“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 fifth stanza begins with a “but” that signals the change. The speaker says that “love falters and flags” whenever a person is asked to face squarely another person in need. The poem now develops both by discursive statements and by two expanded images.
The people at the grocery store were strangers, easy to love in the abstract or to reject, but now the speaker remembers a friend. This friend, divorced and alone, hangs up the pictures he had painted; his wife had kept them hidden in a closet. He says, ruefully, that she was probably right, yet he puts them up. He asks too much of others, asks for their approval and their love. Then the speaker presents an image drawn from movies that depict the development of love and its triumph over hatred. It is a rather obvious story of a young Jewish soldier attempting to save the “anti-Semitic bully” drowning in a river as they are raked by “nazi fire.” The image represents the type of symbol that modern culture provides when attempting to teach forgiveness and love.
The first of these two images shows an actuality: The divorce itself suggests that love can come to an end, and the man’s situation shows how the fact of being alone makes one more needy. The second image, the movie scene, sentimentally depicts how love and forgiveness (and, therefore, connection) between seemingly irreconcilable people win out. Movies are not actualities, however, so this image becomes deeply ironic. The last three stanzas, in a way, shift the scene again, for, although the reader is still in the mind of the speaker, the speaker gives a description of the external world again—this time of a world of full night and rain-filled wind. The images have progressed from bright, calm day to black stormy night, from images of possible love to the recognition that people’s own desperate selves keep them from one another.
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...
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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 beat that is actually there and the understood, traditional meter. The structural contrast reinforces the thematic contrasts of the poem’s ideas, the otherness of others.
Equally important, Pinsky makes extensive use of alliteration, repeating the beginning sounds of words to emphasize those words. Examples include the related b’s and p’s of the second and third stanzas in the description of the young men. The last p and b in the third stanza are in the line “possible/ To feel briefly like Jesus,” and so connect the young men with the idea of love. One more alliteration (of f) signals the change in the fifth stanza of the poem, for as the images change, the speaker tells how “love falters and flags.”
This alliteration also emphasizes the language of the poem. The language is almost solidly drawn from Old English roots and has many single-syllable words. The sound itself comes at times close to the emphatic beat of Old English alliterative verse. Such a beat hammers home the statements of the poem. More subtly, Pinsky uses contrast in language roots that also adds to the emphases: “my friend/ In his divorced schoolteacher/ Apartment” has two words, “divorced” and “apartment,” derived from French, separated by the Germanic “schoolteacher.” There is also the strange uses of “divorced schoolteacher” as a kind of compound Old English adjective for “apartment,” which calls the reader’s attention to the oddness and separateness of the friend.
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.