980’s to oblivion.