Robert Pinsky

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Robert Pinsky American Literature Analysis

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Pinsky continually confronts the major contemporary issue of human interconnectedness and every person’s involvement in one another’s lives: ethnically, socially, politically, historically, religiously, temporally, and through place. Though raised in a Jewish household, he seems to express an ambiguity or inner conflict of calling himself Jewish in his poems and dismisses a labeling of himself as only a Jewish author. His poetry encompasses far more than one religion or one place. In the closing notes of The Figured Wheel, Robert Pinsky states: “Religion concerns me . . . as a vivid, charged example of the passion to create.” His affinity for religion then may be a religion of art itself.

Pinsky’s poetry is known for reverberating and echoing the past in each present moment and image. For example, in “Shirt,” one finds a circling back and forth in time and place between a shirt the speaker is wearing, the people who made this shirt, a fire in 1911 at the Triangle Shrtwaist factory in New York City, and the English poet George Herbert. This poem acts like a photograph album where each image is like a depiction of different scenes but all of the same book, all somehow of similar fate and destiny.

For Pinsky, it became art that could translate the complexities of the world and its people into an understandable language. This language is best understood through hearing poetry spoken by a living human being. Pinsky often claims that a person’s actual voice in poetry is necessary to the art of poetry.

Pinsky’s poetry is also known for its sharp contrasting images and juxtapositions. For instance, in “The Figured Wheel,” an imaginary wheel of fate rolls through several scenes set in contrast with one another: In the first line, for example, the wheel rolls through “shopping malls and prisons.” By setting up this contrast within the same line, Pinsky forces the reader to reexamine all that is viewed as generally good and bad. In the closing lines, the wheel rolls by Pinsky himself and his family, and this is where Pinsky’s major theme of human interconnectedness, a theme that reverberates throughout his life’s work, becomes explicit.

On a smaller scale, the poem “The Unseen” takes a specific scene and concentrates on the immediate effects of one place while broadening itself to the effects years later on tourists going through the Nazi death camp in Krakow, Poland. The poem begins with a general visual description of Krakow and its surroundings. The dream vision in the poem brings the reader back to a hypothetical historical account of the death camp in action during World War II. In this way, it acts as a striking contrast to the tourists roaming around an empty death camp like a museum. Once again, Pinsky echoes the past through each present moment, and as each moment unfolds, the reader may understand more about where he or she has come from rather than where he or she is going.

In poems such as “The Want Bone,” Pinsky is less specific about a certain place with a particular history. Instead, the poem’s scene is a beach with a shark’s dried mouthbone opened like a gaping hole, and the speaker in the poem is describing the bone and his reaction to the bone. The poem still uses a specific object as a vehicle to a universal idea. In this way, it is similar to “Shirt” but leaves the reader craving something more, because there are less specific details about this bone’s history. It is a universal bone, some object that desires or wants or instills desire in...

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the person seeing the bone.

Furthermore, a sense of desire lurks throughout Pinsky’s poems, and sometimes it is a desire to know the reasons for history’s outcome and humanity’s fate. Pinsky’s use of the wheel is appropriate in his cyclical analysis and descriptions of generation after generation being faced with the same problems. In “The City Dark,” from The Figured Wheel, one may use the line “the mathematical veil of generation” to describe this unknowingness which the mysterious figured wheel rolls through. There are an infinite amount of possibilities and poems to describe another aspect of this mystery. It is a mystery that plays on human interconnectedness as in “An Explanation of America” from An Explanation of America: on the death and life cycle, the learning and forgetting of each generation in one nation, and particularly, the negative things of the past. “An Explanation of America” is a poem written for Pinsky’s daughter, and therefore one must notice the poem’s contrasting grievous and joyous moments. For instance, in the section titled, “IV Epilogue: Endings,” his daughter (and the reader) is presented with hope and fear as the poet describes children that “bind us to the future.” In the following scenes, there are more hopeful descriptions, such as “In the Sierras,/ Where Winter’s never far, the country is clear,/ A stage of granite swept for mediation.” It may be hope and fear then, that accurately describe Pinsky’s poetry, a fear of the figured wheel and the cycles of the past continuing through each generation, committing the same atrocities, yet somewhere, there is a hope for the future.

“The Figured Wheel”

First published: 1984 (collected in History of My Heart, 1984)

Type of work: Poem

A poem depicts an imaginary collective wheel that rolls through the human condition.

“The Figured Wheel” is a poem that reports the condition of humanity. The first line describes the wheel as rolling, which immediately gives the reader a specific image that acts as a device to carry the reader through each scene.

The images and actions of the poem are set in contrast within each line throughout the poem. In a single line, snow and sand are separated and then recombined, and the wheel rolls through fresh water and salt water as well as flecks of tar and molten rock. There is a constant separating and combining through each image as the reader passes through the pantheons of gods, demigods, gargoyles, and dryads. An inescapable terror also exists in this “cold, cyclical dark, turning and returning,” an undeniable guilt that is in both the scorched and the frozen parts of this world.

These images and scenes through which the figured wheel rolls are collected by the wheel and eventually include the life of Pinsky and his family. Because the poet is also a part of this figuration, the reader may get a sense of himself or herself as a part of this wheel’s accretion, and thus one is led to a vision of complicity. In the final line, three versions of this figuration are presented: figured, which may represent a present state; prefigured as in a past figuration; and transfiguring, something that will continue to change. This suggests that in all three states—past, present, and future—Pinsky, his family, and the reader exist on this wheel.

“The Unseen”

First published: 1984 (collected in History of My Heart, 1984)

Type of work: Poem

The reader is given an image of Krakow, an empty World War II concentration camp, and the dream vision of a man’s inner conflict about the past and its burden.

“The Unseen” is set in a specific town in Poland with a particular historical burden. Immediately, the reader knows the setting: the rain, the stone arcade, and smoky air of one “penetrating color.” This color is gray, setting a particular empty tone to the poem. The people in the poem are on a tour and the speaker in the poem provides the images for the reader, including the audience to tour the death camp.

Pinsky presents a list: toothbrushes, hair, shoes, photographs. These are all human ordinary materials, which adds irony to this tour of a death camp, since a death camp seems unordinary and horrific. The speaker even remarks, “We felt bored,” but then, with the use of enjambment, Pinsky juxtaposes boredom with the next line, “And at the same time like screaming Biblical phrases: I am poured out like water.” It is necessary to grasp this allusion to Psalm 22:14 in order to understand the poem’s underlying theme. Psalm 22 is the prophecy of the Messiah, of Christ, and begins with the words “Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me,” Christ’s final words when dying on the cross. Though Pinsky is Jewish and is walking through a death camp where Jews were tortured and killed, he still includes the suffering of Christ, who was a Jewish man, with the suffering of all the Jews killed in these death camps. This brings the poem a more universal theme of suffering and loss.

All this is suddenly altered with the dream vision of the speaker in the poem, invisible, unseen, walking the camp, and killing the Nazi soldiers and officers. The reader may identify with this desire to do justice unto those who have done evil, but the speaker in the poem comes out of the dream and humbles himself. The speaker confronts the “discredited Lord” as a “servant” gaping obediently, accepting all that has been in the face of a much greater being whose mysteriousness is inexplicable.

The easy interpretation of this poem would be to accept that Pinsky is giving his readers a nihilistic outlook of this world, but the textual evidence reads with more humility and acceptance of a powerful unknowable being. When the speaker states, “but still/ We try to take in what won’t be turned from in despair,” the reader must recognize that the speaker in the poem will not despair and believe in nothing, but rather, like Job, the speaker will trust those mysterious secrets of the day and night to be something greater.


First published: 1990 (collected in The Want Bone, 1990)

Type of work: Poem

The complex history of one shirt is expanded to portray the interconnectedness of humanity.

“Shirt” is an example of Pinsky using historical occurrences and translating the effects of these occurrences into present-day situations. The first scenes are in sweatshops in Korea and Malaysia, where Pinsky portrays the everyday workers, gossiping over tea or talking politics.

Pinsky uses the language of the factory, mentioning the presser, the cutter, the wringer, the mangle, the needle, the union, the treadle, and the bobbin. What changes this rhythm of listing is a sole phrase: “The Code.” The reader’s attention is drawn back and is set up for the next scene: “The infamous blaze/ At the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in nineteen-eleven.” This allusion is to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, a sweatshop where, in 1911, a fire broke out and killed more than one hundred immigrant workers. The conditions of sweatshops were difficult to work in, with low wages, long hours, dangerous conditions, and, as Pinsky points out ironically, they were unsafe in the case of fire because the fire “Code” might be dismissed.

The next scene in the poem displays a vision of martyrs from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory falling to their death and is juxtaposed with a reference to Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge.” This image brings the reader back to the subject of the poem: the shirt. Pinsky makes a more complex list of designs and patterns and shirt-making history and of Scottish and Calico patterns. Then there is George Herbert, the seventeenth century British poet who becomes an ancestor to Irma, a woman in South Carolina who inspected Pinsky’s shirt. Thus, Pinsky returns to himself in the poem as a part of this history, a part of the effects of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and Herbert, a part of the loss and the gain over time.

“A Woman”

First published: 1984 (collected in History of My Heart, 1984)

Type of work: Poem

“A Woman” is a poem of memory, looking back at childhood scenes of restriction.

“A Woman” begins by looking back thirty years ago. The speaker in the poem describes a scene and a “fearful” woman taking a child for a walk. The word “fearful” is the reader’s first indication of tone. The poet lists the specific particularities of his location, recreating the place as in a memory. Once Pinsky has established his composition of place, the woman’s character becomes apparent. She is a woman who is superstitious, warning the child in every sentence, dreaming of “horror and catastrophe—/ Mourners, hospitals.”

Following this is a detailed scene that the woman dreams of where she finds a family in her own room with their throats cut. Then the reader is brought back to the New Jersey shore where the child and woman have walked out to Port-au-Peck. They pass the “ineffectual sea wall,” something that tries to hold the sea back from spilling onto land but is described as “ineffectual.” Then the speaker in the poem describes the violence of the ocean meeting the river, the “exhilaration of water.” All this energy is suppressed into the next image of froth from a milk shake poured from a steel shaker into a glass. No energy or violence in the milk shake exists. It is another precaution, a holding back.

The poem ends with a final vision of restriction as the boy remembers a previous Halloween and the woman holding him back from going up the street with the other children in their cowboy gear. The irony is in the boy’s costume. A cowboy is known as a solitary man, living under no rules or restrictions, able to go off and return whenever he wants. One may ask then, does the speaker in the poem who vowed never to forgive this woman forgive her thirty years later?

“At Pleasure Bay”

First published: 1990 (collected in The Want Bone, 1990)

Type of work: Poem

The poem serves as an exploration of place through the effects of time at Pleasure Bay.

“At Pleasure Bay” is a place poem, but unlike many other poems by Pinsky, it lacks a formal structure. This gives the reader a more fluid exploration of place and captures the spirit of place through Pleasure Bay’s historical context and landscape.

In the second line of “At Pleasure Bay,” Pinsky employs the catbird as singing “never the same phrase twice.” This line reverberates throughout the poem in various scenes with the catbird at Pleasure Bay and from the music issuing from Price’s Hotel near the landing. A catbird is a small gray bird in the same family as mockingbirds and thrashers. It is known for its irregular succession of notes and its catlike meowing phrase. The catbird may act as the poet of this poem. This is observable when Pinsky, melding and changing the sounds and images of Pleasure Bay, writes of “the catbird filling/ The humid August evening near the inlet/ With borrowed music that he melds and changes.” The contrast of a piano’s music across the river, “the same phrase twice and again,” and the catbird carry the reader through “the same place. But never the same way twice.” This is the outline structure of the poem within which people live and die, boats run whiskey, and cars cross the bridge. That this is Pleasure Bay, one may wonder what is pleasurable about it. Does one choose the catbird’s phrase or the piano as one’s pleasure? Or, one may simply lay down with the spirit of place and become another presence, a part of the spirit at Pleasure Bay.

“The Want Bone”

First published: 1990 (collected in The Want Bone, 1990)

Type of work: Poem

“The Want Bone” is a meditation poem about a shark’s mouth bone on the beach and desire.

“The Want Bone” begins with a paradoxical image: “The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth’s bell.” “Tongue” and “wave” are both words that imply fluidity and change, whereas the Earth suggests solidity. A tolling of bells often connotes death. Then there is “the dried mouthbone of a shark.” The mouth bone gapes but cannot close on anything.

The image of the gaping mouth, dead and dried, but still gaping, even as the tongues of the sea waves and the Earth toll death, suggests an image of the action of desire. Whatever the desire is, the poem acts as a meditation on wanting. Pinsky also employs the letter O as a poetic visual and audible device to give the impression of openness, a gaping hole or something empty to be filled.

The act of desire, when one wants something, cannot be expressed except by a reaching out for the desirable thing, a gaping toward the thing wanted. Because the dried mouth bone of a shark is in the sand on a beach under the hot sun, one may imagine the shark’s flesh that wrapped around the bones. If one imagines further back in time to the shark alive, one may imagine the shark’s desire to return to the water, to its home where it could continue living. This desire then may be a desire for life.

“The Want Bone” may be a monumental poem for Pinsky. It exemplifies the desire to create life, to give through poetry and emotion, voice and rhythm, the common experience of humanity, that of wanting and yearning to be alive.


Robert Pinsky Poetry: American Poets Analysis