Robert Pinsky’s “Serpent Knowledge” is a subsection of a book-length meditation, An Explanation of America, addressed to his daughter Nicole. In the larger, extended poem, Pinsky both describes and teaches about the past: his own personal past, the past of his generation, and the past particular to Americans in the mid-twentieth century. “Serpent Knowledge” is section 2 of “Part Three: Its Everlasting Possibility” and concentrates on gathering images, ideas, and events that define for Pinsky what evil means in the United States: random violence and war, with their resultant confusion, ambivalence, and distortion.
The poem opens with Pinsky’s observation of something his daughter has written in school about snakes. She has found a textbook somewhere that suggests snakes are born “already knowing/ Everything they will ever need to know,” and her father, the poet, simply does not believe it. Pinsky’s insistence that humans are “Not born already knowing all we need” reinforces the impossibility of knowing fully even oneself, much less the wider world containing evils of humanity’s own devising and of “some new stage of life.”
The poem engages the reader (and Pinsky’s daughter) in a kind of earnest, lucid conversation in which explanations from the past illuminate the meaning of the present. In the first and second stanzas Pinsky introduces a snake, loaded with biblical allusions and sinister aspects,...
(The entire section is 506 words.)