Robert Pinsky Poetry: American Poets Analysis
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 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...
(The entire section is 5,415 words.)