Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703
Robert Pinsky is an accomplished poet and critic. He was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, to Milford Pinsky, an optician, and his wife, Sylvia. All four of Pinsky’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants to America from Eastern Europe. The environment of Long Branch, which Pinsky describes as a “decayed resort town,” made a deep impression on the poet-to-be. In an autobiographical essay, “Salt Water,” Pinsky describes how living close to the ocean causes the imagination to be pushed in “extravagant directions.”
Pinsky’s memories of childhood are happy, but he was restless and unhappy as an adolescent; he was suspended from school for cutting classes and insubordination. He played the tenor saxophone and daydreamed of achieving fame as a jazz musician and composer. Playing music expressed his craving for freedom and art.
Realizing the limits of his gifts as a musician, Pinsky began to dream of becoming a poet. During his first year of graduate school at Stanford University, he showed his poems to the poet and critic Yvor Winters, who was teaching there. One of Pinsky’s better-known poems, “Essay on Psychiatrists,” includes a tribute to Winters. Undeterred by Winters’s initial criticism, Pinsky arranged a directed reading course with him on the periods of poetry in English. Pinsky marks his meeting with Winters as “a kind of birth.”
“Essay on Psychiatrists,” a seventeen-page poem from Pinsky’s first poetry collection, Sadness and Happiness, displays the discursive style that characterizes much of his poetry. Pinsky traces his employment of long lines and units to his ambition to “use all the aspects” of himself—including comedic and visionary aspects—in his art.
Pinsky’s second book of poetry, An Explanation of America, consists almost entirely of the title poem. Critics have compared its incorporation of both mundane and historical materials on a near-epic scale to Paterson (1946-1958), by William Carlos Williams, another poet who influenced Pinsky. In the poem, which critic Willard Spiegelman likens to “a melting pot of others’ voices” within Pinsky’s meditations, the poet and the oldest of his three daughters, to whom the poem is addressed, “repeat the adventure of all American immigrants confronting the vastness of the continent.” Pinsky delivers a lecture whose authoritativeness is modulated with, in Spiegelman’s words, “great tenderness.”
In 1981 Pinsky was sent by the cultural branch of the U.S. State Department on a tour of several Eastern European countries, where he read his poems and talked informally with writers, scholars, and students about American poetry. Pinsky is convinced that his awareness of the power of language is not simply an “ideology assimilated by the upward-striving, English-speaking descendent of ambitious steerage immigrants from Eastern Europe,” but rather comes from inside him.
Pinsky’s poetry has been noted not only for its tonal shifts and balances but also for its mixing of autobiographical anecdotes with political, social, and philosophical commentary. From his mother’s witnessing Fats Waller play a toy piano when she worked at Macy’s department store to his own visit to the site of a concentration camp—incidents informing poems in his third collection, History of My Heart—Pinsky interweaves the personal and public into his work.
Pinsky’s poem “Visions of Daniel,” in his fourth collection, The Want Bone, suggests that the challenge facing the biblical prophet Daniel is emblematic of that confronting twentieth century poets. The collection, published as the poet approached fifty, shows his concern with the moral dilemmas of the age and demonstrates his skill at counterpoising invention and formality.
In 1984 Pinsky’s computerized novel, Mindwheel, was published as formatted disks. Newsweek hailed the work as a “new art form.” Pinsky himself likened the multiple narratives of his “quest romance” to Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy (c. 1320). Ten years later, Pinsky would win a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his translation of The Inferno of Dante, part one of the Divine Comedy. Pinsky’s nonfiction works, which articulate his absorption in the creative tension between innovation and tradition, effectively complement his creative works. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Wellesley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and Boston University. From 1997 to 2000, he was the poet laureate of the United States.