The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Poem About People” is composed of thirteen unrhymed quatrains with no immediately obvious metrical pattern. Its title establishes its subject; written in the first person, the poem is the speaker’s quiet meditation on what people are in appearance and in actuality and how they relate to one another.

It opens with the “I” speaking of the people he sees at grocery stores. In particular, he notes apparently middle-class, middle-aged, but still attractive women, and polite, fattish young men. Although they are all strangers to the speaker, they are people whom he believes he could like. Indeed, he says, one could “feel briefly like Jesus,” referring to the New Testament (as well as Old Testament) command “to love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The first three quatrains are concrete and almost cheerful; by suggestion, it is broad daylight. As the fourth quatrain opens, the tone and the images begin to change. The speaker feels “a gust of diffuse tenderness” that seems to link him with these people, but this gust is “crossing the dark spaces” between him and them. The poem is no longer about the sunlit world of people at the market, about human relationships; it moves within and is now about what the speaker is seeing and remembering, there where “the dry self burrows.”

The remainder of the poem is given over to showing how people do not connect with one another despite this “gust.” The third line of the...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The critic Ian Hamilton, in the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry, calls Pinsky a discursive poet—that is, one who is more likely to deal with statements and abstractions than with images. This is true in that Pinsky’s subject matter is usually more than expressions of mood or feelings: His poems are also explorations of ideas. “Poem About People,” however, is filled with images and subtly metaphoric language, as, for instance, those that bring out human commonalities with animals—animals that are, in the end, alone. The young men have a “porky walk,” and “the dry self burrows.” More important, these deep selves are connected by a simile (a comparison using “like”) to the robin on the lawn and then evolutionarily back to the robin’s “lizard” ancestry. The only other simile in the poem is the moment when the speaker speaks of momentarily feeling “like Jesus.” These two similes are opposites, with the second one, leading from self to robin to lizard, cancelling out the first, which speaks of love.

Sound is very important to Pinsky and to this poem. Sound is an essential element in the meaning. Although the poem lacks an obvious meter, most of the lines are built on three-or four-beat measures and are so arranged that the poem continually hesitates on the edge of becoming iambic tetrameter. In short, there is a traditional music in the background, but there is also a tension between the finely rhythmical...

(The entire section is 486 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.