Robert Pinsky 1940–
American poet, nonfiction writer, and translator.
Robert Pinsky's poetry is noted for its combination of vivid imagery and clear, discursive language that explores such themes as truth, the history of nations and individuals, and the transcendent aspects of simple acts. Pinsky strives to create an organized view of the world, often confronting and trying to explain the past to bring order to the present. Recurring subjects in his work include the Holocaust, religion, and childhood. Pinsky's moral tone and mastery of poetic meter often are compared to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English poets, and the insights conveyed in his analytical works on poetry have led critics to place him in the tradition of other poet-critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden.
Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey. Although he was not an accomplished student in school, Pinsky attended Rutgers University, where he formed friendships with a group of budding young writers and poets who published work in the school's journal, The Anthologist. Shunning creative writing programs, these students considered their apprenticeships as artists to be outside the domain of school and teachers' judgments. Following graduation from Rutgers, Pinsky entered Stanford University, where he studied with the noted poet, critic, and teacher Yvor Winters and earned a Ph.D in 1966. The publication of Sadness and Happiness, Pinsky's first volume of poetry, was followed by The Situation of Poetry, an exploration of poetic language in the works of several of Pinsky's contemporaries. In 1996 a collection of new and collected verse, The Figured Wheel, provided a comprehensive view of his body of work.
Pinsky's first collection of verse, Sadness and Happiness, contains both long and short poems but is noted in particular for the seventeen-page "Essay on Psychiatrists." Offering a variety of literary and cultural references, the poem is said to typify Pinsky's use of discursive poetic forms. Similarly, in the book-length poem An Explanation of America, one of his most ambitious and admired works, the poet teaches his daughter about the past so that she may shape her future. The title poem in History of My Heart is an autobiographical narrative on memory and desire that draws on many of Pinsky's childhood,
adolescent, and adult experiences. In The Want Bone he employs a pastiche technique characterized by overt word play in order to symbolize and examine the lust for life and the desire for sensual experience. The volume includes mock biblical stories on the childhood of Jesus and an extended prose section in which Jesus, in disguise, enters the story of Tristan and Isolde in order to learn about love. The new poems in The Figured Wheel are considered dense and often difficult, but ultimately valuable for their insight and multi-layered commentary.
Pinsky is often praised for his grasp of traditional metrical forms and his ability to evoke timeless meaning within the strictures of contemporary idioms. Critics applaud his ability to imbue simple images—a Brownie troop square dance, cold weather, the music of Fats Waller—with underlying meaning to create order out of the accidental events people encounter in their lives. Commentators admire Pinsky's ambitiousness, his juxtaposition of the personal with the universal, the present with the past, the simple with the complex. It has been noted that his intellectual style presents challenges to readers, obliging them to unravel the complexity behind the clarity of language and imagery.
Sadness and Happiness 1975
An Explanation of America 1979
History of My Heart 1984
Poetry and the World (poetry and essays) 1988
The Want Bone 1990
The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 1996
Other Major Works
Landor's Poetry (essays) 1968
Mindwheel (electronic novel) 1985
The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions (essays) 1976
The Inferno of Dante [translator] (poetry) 1994
The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (criticism) 1998
(The entire section is 63 words.)
SOURCE: "Explaining America: The Poetry of Robert Pinsky," Chicago Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Summer, 1981, pp. 16-26.
[In the following essay, Parini offers a positive assessment of An Explanation of America, praising his unique and original verse.]
Robert Pinsky's book-length poem An Explanation of America falls somewhere into that magical fold of "major poetry": it offers a steadiness and wholeness of vision rare in contemporary poetry. Pinsky writes with a deeply humane sensibility, drawing new water from old wells, but also reaching into areas where nobody would have guessed that poetry could be found. "A country is the things it wants to see," he tells us, and the particulars of his America materialize before us as a necessary exterior analogue to the "common dream" of humanity.
Pinsky addresses the poem to his daughter, Nicole, saying: "I want our country like a common dream / To be between us in what we see." With a range of pedagogical and fatherly tones, he instructs first by summoning the scene:
I want for you to see the things I see
And more, Colonial Diners, Disney, films
Of concentration camps, the napalmed child
Trotting through famous newsfilm in her diaper
And tattered flaps of skin, Deep Throat, the rest.
This is an inclusive vision, able...
(The entire section is 3755 words.)
SOURCE: "Responsibilities of the Poet," Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 421-33.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture at the Napa Poetry Conference in August, 1984, Pinsky outlines the social responsibilities of poets.]
Certain general ideas come up repeatedly, in various guises, when contemporary poetry is discussed. One of these might be described as the question of what, if anything, is our social responsibility as poets.
That is, there are things a poet may owe the art of poet ry—work, perhaps. And in a sense there are things writers owe themselves—emotional truthfulness, attention toward one's own feelings. But what, if anything, can a poet be said to owe other people in general, considered as a community? For what is the poet answerable? This is a more immediate—though more limited—way of putting the question than such familiar terms as "political poetry."
Another recurring topic is what might be called Poetry Gloom. I mean the sourness and kvetching that sometimes come into our feelings about our art: the mysterious disaffections, the querulous doubts, the dispirited mood in which we ask ourselves, has contemporary poetry gone downhill, does anyone at all read it, has poetry become a mere hobby, do only one's friends do it well, and so forth. This matter often comes up in the form of questions about the...
(The entire section is 4799 words.)
SOURCE: "Melancholy Pastorals: George Parker and Robert Pinsky," The Metamorphoses of Metaphor: Essays in Poetry and Fiction, Elisabeth Sifton Books, 1987, pp. 107-20.
[In the following excerpt, Corn deems Pinsky's poetry "accurate, truthful, conscientious" and compares his work to that of Walt Whitman.]
We can doubt that the book [An Explanation of America] does … in fact, explain America, but not that it defends the humane values of reason and communitarianism. It is not Pinsky's first such defense. Critic and poet, he is the author, first, of Lander's Poetry (1968), a book remarkable for the sensitivity, discrimination, and enthusiasm of its readings. It is also sometimes rash, as when Pinsky compares Landor's "To My Child Carlino" to Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode, with all the disadvantage on the side of Wordsworth. The same kind of rashness runs through The Situation of Poetry (1975), Pinsky's survey of recent American poetry, with special reference to "Ode to a Nightingale." The book argues interestingly but unconvincingly in favor of the "discursive" as a central poetic mode, and the one most able to bear moral content. Within this polemical framework, Pinsky makes many aberrant judgments, rating some poets too high, others—John Ashbery in particular—too low; and his treatment of Harold Bloom's views exceeds, in tone and manner, what could be considered a legitimate...
(The entire section is 2646 words.)
SOURCE: "'Also This, Also That': Robert Pinsky's Poetics of Inclusion," in Agni, No. 36, 1992, pp. 272-80.
[In the following review, Sacks lauds the "openness" of Pinsky's poetry.]
With his two most recent collections of prose and poetry, Robert Pinsky enlarges his role as one of contemporary America's most valuable poet-critics. Seamlessly seductive, awakening pleasure as a form of responsiveness and responsibility, his freshness and brilliance serve a didactic yet liberating and inclusionary project—the restless, enlarging evolution of the art of poetry, of the identity of its makers, and of the audiences and worlds to which it is answerable. Pinsky does not urge poets to purify the dialect of the tribe. Rather his essays and poems subvert the assumption of purity itself. They embrace language at its most diverse (hieratic to slangy) and they meld an equal range of reference (Kol Nidre to Naughty Nurses), while seeking to move us beyond the rigid "tribal" or categorical borders that keep us apart, or at each other's throats, or just plain stuck—whether in the mud or in the rules that keep us out of it.
In his acclaimed book-length poem, An Explanation of America, Pinsky celebrated (not without sorrows and warnings) the nation's "everlasting possibility"—a phrase that marks the conserving yet transgressive impulse inherited from Whitman and Williams, and...
(The entire section is 3210 words.)
SOURCE: "Robert Pinsky and the Language of Our Time," in Salmagundi, No. 103, Summer, 1994, pp. 155-77.
[In the following essay, Longenbach traces the development of Pinsky's unique poetic vision.]
Robert Pinsky has always stood apart from the various schisms used to map the world of American poetry. He not only admires both the formal terseness of Cunningham and the capacious waywardness of O'Hara; his poems also seem to partake of both these qualities. Formal and free, open and closed, Olson and Wilbur—however the twentieth-century American poetry is divided, Pinsky remains unplaceable in the best sense of the word. He has recently said that Seamus Heaney seems legitimately "post-modernist" because in his work, "formal freedom feels assumed, and matters of technique no longer fighting issues in the old modernist sense." This quality seems to me even stronger in Pinsky's own work. If he is a postmodern poet it is not because he opposes modernism in the way that some modern poets rejected their Romantic forebears; the label sticks because he has understood that opposition itself is what holds other poets down.
A poet's mark may be measured by his or her ability to expand the language (which is to say the culture) available to poetry. The effort is usually subtle (we don't need to think of Shakespeare as a formally innovative writer), and it always depends on an openness to a variety...
(The entire section is 6191 words.)
SOURCE: "A Conversation with Robert Pinsky," Triquarterly, No. 92, Winter, 1994-1995, pp. 21-37.
[In the following interview conducted by several people, Pinsky discusses the problems of translating poetry, the influence of Judaism and Eastern philosophy on his writing, and his poetic philosophy.]
[JIM KNOWLES]: There's an essay by Seamus Heaney called "The Impact of Translation" in which he starts out with a translation by you. He talks about the problem a poet writing in English might have when he realizes that the kind of poem he is struggling to write has been written already in some other part of the world.
[ROBERT PINSKY]: The poem is "Incantation," by Czeslaw Milosz, with whom I worked on various translations. Not long after Czeslaw and I had done the translation, Seamus was over to the house and I read it to him. He was struck by the same quality in it that I was. The poem is very explicit and quite, one might say, moralistic or idealistic. Could a poet in English, I thought, particularly an American poet, write such a poem? It's quite short; I'll read it to you:
Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books.
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
(The entire section is 7326 words.)
SOURCE: "Figuring Multitudes," The Nation, Vol. 262, No. 17, April 29, 1996, pp. 25-8.
[In the following favorable review of The Figured Wheel, Longenbach deems the collection "the most scrupulously intelligent body of work produced by an American poet in the past twenty-five years. "]
Since the death of Robert Lowell in 1977, no single figure has dominated American poetry in the way that Lowell, or before him Eliot, once did. I take this to be a good sign. But among the many writers who have come of age in our fin de siècle, none have succeeded more completely as poet, critic and translator than Robert Pinsky. The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems allows us to recognize the most scrupulously intelligent body of work produced by an American poet in the past twenty-five years.
Being the least dogmatic of poet-critics, Pinsky could never lend his name to an age. But in retrospect, it's difficult not to feel that the one-two punch of Sadness and Happiness (his first book of poems, published in 1975) and The Situation of Poetry (his account of American poetry after Modernism, published in 1977) had something to do with the swift decline of what we used to call the Age of Lowell—the age of high-wire, hard-drinking confessional poets. "But it is all bosh, the false / Link between genius and sickness," said Pinsky in "Essay on Psychiatrists," the long...
(The entire section is 1935 words.)
SOURCE: "World of Wonders," in the New York Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, p. 9.
[In the following review, Pollitt provides a laudatory review of Pinsky's collected poems, The Figured Wheel.]
Robert Pinsky's extraordinarily accomplished and beautiful volume of collected poems. The Figured Wheel, will remind readers that here is a poet who, without forming a mini-movement or setting himself loudly at odds with the dominant tendencies of American poetry, has brought into it something new—beginning with his first volume, Sadness and Happiness (1975), and gathering authority with each subsequent book. Call it a way of being autobiographical without being confessional, of connecting the particulars of the self—his Jewishness; his 1940's and 50's childhood in Long Branch, N.J.; his adult life as "professor or / Poet or parent or writing conference pooh-bah"—with the largest intellectual concerns of history, culture, psychology and art.
Poetry has become so disconnected from the other literary arts that we don't usually look for a poet to share important affinities except with other poets. But one of Mr. Pinsky's great accomplishments is the way he recoups for poetry some of the pleasures of prose storytelling, humor, the rich texture of a world filled with people and ideas. In its free and vigorous play of mind, his "Essay on Psychiatrists" really is an essay, a...
(The entire section is 1335 words.)
Breslin, Paul. "Four and a Half Books." Poetry CLXX, No. 4 (July 1997): 226-42.
Laudatory assessment of The Figured Wheel.
Hirsch, Edward. "Violent Desires." NYTBR (18 November 1990): 24, 36.
Views The Want Bone as "Pinsky's riskiest and most imaginative book of poems."
Nadel, Alan. "Wellesley Poets: The Works of Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart." New England Review IV, No. 2 (Winter 1981): 311-25.
Compares the Pinsky's work to that of Frank Bidart.
Pritchard, William H. "Play's the Thing." Poetry CXXXVI, No. 5 (August 1980): 295-304.
Positive review of An Explanation of America.
Spiegelmen, Willard. "The Moral Imperative in Anthony Hecht, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Pinsky." The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, pp. 56-104. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Examines the shared characteristics of these three poets, in particular their shared ethnic and geographical backgrounds.
Zawacki, Andrew. "Hope for a Shared Home." TLS (24 January 1997): 14....
(The entire section is 248 words.)