Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 94)
Robert Pinsky 1940–
American poet, nonfiction writer, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Pinsky's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 19, and 38.
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 seemingly simple acts. Pinsky strives to create an organized view of the world, often confronting and trying to explain the past so as 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 are often compared to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English poets, and the insights conveyed in his analytical works on poetry have caused critics to place him in the tradition of such other poet-critics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. Pinsky is also an accomplished translator, and his version of the first part of Dante Alighieri's Commedia (c. 1307–c. 1314), The Inferno of Dante (1994), has earned high praise and numerous awards.
Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, a once-famous ocean resort that was decaying by the time of Pinsky's birth. The ethnic makeup of Long Branch was Jewish and Italian, with the resort serving as a summer home for several Mafia families. Pinsky's grandfather had been a bootlegger during Prohibition and owned the local tavern; his father had an established optometric practice. The family, as a result, enjoyed a measure of local prestige and Pinsky was known to many in town; he had, he has said, a kind of "aristocratic upbringing." 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' judgements. After graduating 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 (1975), Pinsky's first volume of poetry, was followed by The Situation of Poetry (1976), an exploration of poetic language in the works of several of Pinsky's contemporaries. Pinsky has also collaborated on translations of Czeslaw Milosz's poetry and on a computerized novel called Mindwheel (1985). He has held a variety of teaching posts, and has been the poetry editor of The New Republic since 1978.
Pinsky's two volumes of critical poetic theory—The Situation of Poetry and Poetry and the World (1988)—articulate his belief in linguistic clarity as the means to expanding the boundaries of poetic expression. 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 (1979), one of Pinsky's 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 (1984) is an autobiographical narrative on memory and desire which draws on many of Pinsky's childhood, adolescent, and adult experiences. In The Want Bone (1990) 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 Inferno of Dante is an English translation of the first part of Dante's three-part poetic work Commedia. The Inferno follows Dante and the Roman poet Virgil as they descend and explore the nine levels of Hell, where sinners eternally suffer torments that reflect their sins in life; for example, as Edward Hirsch noted, in Inferno "sin is literalized: those who succumbed to anger tear perpetually at one another's naked bodies; gluttons wallow in putrid soil and get chewed by Cerberus; murderers boil in a river of blood." To give the narrative a nearly physical sense of spiraling descent, Dante created the terza rima rhyme scheme. Terza rima is made up of tercets, three-line stanzas linked by the rhyming pattern a b a / b c b / d c d etc. Because terza rima is integral to the poetic character of Inferno, Pinsky's translation simulates the pattern by using "slant-rhymes," a scheme based on like-sounding consonants at the ends of lines in each tercet. Pinsky also attempts to preserve Dante's intended meanings by expanding on or compressing what a literal translation of the Italian would render.
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 Pinsky's 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. Critics admire Pinsky's ambitiousness, his juxtaposition of the personal with the universal, the present with the past, the simple with the complex. Critics note that his intellectual style presents challenges to readers, obliging them to unravel the complexity behind the clarity of language and imagery. Regarding his translation of Dante, while most critics applaud the readability of Pinsky's version and praise his evocation of Dante's "vulgar eloquence," a few commentators suggest that the phrasing in places remains stilted and that his slant-rhymes do not convey the "momentum" of the original terza rima. Nevertheless, most critics agree with Hirsch that The Inferno of Dante maintains "the original's episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character," and that "Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante's vernacular music where many others have failed."
Landor's Poetry (essays) 1968
Sadness and Happiness (poetry) 1975
The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions (essays) 1976
An Explanation of America (poetry) 1979
History of My Heart (poetry) 1984
Poetry and the World (poetry and essays) 1988
The Want Bone (poetry) 1990
The Inferno of Dante [translator] (poetry) 1994
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SOURCE: A review of History of My Heart, in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 213-14.
[Corey is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review, a portion of which appeared in CLC-38, he praises Pinsky for the depth of his insights and for not succumbing to sentimentality as he offers hopeful "assertions" about the human condition.]
The rhythms of Robert Pinsky's work are characterized by a graceful sheen and ease that some readers have taken as an indication of a moral naïveté or indifference or even flippancy; he has been thought too decorous, too much the aesthete, for our difficult age. But his caring and wisdom run deep, and the quiet tones of his poems only lay a delicate skin over the abyss he has seen too well. Apparently, he finds the lullings and liftings of music to be among the only stays sufficiently strong for our bleak confusions: "The world, random, / Is so real, it is as if our own / Good or bad luck were here only / As a kind of filler, holding together / Just that much of the adjacent / Splendor and terror."
One way to bend the luck, to try to steer the random for a moment, is by making memory work hard enough—driving it down to the specific places and names in our histories. Sometimes the drive leads to terror, as in "The Unseen" [from History of My Heart], a poem about visiting the "monument" of a...
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SOURCE: A review of History of My Heart, in Poetry, Vol. CXLVII, No. 4, January, 1986, pp. 236-38.
[Mitchell is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review, he praises Pinsky's poetic ambitions and the combination of "boldness" and "restraint" in the poems in History of My Heart.]
Three short poems in History of My Heart, called "Three on Luck," are written so convincingly in the rhythms and phrases of contemporary speech that, next to the others in the book, they sound like poems in dialect. Beside them the rest seem formal and ornate. They are also the only poems in the book spoken by someone other than Pinsky, or the person we take to be Pinsky. The older poet in "Three on Luck" says, "'Don't squander the success of your first book; / Now that you have a little reputation, / Be patient until you've written one as good.'" By contrast, "The Unseen" ends with a passage of old-fashioned rhetoric which does what I imagine rhetoric has always done, i.e., compress thought and feeling in an expansion of syntax and locution:
… we have
No shape, we are poured out like water, but still
We try to take in what won't be turned from in despair:
As if, just as we turned toward the fumbled...
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SOURCE: "Rat-Rhymers, Shit-Burners, Transformation, and Grandpa Dave," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 140-45.
[Libby is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from a review in which he examines Pinsky's Poetry and the World and Terrence Des Pres's Praises and Dispraises, Politics and Poetry, the 20th Century (1988), he discusses the ways in which Pinsky addresses political matters in the reviews and essays collected in the volume.]
There is evidence of a measure of [American poetic] self-censorship in the cyclical uproar about the question of the relationship between poetry and politics, which wouldn't even be taken seriously in any other country.
Carolyn Forché, American Poetry Review Interview, (November/December 1988)
If poets are really the unacknowledged legislators of the world, they have a lot to answer for. In America we would rather believe, with Auden, that poetry makes nothing happen. Even when we write about politics and poetry, and write out of evident anguish and conviction, we tend to create analyses of negation. Both of these books [Poetry and the World and Praises and Dispraises, Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century by Terrence Des Pres], which approach the problem of politics and poetry from opposed angles, mix deep...
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SOURCE: A review of Poetry and the World, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn, 1989, pp. 751-52.
[In the following favorable review of Poetry and the World, Brown summarizes Pinsky's main critical points and contends that the book's most interesting pieces are the ones which relate memories of Pinsky's childhood and family.]
[Poetry and the World is a] mixed salad indeed, but one which is deftly tossed and agreeably seasoned. Robert Pinsky flings into the bowl the most varied ingredients: recollections of his youth in Long Branch, New Jersey; a commentary on some passages of Isaiah memorized for his Bar Mitzvah; an account of his trip to Poland on a cultural mission for the State Department; a section, "Poetry and the World," with essays such as "Poetry and Pleasure" and "The Responsibilities of the Poet" as well as brief pieces on Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, George Oppen, Seamus Heaney, and Philip Larkin; a treatment of "American Poetry and American Life" composed of two parts, "Freneau, Whitman, and Williams" and "American Poetry and American Life." In his foreword he claims that these various elements all concern "the relation of poetry to its great, shadowy social context, the world." They are also linked by a common tone, a tone of relaxed, unpretentious conversation comprehensible to the common reader.
Pinsky's criticism is far removed from...
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SOURCE: "Poetry, Criticism, and the World," in Poetry, Vol. CLVI, No. 5, August, 1990, pp. 297-308.
[Breslin is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt from a review of Pinsky's Poetry and the World and J. D. McClatchy's White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry (1989), he describes the former as "essential," even though "it promises more 'world' than it delivers."]
In Poetry and the World and White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry, two well-known poets present selections of their essays. Robert Pinsky has already written two prose books, one of which, The Situation of Poetry, has been widely and justly praised. (The other, a short study of Walter Savage Landor [Landor's Poetry], is less celebrated but well worth reading.) Poetry and the World, as its capacious title suggests, is less formal than its predecessors, ranging from critical essays through reflections on the "responsibilities of the poet" to autobiographical pieces such as "Salt Water." Nonetheless, Pinsky tells us in his "Foreword," the "parts have been selected and recast, and most of them were written, with the idea in mind of poetry's relation to its great, shadowy social context: 'the world.'" McClatchy's title is less free-wheeling: only contemporary American poetry will be addressed, and although McClatchy has written on many contemporary poets, he has...
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SOURCE: "Shapes of Desire," in The New Republic, Vol. 203, No. 13, September 24, 1990, pp. 46-8.
[McClatchy is an American poet, critic, and educator whose books of poetry include The Rest of the Way (1990). In the following review of The Want Bone, he concludes that Pinsky writes "poems as spirited and weighty, eloquent and startling, as any poet of his generation."]
Two years ago Robert Pinsky published a vigorous and engaging collection of essays called Poetry and the World. Harvested from a decade's work, it was a miscellaneous group: autobiographical sketches, meditations on the Bible and on political attitudes, reviews of recent books, a pair of public lectures on the origins of an American poetry. But underneath the variety of his subjects, Pinsky's preoccupation throughout the book was to clarify, if not to explain, poetry's function as "a bridge between the worldly and the spiritual." By maintaining a "decorum, a limiting boundary" between its voluptuous surfaces and the rigor of its ideas, between the dragging anchor of memory and its flights of imagination, poetry enacts the tension that any reader feels, caught between the communal world of his living and the isolate self of his life. The poets whom Pinsky most admires draw both into their work. "The qualities of physical grace, lively social texture, and inward revelation" that he finds in Whitman and Williams mark the...
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SOURCE: A review of The Want Bone, in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 1, October, 1990, pp. 39-41.
[Corn is an American poet, critic, translator, and educator. In the following highly positive review of The Want Bone, he lauds Pinsky for his "wonderful ear for poetic line" and the ways in which he examines the theme of "human wishes and the obstacles to them."]
Readers of Robert Pinsky's first two books hailed him as a new W. C. Williams, gifted at transforming the dailiness of life into a significant poetry. Realism and narrative characterized those books and continued even into the third, at least in the long title poem, "The History of My Heart." With the shorter poems in that book, though, a new approach became evident. Realism gave way to a fabular imagination, to organization by montage and association rather than by narrative or logical exposition. This is the method of almost every poem in The Want Bone as well. Realistic detail, even snippets of history appear in the poems, but only as fleeting moments in larger meditations, where they take their place among other details from quite different contexts. Unity isn't achieved through clenched teeth but makes itself felt in recurring key words, themes and contexts. As with cinematic montage, or painterly collage, we're asked to discover the synaptic connection between disparate psychological states and material phenomena. The resulting...
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SOURCE: "Running with the Ball," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 251, No. 21, December 17, 1990, pp. 780-82.
[In the following positive review of The Want Bone, Bogen hails Pinsky's ability to incorporate a multitude of images, motifs, and styles into his poetry without dissipating his main thematic concerns.]
With its blunt rhythm, clumsy double "n"s and "aw" sound followed by long "o," the title of Robert Pinsky's new book [The Want Bone] is a mouthful. Say it aloud and you can hear the echo of baby talk. Want-bone, want-bone—when the image is defined a few pages into the volume, the infantile overtones seem grimly appropriate. What could be more primal than a shark's jaw?
The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded, toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.
This is not only strong but very smart poetry. The music in the quatrain shows Pinsky's command of formal technique: a fluent iambic pentameter with alternate unstressed and stressed line endings; a pattern of half-rhymes interrupted perfectly by the final "O"; and well-placed internal echoes stressing important words like "harp" and "arcs," "open" and "O," and the repeated...
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SOURCE: "Contemporary Poetics and History: Pinsky, Klepfisz, and Rothenberg," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 171-88.
[In the following excerpt from a review in which he examines Pinsky's The Want Bone, Irena Klepfisz's A Few Words in the Mother Tongue (1990), and Jerome Rothenberg's Khurbn, and Other Poems (1989), McCorkle discusses the ways in which Pinsky engages public and political issues in his poetry.]
Typical of discussions of poetry and politics, and the larger domain of history, is a sense of the necessity or decorum to maintain a division between poetry and the other two areas. The popularization of Adorno's question—can there be poetry after Auschwitz—has further mediated the reception of contemporary poetry, if not the very moment of poesis. Equally prevalent is the argument, generous in some ways, that all poetry is political. Carolyn Forché, in her essay, "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire," writes:
In those days I kept my work as a poet and journalist separate, of two distinct mentalités, but I could not keep El Salvador from my poems because it had become so much a part of my life. I was cautioned to avoid mixing art and politics, that one damages the other, and it was some time before I realized that "political poetry" often means the poetry of protest, accused of polemical didacticism, and not...
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SOURCE: "Dante's Canto XXV: Among the Thieves, A Note and a Translation," in Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, Summer, 1994, pp. 18-25.
[In the following essay, Pinsky discusses the theme of horror in Canto XXV of The Inferno. Pinsky also presents his translation of the Canto, demonstrating how he handles Dante's terza rima rhyme scheme.]
The remarkable physical details of Inferno XXV suggest the idea that Dante invented horror.
The notion of horror as we know it from fiction or the movies involves detailed, uncanny transformation of the human body, with erotic and moral overtones: the overwhelmed stare of the zombie; the flickering eyes of the aroused mummy; the elegant neck-bite that changes the virginal heroine forever; Jekyll or the werewolf helplessly becoming stronger, hairier, more animal; the hunger of George Romero's living dead, relentless and contagious. The body may be snatched or bitten, invaded or inverted or duplicated, obscenely revived or horribly distorted, but above all it changes. The human takes on qualities of the animal or of inert matter. In this sense of the word, horror at the least has one of its earliest manifestations in Canto XXV.
The body does change in Ovid and Lucan—as Dante acknowledges here in his audacious challenge to the two Latin poets, his models here. But it could be argued that in the...
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SOURCE: A review of The Inferno of Dante, in The New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1995, pp. 3, 21.
[Ahern is an American educator and noted Dante scholar. In the following favorable review of The Inferno of Dante, he discusses the difficulties of rendering into English Dante's "vulgar eloquence" and his polyphony of narrative voices.]
Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended Dante's Commedia as the textbook to teach the young the art of writing well: "Dante knew how to throw the weight of his body into each act…. I find him full of the nobil volgare eloquenza; that he knows 'God damn,' and can be rowdy if he please, and he does please." Neither Emerson nor his young admirer Walt Whitman gave us a rowdy American "Comedy." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation appeared in 1865, a decade after Leaves of Grass. As a professor of Romance languages and the author of Evangeline, Longfellow seemed an ideal translator, but as one critic quipped, he had translated the Comedy into the English dictionary, not the English language. His inert rendering never engaged the living American language. Since then, on both sides of the Atlantic, more than a hundred Englishings of the Comedy have appeared, but none has achieved rowdiness or vulgar eloquence.
Dante wrote his epic not in Latin but in ordinary language (Italian) in which, he archly...
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SOURCE: "A Fresh Hell," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 46, January 23, 1995, pp. 87-90.
[Hirsch is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review, he favorably assesses The Inferno of Dante, contending that Pinsky's translation is "fast-paced, idiomatic, and accurate."]
The journey into the underworld is one of the most obsessively recurring stories of the Western imagination. Something in us thrills to the metaphor of a hero descending into the bowels of the earth, into the region of demons and lost souls, and escaping to tell the tale. Greek mythology is filled with such fabulous descents: a Thracian minstrel (Orpheus) sings so poignantly that he charms his way into the netherworld to reclaim his lost bride; a man of murderous physical prowess (Heracles) sets off for Hades to retrieve a hellhound with three heads and a snake's tail in order to fulfill the last of twelve labors. In Book XI of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus sails his ship into a country where the sun never shines, and there, pouring libations to the dead, he summons a swarm of ghosts, among them an unburied friend, his aged mother, and the seer Tiresias. This is echoed in Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid, when Aeneas persuades the Sibyl of Cumae to guide him into Hades, so he can speak with his dead father about the future. As Homer's scene informed Virgil's, so Virgil's account served as a prototype for Dante's...
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SOURCE: "Bringing Dante Into the Realm of Contemporary English," in The New York Times, January 31, 1995, pp. C13-C14.
[In the following essay, Schemo discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Pinsky's translation. She also reports on Pinsky's reaction to the attention The Inferno of Dante has received.]
It was not a late-born obsession with evil or the ways of damnation that drove Robert Pinsky to translate Dante's Inferno, the 14th-century poet's odyssey through hell. Rather, it was the challenge of tackling the first slice of the Divine Comedy, perhaps the greatest poem ever written. The Inferno had been rendered into English a hundred times by scholars and writers, and yet remained elusive, unmastered, poetry's Everest of the underworld.
Some, like Dorothy L. Sayers in the late 1940's, had gone for a strict line-by-line translation of the Divine Comedy, and ended up with a work that sounded stilted to the English ear, lacking the momentum of the Italian original. The poet Allen Mandelbaum, whose paperback version is widely used in university courses, worked 20 years to preserve the line-by-line sequence and diction of Dante, but did not attempt to match rhymes. Charles S. Singleton's 1970 edition—considered perhaps the most scholarly, with separate volumes for notes—eschewed the poetic form altogether for a painstakingly literal prose...
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SOURCE: "When Pinsky Met Dante: A Modern Poet Enters the Inferno," in Chicago Tribune-Books, February 12, 1995, pp. 5, 8.
[In the following review of The Inferno of Dante, Kart compares Pinsky's translation with that of C. H. Sisson, finding Pinsky's inferior.]
Robert Pinsky (The Want Bone, History of My Heart, An Explanation of America, etc.) is a major American poet and a nearly unique one. Casting about through the literary past, the sole English-language poet who bears much resemblance to him is the too-little-known Elizabethan master Fulke Greville, whose verse, like Pinsky's, can be at once urgently plainspoken and remarkably virtuosic, especially in the sphere of rhythm. It's a paradoxical blend of virtues, arising, I think, because the impulses that drive their work are more public than private. And because they need to speak to, argue with and convince an actual or imagined "us," their verse tends to become elaborate only when what they have to say demands that.
Now Pinsky has given us a translation of Dante's Inferno—a poem that, whatever else it might be, is also a starling act of public speech. But Pinsky's Inferno [The Inferno of Dante] is not a success—an opinion that needs to be amplified, given the acclaim with which this translation has been greeted.
Making Dante "sound like a poem in English" is Pinsky's...
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