An Explanation of America
In 1976, Robert Pinsky published The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions, where he examined influences exerted upon contemporary poetry by the traditions of modernism, essentially Romantic and post-Romantic trends. His insightful criticism derived from a fairly straightforward thesis: “that we learn many of our attitudes toward language and reality from the past, and that it takes considerable effort by a poet either to understand and apply these attitudes . . . or to abandon them.” He noted, too, that modern poetry’s ambition had something “to do with giving the poem some of the status of an object or phenomenon, rather than a statement.” This leads to a curious conflict between the poet’s abstract medium (words and sentences on a page) and “his convictions about reality and art,” which tend to emphasize concrete particulars.
An Explanation of America might well be seen, if not as a resolution of this conflict, at least as an attempt to use the conflict to advantage. Indeed, having read An Explanation of America, one might look at The Situation of Poetry as working out the rhetorical stance from which An Explanation of America makes its assertions. The poetry is bold and ambitious, nearly Whitmanesque, although decidedly more refined; it carries tradition to logical extensions, unafraid to make statements yet creating itself as a phenomenon; it is wonder full, filled, as Pinsky phrases the idea in The Situation of Poetry, with “our most significant feelings in response to nature,” “an abrupt and non-referential awe”; and finally, it proceeds with a definite motive for its emotion. The effect is stunning: a cohesive, sophisticated address sensitively offered to Pinsky’s daughter, explicating mysteries of this entity one learns to call America but can never apprehend save in the imaginary way one constructs all realities in which to believe.
The most obvious result of Pinsky’s effort here is tremendous unity, an unswerving central purpose: to communicate something of his vision to a daughter, herself only an unknown quantity. In the “Prologue: You,” Pinsky speaks directly:
I want to tell you something about our country,Or my idea of it: explaining itIf not to you, to my idea of you.
He affects no mask or persona, establishes no fictional context, perhaps because the essential relativity of all contexts has been established by the simple words “or” and “if.” Unity gathers around the intention to articulate something of value, to create an artifact that mirrors experience yet transcends that experience by force of poetic will. The artifact, because of its attempt to reflect something so multifaceted as America, must by definition include disparate elements, a collation of themes, a diversity of images, and must define its terms in ways suitable to discourse between strangers.
In fact, the whole of An Explanation of America seeks to define the terms of existence, just as
In a way, every stranger must imagineThe place where he finds himself—as shrewd OdysseusWas able to imagine, as he wandered,The ways and perils of a foreign place. . . .
Unfortunately, the terms of our existence are abstract, not easily explainable, coming as they do from the combined but still individual perceptions each person has of the world. We are caught in the paradox of “solitude and sharing.” Fortunately, our terms derive from concrete particulars which are identifiable—the images we sense, the phenomena we record—so their description can evoke emotional response, can help define what it is we mean to say to one another. The meaning, however, can never be complete and exact. How, after all, would one define a country if, as Pinsky says, “a country is the things it wants to see”? Even the particulars are indeterminate:
For place, itself, is always a kind of motion,A part of it artificial and preserved,And a part born in a blur of loss and change—All places in motion from where we thought we were.
So, too, imagination, limitation, and vision all are subject to mutability, the imprecision of relative perception.
Such definitions work only in context, and only history and tradition gain them credibility, whether they be right or wrong. An isolated event seems gratuitous, inexplicable, a terrifyingly incomprehensible stroke, as when in one section Pinsky describes how an itinerant tramp out on the wheat prairie leaps suddenly into the maw of a threshing machine, stunning the gathered fieldhands and dying a grizzly death. The approach to death seems insane, an insane love. Pinsky asks readers to imagine that love, to visualize the mystic plain and its heat, and to imagine the intentional death. Just as surely, he wants readers to
Imagine that a man, who had seen a prairie,Should write a poem about a Dark or ShadowThat seemed to be both his, and the prairie’s—as ifThe shadow proved that he was not a man,But something that lived in quiet, like the grass.
He asks readers to face their fear, to begin to feel their union with the great loneliness that is an illusory country and imagine that man:
In the dark proof he finds in his poem, the manMight come to think of himself as the very prairie,The sod itself, not lonely, and immune to death.
Against these images, Pinsky later presents a translation of Horace’s Epistle I, xvi where a quite different approach to death appears. Horace describes to Quinctius his farm, a place of quite repose on the outskirts of Rome. He defines the idea of a good man and then cites Euripides’ The Bacchae and a slave’s determination to control his own life no matter what King Pentheus might do. In a section that follows, Pinsky explains:
I think that what the poet meant was this:That freedom, even in a free Republic,Rests untimately on the right to die.
A definition has been inverted, a change wrought in our perceptions. A philosophical imperative has been implied, and limitations from outside no longer hold authority over the individual will. One shapes the image and becomes what vision allows although “there are perils in living always in vision”; and, “one’s aspirations must depend/Upon the opportunities.” The universe is gratuitous.
Pinsky’s message to his daughter, then, is to welcome the everlasting possibilities, to prepare as thoroughly as is possible for seizing the chance occurrences that make a life. He wants her to grasp that America’s complexity, admitting of a tradition it hardly knows, can be emblematic for life as a whole, can be as terrifyingly inexplicable as are far away acts of violence against a friend or a stranger.
On the whole, An Explanation of America rejects simplistic explanations or partial solutions to understanding existence. Its last sections speak to possibilities and limitations, the mingling of the two in the unforeseeable future. They also recall the indelible imprint of the past, thus emphasizing the continually transitory nature of the present. The book, then searches along the edges of experience for its terms, seeks the small apertures of insight that will help define a sensible image. It is introspective, philosophical, the kind of ambitious attempt that one should attend carefully to understand fully. Its surface effects are gratifying, derived from a wealth of penetrating images and a richness of language used deftly to express wonder, the experience of which writers have used “as an analogy and even as cause or result.”
The achievement of An Explanation of America is its scope and its rhetorical assertion that a formal but direct statement can be made, and that the statement provides a motive for emotional consideration of the collective experience, which, although it may not produce a wholly satisfying truth, at least begins to define something communicable about the collective consciousness, the image, for example, of America and all its diversity of tradition. An Explanation of America serves, too, as a major step in Pinsky’s art, representing an emergence into a larger field of discourse than seemed possible in his first book of poems, Sadness and Happiness. Finally, it seems a logical outgrowth of Pinsky’s astute criticisms of contemporary poetry, a manifestation drawn from close study of the modern traditions and a willful bending of those traditions to serve an intensely personal purpose.
Dietz, Maggie, and Robert Pinsky, eds. An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
Downing, Ben, and Daniel Kunitz. “The Art of Poetry: LXXVI.” Paris Review 144 (Fall, 1997): 180-213.
Pinsky, Robert. Democracy Culture and the Voice of Poetry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Pinsky, Robert. The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
Pinsky, Robert. Poetry and the World. New York: Ecco Press, 1988.