Robert Pinsky

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Robert Pinsky Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Like many of the creative writers in the second half of the twentieth century, Robert Pinsky is closely identified with a university and may be accurately described as a major poet-critic. As a graduate student, Pinsky was charmed and influenced profoundly by the work of Winters, one of the most important poet-critics of the twentieth century and a man who is memorialized as the “old Man” in Pinsky’s long poem “Essay on Psychiatrists,” which appears in his first volume of poetry, Sadness and Happiness. From Winters, Pinsky learned the virtues of clarity in thought and diction as well as a rigorous attention to poetic meter and other details of craftsmanship. Even in the freest of his free verse, the reader will detect no slackness or ragged edges in the lines of Pinsky: a quiet elegance and reassuring feeling of control seem to guide all of his poetic compositions.

Under the influence of Winters, Pinsky developed a fondness for certain poets such asFulke Greville, Robert Herrick, Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges, and Wallace Stevens. While at Stanford, Pinsky became especially interested in the nineteenth century English Romantic poets, an enthusiasm that resulted in a dissertation on the work of Walter Savage Landor and a lifelong passion for the great odes of John Keats. Pinsky’s first published work, in fact, was not a book of poetry but his dissertation on Landor, which was published as Landor’s Poetry (1968). In that work, Pinsky began to sketch out the architecture of his critical beliefs, key ideas that would be fully examined in his two other important books of criticism: The Situation of Poetry and Poetry and the World.

To some extent, all of Pinsky’s critical theories trace their roots to his close reading and analysis of Landor’s poetry. Pinsky develops the notion that all great poetry (classical, modern, or contemporary) possesses three unmistakable characteristics: the expression of universal sentiments (love and death, for example), the use of history, and the use of mythology, not merely as decoration but as a true archetype or universal symbol (as in the work of Carl Jung).

In The Situation of Poetry, Pinsky began to refine and clarify his critical thinking, a process that undoubtedly contributed to the growth of his poetic craftsmanship. Pinsky began to move toward statements that suggest the social responsibilities of poetry and the necessity of having poetry that is humanly comprehensible, with real people and real ideas at its center. That general theory does not imply the desirability of a simplistic or merely didactic kind of poetry, but Pinsky does insist that poetry have a human center and that relationships, memory, and personal experience become the touchstones of this kind of poetry. Too much modern poetry, he believes, is unnecessarily pretentious, intent on creating a cool, noninvolved attitude. This kind of poetry is the sort that comes from creative writing programs and writing workshops at their worst, a sort of ready-made poetry that relies on superficial effects such as surrealism without making important statements. For that reason, famous poets such as Charles Simic and May Swenson fall short of the mark, in Pinsky’s estimation. He admires poetry that does not shrink from making abstract statements about life and that relies heavily on discursive statement, proportion (in thought and formal arrangement), and naturalness (appropriateness of language).

At first sight, Pinsky seems to be a reductionist, wanting to weed out any poets who do not fit his tidy definition. Actually, his program is generous and expansive, more in keeping with the spirit of two great American poets who also lived in the state of...

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New Jersey, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. What Pinsky wants, finally, is poetry firmly based in human experience, as he explains in a chapter titled “Conventions of Wonder”: “The poem, new or old, should be able to help us, if only to help us by delivering the relief that something has been understood, or even seen, well.” Poetry, then, is the ultimate form of knowledge, and for Pinsky himself that knowledge will come through poems about his father, his daughter, and his hometown. Personal poems are the key to universal poetry in this view, and for that reason, Pinsky is particularly impressed by the poetry of Keats, Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Robert Creeley, A. R. Ammons, Frank O’Hara, Louise Bogan, and, to a lesser degree, Sylvia Plath and John Ashbery. Bad poets are those who show marks of insincerity, or of self-conscious flaunting of an adopted poetic identity or persona. Their verse sounds like an echo of the English literature classroom; among them would be poets such as Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, and John Berryman.

These heterogeneous groupings of good and bad poets suggest that Pinsky is a complex thinker, and that his distinctions depend on the ultimate effect of poems rather than on their particular verse forms or metrical patterns. What the poet has to say about human experience counts more in the long run than how it is said. This complex grouping also prepares the reader for Pinsky’s third book of poetry criticism, Poetry and the World, an especially well-written critical analysis in which a kind of wholeness or inclusiveness becomes the sought-after ideal, a goal that incorporates all the varieties of Pinsky’s taste (from Keats to Creeley). Pinsky’s admiration for the poet Elizabeth Bishop is based on the duality of her approach, her ability to remain in the world and yet simultaneously transcend it. Pinsky admires Williams, Ashbery, Robert Frost, Jean Toomer, and Philip Levine because they are also in and out of the everyday material world in their poetry. Also, they use a kind of metalanguage or “heteroglossia”—that is, a contrasting mixture of ordinary Anglo-Saxon or American speech and Latinate words or exotic diction. Their poetry results in a realistic complexity that mirrors the actual way Americans speak and think at representative points during the twentieth century.

Sadness and Happiness

The first poem of Pinsky’s Sadness and Happiness serves as a kind of illustration of his desire to espouse a human-centered poetry and proves that Pinsky is the rarest of all critics: one who actually practices what he preaches. That opening poem, significantly titled “Poem About People,” offers the reader a catalog of ordinary American types, such as gray-haired women in sneakers, buying their weekly supply of soda pop, beefsteaks, ice cream, melons, and soap at the local supermarket, and young male workers in green work pants and white T-shirts that cannot conceal bulging beer bellies. Between all these types, there is a gulf of emptiness, the realm of dark spaces that can be filled only with love and tenderness, a recognition that in spite of having unlovable aspects, each human being absolutely requires love. This poem makes a great pronouncement on the need for compassion in all human undertakings (one of Pinsky’s consistent themes), for without this compassion, life would be intolerable. It is also unthinkable that human beings could, indeed, be human without the potential for compassion and love to fill the dark spaces that surround them. That love may be impossible to attain for some, but it is the fundamentally unifying dream of the human spirit. It is significant that the poem unifies all the contrary states of human life, which is why Pinsky includes Nazi and Jewish elements in the poem and why Pinsky, himself a product of Jewish tradition, wishes “to feel briefly like Jesus.”

This theme of human compassion can be expressed on the most elemental plane as well. The poet need not feel cosmic love for the human race but merely a sympathetic appreciation for the tedium and occasional boredom inherent in the ordinary passage of time, what the church fathers during the medieval age called taedium vitae. In “Waiting,” Pinsky composes a kind of minimalist poem that takes the form of a list or string of images (air, a rake handle, the stone of a peach, a dirty bandage, junk in a garage) that become odd little markers of time slipping by, things unimportant in themselves but remembered simply because they create the texture of life as it is lived. These inconsequential minutiae help to create a sense of expectancy, a quickening desire for something better in life.

Perhaps that lack of fulfillment explains why Pinsky symbolizes this inescapable tedium in the act of watching trains go by, a kind of hypnotic involvement that goes on and on without any great conclusion—a fitting symbol for the everyday, the quotidian. Finally, by beginning and ending the poem with this image of watching trains, the poet suggests a kind of circular entrapment, as if human life can be summarized in this sad but touching gesture. What keeps the poem above the plane of triviality on the one hand and cynicism on the other is Pinsky’s careful handling of the tone, which is unvaryingly compassionate without ever descending to pity or sarcasm.

In the title poem of this volume, “Sadness and Happiness,” Pinsky meditates on the great mood swings that define the human condition, the fundamental peaks and valleys of the human emotional condition, beginning with another image of unfulfilled desire, this time symbolized not by watching a train but by shopping for a new house. Pinsky opens this long poem (of thirteen parts) with the image of a short-changed American family visiting model homes every Sunday in a futile and desperate attempt to realize their impossible dream. Then he shifts abruptly to a sexual image of post coitum triste (or depression after love) to suggest sadness and happiness in a more immediate and personal way. In fact, his successes and failures as a lover and poet become one of the major themes in the poem. He admits that his primary problem is a comic-tragic self-awareness, a kind of egotism that makes him see himself as a star of the film of his life, in which he is grotesquely transformed into medieval knight, blues singer, and jazz musician. The comic absurdity of all these roles, including the additional one of Petrarchan love poet, makes him confess his shame and pride. There is a grotesque quality, after all, about a film star, “tripping over his lance, quill, phallic/ symbol or saxophone.” Later in the poem, this same line of imagery returns when he sees himself (again comically) as a kind of “Jewish-American Shakespeare”—or even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Perhaps another role he might play is that of the worn-out old jazz musician whose outpourings consist no longer of melodious notes but of repugnant phlegm and vomit, caused by excessive consumption of cheap wine and gin. As the poem draws to its conclusion, however, Pinsky becomes lyrical and serious, noting that somehow his eyes have learned to have visionary experiences, to see beyond the here and now, to appreciate and feel gratitude for the unmediated beauty of young women and even small triumphs such as the perfect home run he hit during a sandlot game (an image that has stayed with him ever since it occurred).

Sadness and happiness, then, are always juxtaposed in this unpredictable drama called human life, and they can take on unusual dimensions, as when “Sadness and Happiness” becomes the name of a bedtime game Pinsky, the loving father, plays with his young daughters, who must tell him one happy and one sad thing that occurred on that particular day. In so doing, they are like the poet and the artist because they are organizing life itself—the most difficult and the most rewarding of all accomplishments.

The final sections of Sadness and Happiness, titled “The Street of Furthest Memory” and “Essay on Psychiatrists,” constitute some of Pinsky’s most important writing. In the poems that make up these sections, he offers some of his truest observations about his life as a poet, exploring all the roots of his being, adopting a manner that is clinically precise but tenderly nostalgic and touchingly autobiographical. In effect, these sections could be seen as touchstones of his own poetic theories, proofs of a very special kind that poetry can be abstract and personal, rational and emotional, all at the same time.

Perhaps the key to achieving this marvelous yoking of private and public sentiments is the recognition of place and hometown in American life. Within a country as mobile and shifting as the United States, a sense of roots becomes a precious tool for aesthetic and personal introspection. To be denied roots is to be denied identity, as the writer Alex Haley demonstrated in his great saga Roots (1976).

For Pinsky, the locus of all the deep emotions summed up by the term “nostalgia” is the community of Long Branch, New Jersey, a seaside settlement with resemblances to the more famous Atlantic City (decaying neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, and dilapidated boardwalks along the beach). In “Salt Water,” a splendid nostalgic essay that Pinsky tellingly includes with the critical essays in Poetry and the World, he describes Long Branch as a place famous for having been visited by Abraham Lincoln and painted by Winslow Homer, and also celebrated for having produced the renowned literary critic M. H. Abrams and the controversial novelist-essayist Norman Mailer. However, Long Branch is also the location of cheap bars and honky-tonks, burned buildings, junkyards, and various underworld hideaways, including one used by mobster Vito Genovese.

For Pinsky, it is the private, personalized history of Long Branch that matters most, a complicated narrative web made of countless strands and details, such as the details in the poem “To My Father.” Pinsky’s father, Milford, was an optician, and his shop is evoked by such details as glass dust, broken spectacles, and lenses in every possible dimension and shape, all in the service of showing Pinsky’s filial affection. “To My Father” occurs in an earlier section of the book (“Persons”), suggesting how pervasive and obsessive these images are for the poet. “The Street of Furthest Memory,” which is the title poem of the Long Branch section, fills in more of the details, offering a panorama of tar-paper shacks, cheap luncheonettes, awnings flapping in the rain—images that somehow are still filled with sweetness for the poet because they are endowed with the wonder of childhood, in much the same way as William Wordsworth endowed the Lake District of England with all his sense of childhood enthusiasm.

In “Pleasure Pier,” Pinsky is transported to the arcades and carnival atmosphere of his boyhood, the fake Oriental facades, the pinball machines, the boat ride, the Fun House, and the imaginary scene in which he dies dramatically, having rescued the girl of his dreams from flames that even in retrospect feel all too real. Another imaginative reconstruction occurs in “The Destruction of Long Branch,” in which the poet imagines himself burying the Long Branch of his numinous childhood under miles and miles of artificial turf rather than have it buried under the squalor and decay that seem to be its inexorable fate.

The last of the Long Branch poems, and one of the most successful, is “The Beach Women,” a work that perfectly captures the mores of the 1950’s with references to best-selling books by John O’Hara, Herman Wouk, and Grace Metalious and allusions to cultural icons such as oval sunglasses, Time magazine, sweatshirts, and floppy dungarees. The poem creates a focal point on the beach where rich women come to pick up their young lovers, while young Pinsky, clerking at the drugstore, admires their tanned bodies and painted nails and is reduced to selling them

Perfume and lipstick, aspirins, throat lozenges and Tums,Tampax, newspapers and paperback books—brave staysAgainst boredom, discomfort, death and old age.

Sadness and Happiness concludes with one of Pinsky’s most quoted and celebrated works, a long twenty-one-part poem called “Essay on Psychiatrists,” in which the word “essay” is employed in its eighteenth century sense of the discursive treatment of a subject. Pinsky offers no plodding essay in prose form to the reader but, rather, a series of twenty-one closely interlocking poems that deal with the role of therapy in the modern world, the history of madness, the role of logic and reason, and the theories of Pinsky’s mentor, Winters. The poem shifts in mood from serious to whimsical and back again, always offering Pinsky’s sharp insights on the human condition. In section 7, “Historical (The Bacchae),” Pinsky treats the idea of madness and loss of control in the context of Greek mythology. He firmly connects the myth to the realities of modern life, including a group of actors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who perform the ancient play of Euripides in which the worshipers of Bacchus are whipped into an insane frenzy and tear limbs from living creatures. In the midst of the sea of chaos stands the figure of Pentheus, a rock of stability, whom Pinsky admires for “reason . . . good sense and reflective dignity.” It is clear that Pentheus serves here as a tidy summation of Pinsky’s personal and aesthetic ideals. Pinsky later dismisses many of the patients of psychiatrists in a rather whimsical way because they miss the seriousness of the whole enterprise, primarily because they view psychiatry as another consumer product, a small part of trendy lives fashioned around Ann Landers, designer glassware, and Marimekko drapes.

Later in the poem, Pinsky quotes his literary idol Landor, who once undertook an imaginary conversation with Greville and Sir Philip Sidney, great thinkers whom Pinsky regards as his own psychiatrists because they taught him that truth never appears in a pure or undiluted form. In this recognition, the poet believes, lies his own sanity.

In section 20, “Peroration, Concerning Genius,” Pinsky offers a brilliant and moving portrait of his pipe-smoking mentor, Winters, delivering a magnificent lecture on madness in English poetry. Winters expounds on his theory that around the middle of the eighteenth century, at the same time as the rise of capitalism and the scientific method, the logical underpinnings of Western intellectual life collapsed. The result was catastrophic for the practice of poetry, because poets were still on the scene, and they were filled “With emotions and experiences, and no way/ To examine them. At this time, poets and men/ Of genius began to go mad.” A list of madmen follows, including such notables as the poets Thomas Gray, William Collins, Christopher Smart, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and their modern counterparts, Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. This passage is one of the revealing moments in Pinsky’s published writing because it offers the formative conditions and catalysts for his own work—his desire to escape the crudeness of capitalism and science, while insisting on logic and reason as ways of warding off the great wave of madness that tends to overwhelm any poet working in the postindustrial age. Like his mentor, Pinsky believes that only wisdom can arm the poet against attacks of madness. Temporary, faddish, or clever speech is not enough; one needs the highest forms of poetry to survive this onslaught, because poetry, finally, offers truth.

An Explanation of America

In An Explanation of America, Pinsky addresses his daughter, using her as a focal point for his meditations on American culture and social history in much the same way that he used his father and the town of Long Branch to anchor his thoughts about growing up and discovering one’s roots. An Explanation of America, despite its somewhat grandiose title, is in fact a collection of a dozen poems, three groups of four, each group with a proper subtitle. In part 1, “Its Many Fragments,” Pinsky is at his most personal, writing persuasively and passionately about his daughter, her habits, and her idiosyncrasies. For example, she chooses the nom de plume Karen Owens and under this disguise reveals her innermost thoughts about childhood in an “Essay on Kids.” In games, she does not choose the conventionally desirable parts such as Mother or Princess but prefers instead to be cast as Bad Guy, Clown, or Dragon. Although talkative, and good at spelling, she exhibits a somewhat wobbly penmanship: “you cannot form two letters/ Alike or on a line.” Besides, she still sucks her thumb. Like any doting father, however, he loves her for her gazing eyes full of “liberty and independence.”

Liberty and independence are highly resonant words in the vocabulary of patriotism, but Pinsky bewails what Americans have made of those patriotic opportunities in “From the Surface,” a poem that depicts the sleaziness that all too often typifies contemporary American life. The poem begins with a shocking image of a scene from an X-rated film, which is followed by a dizzying sequence of other images of day-to-day life, including cars crashing, people dressed up as Disney cartoon animals, a collie, a pipe and slippers, tennis rackets, two people kissing on Valentine’s Day, a napalmed child from the Vietnam War, a hippie restaurant—all the good and bad that make up the visible surface of America, a documentary of what Americans are and what they dream as opposed to what they should be.

One of the goals Americans might desire is a nation in which everyone took voting seriously again, Pinsky explains to his daughter in “Local Politics” (although he realizes that she may not actually read this poem or any of the others in the book). A utopian America would be one, Pinsky insists, in which citizens no longer view the critical act of democracy, voting, as a necessary evil.

In “Countries and Explanations,” voting becomes a way of protecting the many places that make up the United States, the ground in which the roots of identity will thrive. These places include the rutabaga farms of northern Michigan and better-known places such as Levittown, Union City, Boston, Harlem, and Pinsky’s own Long Branch. These sites were all once part of a nation before the United States became a country “of different people living in different places.”

This preoccupation with place continues in part 2, “Its Great Emptiness,” which evokes the vastness of scale and simplicity of effect that define the American prairie. Almost like Whitman or Carl Sandburg, Pinsky sees the prairie and its settlers in broad, epic terms, and he narrates a brief story of Swedish and German immigrants who harvest the grain until there is a horrible accident in which a man is chewed up by the threshing machine. Events such as this provide a starting point for a true mythology of American workers and immigrants. Instead, Pinsky notes in “Bad Dreams,” Americans tend to read and interpret their experiences in terms of European or foreign models, as if they had no proper sense of identity. In “Horace, Epistulae, I, xvi,” his poetic comment on Horace’s first epistle, Pinsky also notes that unless Americans can break away from the shackles of their self-imposed materialism, they can never discover their own identity. A similar fate awaited the ancient Romans, he implies.

Pinsky believes that a glorious American union is possible in real political terms, because he sees the process already underway at the level of language, specifically in the unifying effects of American names, which nevertheless preserve a distinct racial and ethnic flavor. These names may be French, Spanish, Scottish, Italian, or German in origin. A “Yankee” is just a jankel or Dutchman, after all. Thus the Germanic Mr. Diehl could hire boys with Italian surnames to work for him. America is a patchwork quilt of names, including eagles, elks, moose, and masons. Pinsky ends this magnificent poetic meditation by echoing Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” when he concludes that America is “so large, and strangely broken, and unforeseen.” It is in that “unforeseen” that all the promise and potential lie, waiting to be tapped.

History of My Heart

If Sadness and Happiness was directed toward Pinsky’s father and An Explanation of America toward his daughter, then History of My Heart is addressed to his mother, whose powerful will and even stronger imagination created the matrix in which young Robert thrived. The title poem narrates his mother’s imaginary memory of seeing Fats Waller and two girlfriends when she was still a girl and worked at Macy’s during school vacations. This magical moment is replayed on a more pedestrian scale by young Robert at a Christmas party, dancing erotically with his girlfriend, then going out into the snow, just like Fats Waller. His mother gives him his name not only in the legal sense but in a physical one, too, since she has a printer make up a lead slug with the twelve letters of his name (ROBERT PINSKY) reversed on their surface. In the end of his adolescence, all of her claims on him, except perhaps her claim as a catalyst for his imagination, prove powerless. Robert goes off into his own world, playing his saxophone, and, like adolescents everywhere, tries desperately to attract the notice of the world. That, he concludes, is the history of his heart, since the saxophone player-poet is still craving the attention of an audience.

The Want Bone

In The Want Bone, Pinsky returns to the themes and interests expressed in Landor’s Poetry and Sadness and Happiness, especially the great theme of compassion based on a deep sympathy for human needs and desires (as symbolized by the “want bone”) and the use of religious symbolism and mythology (especially his use of apocryphal material loosely based on the life of Christ). This apocryphal material figures prominently in the first poem of the collection, “From the Childhood of Jesus.” In this bizarre and arresting tale, Jesus is depicted as a precocious five-year-old boy who apparently violates the Sabbath by fashioning twelve clay sparrows and by damming the river to make a little pool from which the birds might drink. A self-righteous Jew immediately complains to Joseph about the boy’s apparent profanation of the holy day, but Jesus claps his hands, and the clay birds miraculously flutter their wings and fly away. The son of Annas the scribe appears and destroys Jesus’ dam. Jesus curses him, and the son of Annas begins to wither and die. The poem ends with the boy Jesus crying himself to sleep as the twelve birds fly continually throughout the night.

In this rewriting, retelling, or reinventing of scriptures, Pinsky is putting his theories about religious symbolism and mythology into practice. Clearly, he seeks to emphasize in this paradoxical tale that sympathy (or faith) is what Jesus will require in his mission on earth, and that his powers of creation are, indeed, godlike even if he chooses to curse the nonbeliever. Most important in the tale are the birds that have taken off and will not land—until they become the twelve chosen apostles.

“The Want Bone,” the title poem of the collection, is a generous and complex work of art, enticing and subtle, a poem that manages in sixteen lines to compress the whole history of human desire—and perhaps the history of life itself—in a brilliant sequence of fresh and startling images. Like all of Pinsky’s poetry and criticism, “The Want Bone” enshrines the great qualities of balance (the word “O” is positioned at the very center and end of the poem), clarity of language and imagery (images such as “the tongue of the waves”), precise diction (“swale,” “gash,” “etched,” and “pickled”), and precision of thought (a movement, a kind of zoological and historical evolution from the waves of the ocean to the rapacious mouth of the shark, whose jaw provides the literal “want bone” of the title). Finally, like all of Pinsky’s work, “The Want Bone” is a supremely human utterance, not merely because it is the product of a human artist but also because its meaning is fundamentally human, a celebration of human desire, an evocation of all the “wanting” that may never be fulfilled. The “O” is thus a great zero of emptiness and frustration and simultaneously a resounding “O” of exultation and unalloyed joy—a perfect symbol for the mysterious complexity that Pinsky manages to discover again in the best of his poetry. As the bleached jaw of the shark seems to sing, so, too, may the poet say to the world: “But O I love you.”

The Figured Wheel

The Figured Wheel brought together Pinsky’s four previous volumes plus more than twenty new poems and a generous representation of his translations. This three-hundred-page collection made clear that Pinsky, still then only in his mid-fifties, had been a commanding figure in American poetry for a quarter century. It shows the remarkable range of his interests, intelligence, and craft. Never a fashionable poet or a trendsetter, Pinsky has nevertheless brought a distinctive, highly intelligent voice to the great poetic feast of his era.

Jersey Rain

Jersey Rain reveals an unusually lyrical—even musical—Pinsky. A slim and subtle volume, its poems radiate around the symbolic suggestiveness of the book’s presiding central figure, the Roman god Hermes, at once messenger, trickster, and inventor of instruments. Alternately erudite, personal, witty, and reverent, the poems in Jersey Rain step beyond the boundaries of collected volume into fresh territory. In “Ode to Meaning,” Pinsky defines the spirit he serves: “You not in the words, not even/ Between the words, but a torsion,/ A cleavage, a stirring.”

Gulf Music

In these poems, the stances Pinsky takes toward the events of the world express deeply felt values, protests against injustice, and pity for the oppressed. The first poem in the volume, “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” gives the reader images drawn from the American, South African, Argentinian, and Afghanistani worlds, seemingly disconnected in space and time but really a bitter criticism of the evils of political terror by the state; there is also the occasional mockery of the state’s voice, as when Pinsky writes, “Our enemies ’disassemble,’ says the President/ Not that anyone at all couldn’t mis-peak,” or a juror in the trial of a Klansman is quoted as saying, she “just couldn’t vote to convict a pastor.” The Argentinian torturers “demand” that their prisoners call them professor; a prisoner at Guantánamo, without paper, “incised” his “poems into styrofoam cups,” although, admittedly, later he is given paper, pen, and books. Thus, Pinsky’s poem is about the misuse of language, religion, and art in an attempt to justify state terror, although at the same time, art is presented as a means of protest and salvation.

The title poem, “Gulf Music,” is a riff on the experiences of black and Jewish Americans, both outsiders. Thematically, the poem is about American creativity but also about loss. Working forward from the terrible 1900 destruction of Galveston, Texas, in a hurricane, the stories are interwoven, but they never connect—except in the poem.

In “Stupid Meditation on Peace,” a speaker asserts, “We choose one of two tributaries: the River/ of Peace or the River of Productivity,” adding that “an artist must follow the stinks and the rapids/ Of the branch that drives millstones and dynamos.” In a way, the speaker presents Pinsky’s own position. He writes of the things of this world (and uses his own background) to make a picture and a criticism of the world as it too often is.

“The Anniversary” centers on the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Pinsky writes of the American experience, the turning of American inventiveness against the people of the nation, but also Americans’ forgetfulness of their experience, naming people perhaps half-forgotten, as signs of what and how Americans are: “Who are the Americans, not/ A people by blood or religion?” However, he closes the poem with the image of the Statue of Liberty, an image by which he asserts that it is liberty, not riches or blessedness, that Americans must seek.

In the poems that deal with Pinsky’s childhood, the Jewish experience is personal and collective, and the undercurrent is the long and terrible history of the Jews. The eight-armed candelabra, the six-sided star of David, and the two tablets of the Law become the sign of the collective, but they are also the sign of the experiences of the individual. At the same time, however, they are about humankind, not just one part of humankind. Pinsky’s “Note” at the end of the book identifies and explains certain names, places, and things (including the derivation and history of the word “thing” itself) used in the poems.

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