Robert Pinsky Pinsky, Robert - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Robert Pinsky 1940–

American poet, nonfiction writer, and translator.

Robert Pinsky's poetry is noted for its combination of vivid imagery and clear, discursive language that explores such themes as truth, the history of nations and individuals, and the transcendent aspects of simple acts. Pinsky strives to create an organized view of the world, often confronting and trying to explain the past to bring order to the present. Recurring subjects in his work include the Holocaust, religion, and childhood. Pinsky's moral tone and mastery of poetic meter often are compared to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English poets, and the insights conveyed in his analytical works on poetry have led critics to place him in the tradition of other poet-critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden.

Biographical Information

Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey. Although he was not an accomplished student in school, Pinsky attended Rutgers University, where he formed friendships with a group of budding young writers and poets who published work in the school's journal, The Anthologist. Shunning creative writing programs, these students considered their apprenticeships as artists to be outside the domain of school and teachers' judgments. Following graduation from Rutgers, Pinsky entered Stanford University, where he studied with the noted poet, critic, and teacher Yvor Winters and earned a Ph.D in 1966. The publication of Sadness and Happiness, Pinsky's first volume of poetry, was followed by The Situation of Poetry, an exploration of poetic language in the works of several of Pinsky's contemporaries. In 1996 a collection of new and collected verse, The Figured Wheel, provided a comprehensive view of his body of work.

Major Works

Pinsky's first collection of verse, Sadness and Happiness, contains both long and short poems but is noted in particular for the seventeen-page "Essay on Psychiatrists." Offering a variety of literary and cultural references, the poem is said to typify Pinsky's use of discursive poetic forms. Similarly, in the book-length poem An Explanation of America, one of his most ambitious and admired works, the poet teaches his daughter about the past so that she may shape her future. The title poem in History of My Heart is an autobiographical narrative on memory and desire that draws on many of Pinsky's childhood,

adolescent, and adult experiences. In The Want Bone he employs a pastiche technique characterized by overt word play in order to symbolize and examine the lust for life and the desire for sensual experience. The volume includes mock biblical stories on the childhood of Jesus and an extended prose section in which Jesus, in disguise, enters the story of Tristan and Isolde in order to learn about love. The new poems in The Figured Wheel are considered dense and often difficult, but ultimately valuable for their insight and multi-layered commentary.

Critical Reception

Pinsky is often praised for his grasp of traditional metrical forms and his ability to evoke timeless meaning within the strictures of contemporary idioms. Critics applaud his ability to imbue simple images—a Brownie troop square dance, cold weather, the music of Fats Waller—with underlying meaning to create order out of the accidental events people encounter in their lives. Commentators admire Pinsky's ambitiousness, his juxtaposition of the personal with the universal, the present with the past, the simple with the complex. It has been noted that his intellectual style presents challenges to readers, obliging them to unravel the complexity behind the clarity of language and imagery.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Sadness and Happiness 1975

An Explanation of America 1979

History of My Heart 1984

Poetry and the World (poetry and essays) 1988

The Want Bone 1990

The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 1996

Other Major Works

Landor's Poetry (essays) 1968

Mindwheel (electronic novel) 1985

The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions (essays) 1976

The Inferno of Dante [translator] (poetry) 1994

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (criticism) 1998

Jay Parini (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Explaining America: The Poetry of Robert Pinsky," Chicago Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Summer, 1981, pp. 16-26.

[In the following essay, Parini offers a positive assessment of An Explanation of America, praising his unique and original verse.]

Robert Pinsky's book-length poem An Explanation of America falls somewhere into that magical fold of "major poetry": it offers a steadiness and wholeness of vision rare in contemporary poetry. Pinsky writes with a deeply humane sensibility, drawing new water from old wells, but also reaching into areas where nobody would have guessed that poetry could be found. "A country is the things it wants to see," he tells us, and the particulars of his America materialize before us as a necessary exterior analogue to the "common dream" of humanity.

Pinsky addresses the poem to his daughter, Nicole, saying: "I want our country like a common dream / To be between us in what we see." With a range of pedagogical and fatherly tones, he instructs first by summoning the scene:

I want for you to see the things I see
And more, Colonial Diners, Disney, films
Of concentration camps, the napalmed child
Trotting through famous newsfilm in her diaper
And tattered flaps of skin, Deep Throat, the rest.

This is an inclusive vision, able to contemplate and to "explain" a breadth of ideas, objects, images, and events. And it is quintessentially American in its effort to include so much, yet another attempt to fulfill the Emersonian quest for a poem able to contain the vast reach and complexity of this continent.

Dissatisfaction with the brief Romantic lyric propelled Whitman to write Leaves of Grass, and, even before Whitman, prompted Joel Barlow's Columbiad; it has been an abiding obsession with American poets. In the era of Modernism, the great efforts of Eliot, Pound and Williams stand out; the next generation includes Lowell's Mills of the Kavanaughs, Ginsberg's Howl, and Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons. More recently we have seen Anne Stevenson's little-known but exemplary epistolary novel in verse, Correspondences, and James Merrill's dialogues with the spiritual world; both of these try to recover for poetry some of the ground lost in this century to the novel and are narrative in essence. Robert Pinsky, however, has managed to write a successful long discursive poem. In doing so, he appears to have sacrificed none of the narrative compulsion without which it is impossible to read a long poem.

Although reminiscent of Wordsworth, Whitman, and Stevens, Pinsky's verse is something new. The newness enters with the poet's meditative, modest, oddly affecting tone and in the way he moves effortlessly from abstract formulation to vivid particulars—a technique which Pinsky developed concretely in his first book of poetry, Sadness and Happiness, and on a more theoretical level in his criticism.


An Explanation of America is Pinsky's second book of poems but his fourth book. He has also written a book on Walter Savage Landor, a celebrated study of contemporary verse entitled The Situation of Poetry, and innumerable essays and reviews. Like Johnson, Coleridge, and Eliot before him, Pinsky is determined to create the taste by which he will be judged. The Situation of Poetry is dedicated to his great teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters, whose tough-minded intellectual tone underlies Pinsky's own bemused voice. Winters's principles are in evidence throughout: the firm anti-Romantic bias (in severely modified form), the disposition toward argument in poetry, the willingness to admit and appreciate abstraction and discursive statement. Pinsky writes:

Modem poetry was created by writers born about a hundred years ago. The premises of their work included a mistrust of abstraction and statement, a desire to escape the blatantly conventional aspects of form, and an ambition to grasp the world by using the static, general medium of language. These premises are paradoxical, or at least peculiar, in themselves. Moreover, the brilliant stylistic inventions associated—notably the techniques of "imagism," which convey the powerful illusion that a poet presents, rather than tells about, a sensory experience—are also peculiar as techniques.

Or, as he says, they once seemed peculiar. The climate of expectation is such that these Romantic premises have simply been absorbed into the current fund of tacit knowledge. Thus, elder poets will regularly advise their students: embody an experience, don't tell about it; avoid abstraction and concentrate on a "deep image;" let the shape of a poem evolve, don't prescribe a form. I have myself mouthed these truisms during writing seminars as though they fell somehow outside the realm of arguable notion. Horace, Virgil, Milton, and certainly Pope would have been desperately puzzled. We may be grateful to Pinsky (as to Winters and J. V. Cunningham) for pointing out the historically anomalous nature of our current presuppositions.

Pinsky's own tacit presuppositions emerge as he discusses the work of other writers, such as his interest in "traditional verse" in the older, broader sense in which the poet employs discursive statement and "detail is handled in the proportioned, natural way of great art." His readiness to accept abstraction of a certain kind stands out, as does his intuitive grasp of the symbol-making function and its relation to the concrete image. His ideas about poetry, interesting enough on their own, acquire added significance in the light of Sadness and Happiness and An Explanation of America, wherein Theory and Practice, those infrequently married travelers on the open road, meet happily and wed.


Sadness and Happiness (1975) was not a typical apprentice volume because it excluded a fair number of poems which had already appeared in magazines, but which Pinsky discarded as juvenilia. Thus, with his first book of poems he stepped into his majority at once. The book is richly textured and complete in itself, though in obvious ways if foreshadows An Explanation of America. The title poem, for example, plus the final sequence, "Essay on Psychiatrists," look forward to the discursive style of Pinsky's later book.

I must confess here a special liking for this poet's shorter lyrics. In the brief aubade, "First Early Mornings Together," his technical brilliance, a bemused and generous tone, and a talent for evincing with a single stroke the image perfectly suited to convey the emotional atmosphere are evident:

Waking up over the candy store together
We hear birds waking up below the sill
And slowly recognize ourselves, the weather,
The time, and the birds that rustle there until

Down to the street as fog and quiet lift
The pigeons from the wrinkled awning flutter
To reconnoiter, mutter, stare and shift
Pecking by ones or twos the rainbowed gutter.

Without fuss, the poet joins inner with outer weathers, the subjective state of feeling shared by the lovers with the physical state of the outside world, represented by the birds, the fog and external sounds. Pinsky often affects the simplicity of, say, Pound in his Cathay poems or the breathless clarity of Chinese verse as we in the West have come to know it.

Many of the poems in Sadness and Happiness evoke the decaying streets and emotionally pathetic atmosphere of the small New Jersey town where the poet grew up. They share with the poems of Williams, though little else, a profound affection for ordinary objects. The poems are alive with, as Pinsky says, "the things I see," which include: "houses and cars, trees / grasses and birds," as well as incidents: "dusk / on a golf course" or "white / selvage of a mockingbird's gray / blur as he dabbles wings and tail / in a gutter." A poet is one who looks close enough, long enough, at objects so that they take on something of the poet's life; the point at which an object resists assimilation is the point of poetry. Pinsky understands this and perches, breathlessly, on that very point in poem after poem.

My favorite poem in Sadness and Happiness is called "Tennis," and it is a masterpiece of elaborate conceit. Written in the guise of an instructor's manual for tennis, for winning at tennis, the poem explores the American obsession with victory. Notice the cool, detached tone of the final section, "Winning":

Call questionable balls his way, not yours;
You lose the point but have your concentration,
The grail of self-respect. Wear white. Mind losing.

Walk, never run, between points: it will save
Your breath, and hypnotize him, and he...

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Robert Pinsky (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Responsibilities of the Poet," Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 421-33.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture at the Napa Poetry Conference in August, 1984, Pinsky outlines the social responsibilities of poets.]

Certain general ideas come up repeatedly, in various guises, when contemporary poetry is discussed. One of these might be described as the question of what, if anything, is our social responsibility as poets.

That is, there are things a poet may owe the art of poet ry—work, perhaps. And in a sense there are things writers owe themselves—emotional truthfulness, attention toward one's own...

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Alfred Corn (excerpt date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Melancholy Pastorals: George Parker and Robert Pinsky," The Metamorphoses of Metaphor: Essays in Poetry and Fiction, Elisabeth Sifton Books, 1987, pp. 107-20.

[In the following excerpt, Corn deems Pinsky's poetry "accurate, truthful, conscientious" and compares his work to that of Walt Whitman.]

We can doubt that the book [An Explanation of America] does … in fact, explain America, but not that it defends the humane values of reason and communitarianism. It is not Pinsky's first such defense. Critic and poet, he is the author, first, of Lander's Poetry (1968), a book remarkable for the sensitivity, discrimination, and enthusiasm of its...

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Peter Sacks (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Also This, Also That': Robert Pinsky's Poetics of Inclusion," in Agni, No. 36, 1992, pp. 272-80.

[In the following review, Sacks lauds the "openness" of Pinsky's poetry.]

With his two most recent collections of prose and poetry, Robert Pinsky enlarges his role as one of contemporary America's most valuable poet-critics. Seamlessly seductive, awakening pleasure as a form of responsiveness and responsibility, his freshness and brilliance serve a didactic yet liberating and inclusionary project—the restless, enlarging evolution of the art of poetry, of the identity of its makers, and of the audiences and worlds to which it is answerable. Pinsky does not urge...

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James Longenbach (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Robert Pinsky and the Language of Our Time," in Salmagundi, No. 103, Summer, 1994, pp. 155-77.

[In the following essay, Longenbach traces the development of Pinsky's unique poetic vision.]

Robert Pinsky has always stood apart from the various schisms used to map the world of American poetry. He not only admires both the formal terseness of Cunningham and the capacious waywardness of O'Hara; his poems also seem to partake of both these qualities. Formal and free, open and closed, Olson and Wilbur—however the twentieth-century American poetry is divided, Pinsky remains unplaceable in the best sense of the word. He has recently said that Seamus Heaney seems...

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James Longenbach (review date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Figuring Multitudes," The Nation, Vol. 262, No. 17, April 29, 1996, pp. 25-8.

[In the following favorable review of The Figured Wheel, Longenbach deems the collection "the most scrupulously intelligent body of work produced by an American poet in the past twenty-five years. "]

Since the death of Robert Lowell in 1977, no single figure has dominated American poetry in the way that Lowell, or before him Eliot, once did. I take this to be a good sign. But among the many writers who have come of age in our fin de siècle, none have succeeded more completely as poet, critic and translator than Robert Pinsky. The Figured Wheel: New and Collected...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Breslin, Paul. "Four and a Half Books." Poetry CLXX, No. 4 (July 1997): 226-42.

Laudatory assessment of The Figured Wheel.

Hirsch, Edward. "Violent Desires." NYTBR (18 November 1990): 24, 36.

Views The Want Bone as "Pinsky's riskiest and most imaginative book of poems."

Nadel, Alan. "Wellesley Poets: The Works of Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart." New England Review IV, No. 2 (Winter 1981): 311-25.

Compares the Pinsky's work to that of Frank Bidart.


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