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.
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.
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.
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.