Robert Pinsky

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Jay Parini (essay date 1981)

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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...

(This entire section contains 3755 words.)

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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 may think
That you are tired, until your terrible

Swift sword amazes him. By understanding
Your body, you will conquer your fatigue.
By understanding your desire to win

And all your other desires, you will conquer
Discouragement. And you will conquer distraction
By understanding the world, and all its parts.

The poem is worth rereading merely because of its verbal brilliance: Pinsky dances on the high wire of metaphysical wit. But it is also worth rereading for its innate wisdom, its insight into our condition as competitive animals. "Tennis" is something new for poetry and, for me, the most accomplished poem in this book.

The final "Essay on Psychiatrists" has fine moments, expecially the portrait of Yvor Winters in the "Perforation, Concerning Genius," but on the whole it fails because in a sense there is nothing to say about psychiatrists apart from what Pinsky does say:

The effort "to find a healing speech" is what makes us human. Poetry is a language adequate to experience, and most language is inadequate and unhealthy. What is important here, however, is Pinsky's direction; we see him stretching the boundaries of contemporary poetry, invading territories once held intact by prose. "Essay on Psychiatrists" is a warm-up for the marathon to come.


An Explanation of America divides into three sections, all of which maintain the elegant yet conversational style of the opening stanza:

As though explaining the idea of dancing
Or the idea of some other thing
Which everyone has known a little about
Since they were children, which children learn themselves
With no explaining, but which children like
Sometimes to hear the explanations of,
I want to tell you something about our country,
Or my idea of it: explaining it
If not to you, to my idea of you.

This stanza is a single long sentence, full of qualifying clauses and whimsical digressions. C. S. Lewis said of Paradise Lost that one has to get used to reading paragraphs, not lines, and one quickly learns to read beyond Pinsky's line. The blank verse movement becomes unobtrusive as one falls into the narrative swing. Though prose-like, this verse will not be mistaken for prose. Pinsky stretches the colloquial phrase across an underlying meter with superb naturalness, what Robert Frost calls "breaking sounds of sense with all their irregularity across the regular beat of the metre." Although the primary movement of Pinsky's verse is iambic, many of the lines are "sprung" to accommodate the tone or texture as it evolves. Enjambements occur easily, giving the verse its aura of intelligent conversation.

In accordance with Pinsky's assumptions about poetry, he refuses in Explanation to go in fear of abstraction. He writes in "From the Surface": "A country is the things it wants to see." He follows this up by saying he will not censor anything from his daughter's view on the grounds of its ugliness alone: "Not that I want for you to have to see / Atrocity itself." Like many good fathers, he wants her to see nearly everything: "the things I see / And more," things like "well-kept Rushmore, Chiswick House, or Belsen." We need to see these things "Lest we forget," he says, quoting Kipling. Above, as always, Pinsky follows abstract assertions with hard, shining particulars.

Quoting Mayor Daley, he writes: "All politics is local politics." Moving from a comparison of America and Rome, "the plural-headed Empire," he offers vivid examples of modern plurality from his own life:

Coming back to local politics, the poet refers "to the locus where we vote," the "Nest where an Eagle balances and screams." In a sense, Pinsky's Explanation shuttles back and forth continually between local politics and politics in its widest application, between concrete example and abstract formulation, between autobiography and the history of the West.

In "Countries and Explanations" (Part One, IV.) Pinsky concludes that place is itself "a kind of motion." It is partly permanent, partly blurred by the changes that occur as place recedes endlessly into the future, and as citizens of a particular place continually imagine the point from which they proceed: "Our nation, mellowing to another country / Of different people living in different places." In this section he somehow manages to suggest the dynamic quality of evolution—and, likewise, to suggest how place is as much mental as physical. Pinsky's "explanation" is merely his private mythos becoming public; as such, it is a confrontation, inviting the reader to respond in kind. His explanation spawns explanations, which in their collective aspect constitute whatever we may call a "country." "Countries and Explanations" might well be converted into an equation: "Countries are Explanations."

Part Two, which has four sections as well, is a meditation on "Its Great Emptiness," conceived of physically as a prairie, with its "shaggy pelt of grasses … flowing for miles." In rich language Pinsky composes a geography so vast that, like death, it is finally beyond conception; Part Two provides a negative from which the America of our choice may be printed, positing an "obliterating strangeness" which is "as hard to imagine as the love of death … / Which is the final strangeness." The poet's mastery of literal fact and metaphor, of image and imagination, is evident throughout; where a lesser poet might easily drown in the waves of abstract formulation churned up here, such as the proposition that "the love of death" is "the final strangeness," Pinsky redeems himself time after time with follow-up imagery, such as "The contagious blankness of a quiet plain." The technique is daring, of course, and its results can be controversial (I recall Roethke's "windy cliffs of forever," which some have disparaged), but when it works the result can be a splendid juxtaposition of concept and example.

In "Bad Dreams" Pinsky conjures "The accumulating prison of the past / That pulls us toward a body and a place," concluding with the statement:

Americans, we choose to see ourselves
As here, yet not here yet—as if a Roman
In mid-Rome should inquire the way to Rome.
Like Jews or Indians, roving on the plains

Of places taken from us, or imagined,
We accumulate the customs, music, words
Of different climates, neighbors, and oppressors,
Making encampment in the sand or snow.

The poet risks speaking for us all here, but the risk pays off; Americans do, in fact, live with an eye perpetually trained on the future. We keep reminding ourselves that we are a "young country" vis-à-vis Europe, as if the situation could somehow change in two or three hundred years. The comparsion with Rome, that supremely confident nation, this time points up a difference; Americans are a people of process and adaptation, of assimilation and, perhaps, instability. We are, in spite of blazoned days (to recall Stevens), a dispossessed—and dispossessing—people.

Throughout his Explanation the poet gathers those images and ideas which for him make up America. He becomes increasingly interested, too, in "possibility," as if by naming (what Emerson conceived of as the poet's primary task) he could bring circumstances into existence: a curiously vatic notion for a poet of Pinsky's disposition. The comparisons with Rome culminate in "Horace, Epistalea I, xvi," (Part Two, III.), which is in part a translation of a famous epistle by the great Augustan poet. This section takes the form of a letter from the poet's Sabine farm outside of Rome to his friend and benefactor, Quinctius; here all of Horace's aspirations for Rome, all of his "explanations," are revealed. What Horace really meant by this letter finds a terse, eloquent summary in the next section. Pinsky writes:

That freedom, even in a free Republic,
Rests ultimately on the right to die.
And though he's careful to say that Quinctius,
The public man able to act for good
And help his fellow-Romans, lives the life
That truly is the best, he's also careful
To separate their fortunes and their places,
And to appreciate his own: his health,
His cows and acorns in his healing spring,
His circle—"We here in Rome"—for friends and gossip.

The compressed quality of this verse should be obvious enough; here is a poet in control—emotionally, intellectually, artistically. He risks another of his abstractions (following Horace's lead): the relationship of freedom to the right to die. This notion holds for Quinctius as well as Horace (and Pinsky), while the job of the intellect remains—the separate fortunes, judging each man's success on individual terms. Here, as throughout An Explanation of America, the poet draws the line meticulously between the necessary (therefore true) obstraction and the humane particular. In these terms, Pinsky is the most Horation (i.e., well-balanced and humane) poet that we have.

The final sequence, "Its Everlasting Possibility," opens with a meditation on limits, a difficult task for anyone living in America, where "Possibility spreads / And multiplies and exhausts itself in growing." This first section, "Braveries," points up some of America's confusion about the past:

The country, boasting that it cannot see
The past, waits dreaming ever of the past,
Or all the plural pasts: the way a fetus
Dreams vaguely of heaven—waiting, and in its courage
Willing, not only to be born out into
The Actual (with its ambiguous good),
But to retreat again and be born backward
Into the gallant walls of its potential.

Such ambivalence about history threatens and distorts our visions of the present and, of course, the future. The poet, conjuring his own vision of the future, makes no real proclamations or predictions; rather, his judgments are limited to exactly what he sees. His ear is attentive to both the music of what happens and the music of what might be. One moving section records the progress of a young girl with her horse around a practice arena, while her father "takes crude courage from the ancient meaning / Of the horse." The primitive symbolism of horse and rider somehow liberates him—however briefly—from the binding limits of ordinary life. The mythic image (though I must warn that Pinsky's vision is ironic) works to connect the father, girl, and horse in an antique web of significance.

"Serpent Knowledge" considers the problem of evil, with Vietnam as a pimary specimen—Vietnam, a word almost impossible to use in a poem if you happen to have come of age when that particular war was on. The word burns a hole in any page; indeed, it may take decades for poetic language to suitably embody the complex nexus of emotions associated with that word. Pinsky explains to his daughter:

Someday, the War in Southeast Asia, somewhere
Perhaps for you and people younger than you—
Will be the kind of history and pain
Saguntum is for me; but never tamed
Or "history" for me, I think.

He writes vividly about what Vietnam means to his (and my own) generation; it was a time "when the country aged itself." The famous American innocence will never, after that war, be quite the same.

In "Mysteries of the Future" (Part Three, III.), the penultimate section of his Explanation, the poet reflects on time and remembrance. He begins with a contemplation of surfaces: the bright images of a winter Sunday morning in Chicago which seem to have precipitated this section. As with most meditative poetry (and most of the individual sections of Pinsky's poem could be considered this), the work opens with a recollection, an evocation or compositio loci, and proceeds to analyze by making analogies. This leads, typically, to a conclusion based on what has gone before, an outward turning, what in the old days was called "a moral." Pinsky works in this way, approaching the future via the past, turning images over in his mind and "working" them until their significance yields. "It is fearful to leave anything behind," he says, or "To choose or to make some one thing to survive / Into the future." Thomas Jefferson, whom Pinsky cites, left behind a modest epitaph which did not mention the terms of presidency because they were "something held, not something he had done." What Jefferson actually did was to write the Declaration of Independence and a Virginian law to provide for public education; these facts he chose for remembrance.

The section closes with another epitaph, that of John Jack, an unknown slave, who "Tho' a slave to vice, / He practiced those virtues / Without which kings are but slaves." To speak words "few enough to fit a stone," and to leave them for the mysterious future to absorb, demands that we "be naked, free, and final," Pinsky states. This is, alas, a poet's response to the mysteries first encountered in Chicago in the glint of a Sunday morning; a secular response, to be sure. A few graven words, casting a cold eye on life, on death.

Pinsky's Explanation ends with a magnificent "Epilogue: Endings." It is a conclusion in which the poet, akin to Dr. Johnson's narrator in Rasselas, does not conclude. The occasion of the last scene is a performance of The Winter's Tale by a group of college women; the poet's daughter has a small part in the production. She recites: "A sad tale's best for winter," although, true to the nature of Romance, the statue comes alive in the end and all is well, "frozen Possibility moves and breathes." Possibility—as Phoenix—emerges; and Pinsky is led inexorably into the repetitions, renewals, and refreshments of history as it catches up with the present and pushes forward into time to come. America, Pinsky argues, will not hold still for us, as all confident statements falter in the surge of new evidence. He would agree with his mentor, Winters, who said in an essay on Frost as spiritual drifter, that life is a process of continual revision in the interest of greater understanding. Thus, having reviewed his own and the nation's past with great authority, Pinsky returns to the performance of The Winter's Tale:

The unpredictability and ungovernable sweep of this continent finds not so much an explanation as a selective, intelligent revision in the poem. The poet rehabilitates his own past into a collective past, explaining himself to his daughter as much as explaining America. The vision that Pinsky summons is sane, wry, and wholly generous, an example of what is best in our current poetry.


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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.

Robert Pinsky (essay date 1987)

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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 feelings. But what, if anything, can a poet be said to owe other people in general, considered as a community? For what is the poet answerable? This is a more immediate—though more limited—way of putting the question than such familiar terms as "political poetry."

Another recurring topic is what might be called Poetry Gloom. I mean the sourness and kvetching that sometimes come into our feelings about our art: the mysterious disaffections, the querulous doubts, the dispirited mood in which we ask ourselves, has contemporary poetry gone downhill, does anyone at all read it, has poetry become a mere hobby, do only one's friends do it well, and so forth. This matter often comes up in the form of questions about the "popularity" or "audience" of poetry.

Possibly the appetite for poetry really was greater in the good old days, in other societies. After the total disaster at Syracuse, when the Athenians, their great imperialist adventure failed, were being massacred, or branded as slaves with the image of a horse burned into the forehead, a few were saved for the sake of Euripides, whose work, it seems, was well thought of by the Syracusans. "Many of the captives who got safe back to Athens," writes Plutarch,

are said, after they reached home, to have gone and made their acknowledgments to Euripides, relating how some of them had been released from their slavery by teaching what they could remember of his poems and others, when straggling after the fight, had been relieved with meat and drink for repeating some of his lyrics.

This is enviable; but I think that at some vital level our answer must be, so what? Jarrell wrote about those people who say they "just can't read modern poetry" in a tone that implies their happiest hours are spent in front of the fireplace with a volume of Blake or Racine. To court such readers, or to envy Euripides, would be understandable, but futile, impulses.

And I think they are even frivolous impulses, beside the point. Of course every artist is in competition with the movies, in the sense that art tries to be as interesting as it can. But tailoring one's work to an audience any less hungry for one's art than oneself probably makes for bad movies and bad poems. And whether that is true or not, most poets would be bad at such tailoring anyway. Day-dreams aside, more urgent questions are: what is our job? And: what are the roots of good and bad morale about it? The second question is strange, if I am right in supposing that poetry is the very art of being interesting. The two most interesting things in the world, for our species, are ideas and the individual human body, two elements that poetry uniquely joins together. It is the nature of poetry to emphasize constantly that the physical sounds of words come from a particular body, one at a time, in a certain order. By memorizing lines of Euripides, the Athenian soldiers had incorporated certain precise shades of conception. This dual concern, bodily and conceptual, is what Pound means by saying that poetry is a centaur: prose hits the target with its arrow; poetry does the same from horseback. If you are too stupid, or too cerebral, you may miss half of it.

Here I arrive at the relation between the two questions, morale and responsibility. In the root sense of the glamourless word "responsibility," people crave not only answers but also answerability. Involving a promise or engagement, the word is related to "sponsor" and "spouse." We want our answers to be craved as in the testing and reassuring of any animal parent and child, or the mutual nudge and call of two liturgical voices. The corporeal, memorizable quality of verse carries with it a sense of social exchange. The image of the horse burned into the living human body says one thing; the memorized cadence of words, without exactly contradicting that statement, answers it with another.

An artist needs, not so much an audience, as to feel a need to answer, a promise to respond. The response may be a contradiction, it may be unwanted, it may go unheeded, it may be embraced but twisted (William Blake the most quoted author in the modern House of Commons!)—but it is owed, and the sense that it is owed is a basic requirement for the poet's good feeling about the art. This need to answer, as firm as a borrowed object or a cash debt, is the ground where the centaur walks.

A critic, a passionate writer on poetry, culture and politics, once said to me, "When I ask American poets if they are concerned about United States foreign policy in Latin America, they all say yes, they are. But practically none of them write about it: why not?"

My response to this question was not dazzling. "I don't know," I said. And then, thinking about it for another moment: "It certainly isn't that they don't want to." The desire to make a good work, or the desire to deal with a given subject—in theory, the desire to deal with every subject—isn't automatically fulfilled.

The desire to see, and the desire to feel obliged to answer, are valuable, perhaps indispensable parts of the poet's feelings about the art. But in themselves they are not enough. In some way, before an artist can see a subject—foreign policy, or any other subject—the artist must transform it: answer the received cultural imagination of the subject with something utterly different. This need to answer by transforming is primary; it comes before everything else. Something of the kind may explain the interesting phenomenon of bad work by good artists. Even a gifted, hard-working writer with a large and appreciative audience may write badly, I think, if this sense of an obligation to answer—a promised pushing-back or re-sponding—is lacking. Irresponsibility subtly deadens the work. Conversely, a dutiful editorializing work, devoid of the kind of transformation I mean, may also be dead.

To put it differently, the idea of social responsibility seems to raise a powerful contradiction, in the light of another intuited principle, freedom. The poet needs to feel utterly free, yet answerable. This paradox underlies and confounds much discussion of our art; poetry is so bodily and yet so explicit, so capable of subjects and yet so subtly transforming of them, that it seems recurrently to be quite like the rest of life, and yet different.

One anecdotal example: I have a friend who drives a car impatiently, sometimes with a vivid running commentary on other drivers. One day while I sat next to him the car in front of us behaved in a notably indecisive, unpredictable, petulant, dog-in-the-manger manner. But my friend was calm, he did not gesture and he certainly did not honk. I asked him why, and his explanation was, "I never hassle anybody who is taking care of small children."

This self-conscious respect for child care seems to me more than simply sweet. It exemplifies a basic form of social responsibility, an element of communal life more basic even than the boss-and-henchmen comitatus celebrated in Beowulf, People in a bus or restaurant where there is a small child like to think, I believe, that in an emergency they would protect the child, despite gulfs of social class or race or mere difference that might intervene.

The feeling is not goodness, exactly, but rather the desire to think well of ourselves—the first civic virtue, the fission of subject and object emitting the bubble reputation. That desire is part of our nature as social animals whose hairless, pudgy offspring pass through a long period of learning and vulnerability. We live together, rather than separately like Cyclopes, or otherwise perish in a generation. We living in our majority need to mediate between the dead, who took care of us, and not only the young, but the unborn.

And as poets, too, one of our responsibilities is to mediate between the dead and the unborn: we must feel ready to answer, as if asked by the dead if we have handed on what they gave us, or asked by the unborn what we have for them. This is one answer, the great conservative answer, to the question of what responsibility the poet bears to society. By practicing an art learned partly from the dead, one keeps it alive for the unborn.

Arts do, after all, die. In a way it is their survival that is surprising. When I was in primary school, they showed us films provided by the paper industry or the glass industry showing, with diagrams and footage of incredibly elaborate machines, the steps in making the innumerable kinds of paper, or glass jars and lenses and fiberglass curtains and fusilages. I remember thinking with some panic that it would soon all decay and fall apart: that the kids I knew in my own generation would be unable to learn those complex processes in time. When the adults died, we would botch the machines; I knew this with certainty, because I knew my peers and myself.

This fear still makes sense to me, and yet some of us went on not only to master those arcane processes and elaborate machines, but to improve them. Some people who were grubby, bored ten-year-olds in 1950 are now experts in fiber-optic controls in the manufacturing of semi-vitreous components, or in the editing of Provençal manuscripts.

So one great task we have to answer for is the keeping of an art that we did not invent, but were given, so that oth ers who come after us can have it if they want it, as free to choose it and change it as we have been. A second task has been defined by Carolyn Forché, in a remarkable essay, as "a poetry of witness": we must use the art to behold the actual evidence before us. We must answer for what we see.

Witness may or may not involve advocacy, and the line between the two is rarely sharp; but the strange truth about witness is that though it may include both advocacy and judgment, it includes more than them, as well. If political or moral advocacy were all we had to answer for, that would be almost easy. Witness goes further, I think, because it involves the challenge of not flinching from the evidence. It proceeds from judgment to testimony.

In the most uncompromising sense, this means that whatever important experience seems least poetic to me is likely to be my job. Forché, for example, writes:

In those days I kept my work as a poet and journalist separate, of two distinct mentalités, but I could not keep El Salvador from my poems because it had become so much a part of my life. I was cautioned to avoid mixing art and politics, that one damages the other, and it was some time before I realized that "political poetry" often means the poetry of protest, accused of polemical didacticism, and not the poetry which implicitly celebrates politically acceptable values.1

That is, the poet realized that what had seemed "unpoetic" or fit only for journalism, because it was supposedly contaminated with particular political implications, was her task. The "contamination" of "politics" was her responsibility, what she had to answer for as if she had promised something about it when she undertook the art of poetry. A corollary realization is that "all poetry is political": what is politically acceptable to some particular observer may seem "unpolitical" to that observer.

Where does the debilitating falseness come from, that tempts us to look away from evidence, or fit it into some allegedly "poetic" pattern, with the inevitable result of Poetry Gloom? Forché continues, a few sentences later:

From our tradition we inherit a poetic, a sense of appropriate subjects, styles, forms and levels of diction; that poetic might insist that we be attuned to the individual in isolation, to particular sensitivity in the face of "nature," to special ingenuity in inventing metaphor.2

The need to notice, to include the evidence as a true and reliable witness, can be confused and dulled by the other, conserving responsibility of mediation between the dead and the unborn. And just as society can vaguely, quietly diffuse an invisible, apparently "apolitical" political ideology, culture can efficiently assimilate and enforce an invisible idea of what is poetic. In a dim view of the dialectic, it seems that society's tribute to poetry is to incorporate each new, at first resisted sense of the poetic, and so to spread it—and blunt it—for each new generation. Even while seeming not to taste each new poetic, the world swallows it.

Two nearly paradoxical formulations emerge from this process. First, only the challenge of what may seem unpoetic, that which has not already been made poetic by the tradition, can keep the art truly pure and alive. Put to no new use, the art rots. Second, the habits and visions of the art itself, which we are responsible for keeping alive, can seem to conspire against that act of use or witness. The material or rhetoric that seems already, on the face of it, proper to poetry may have been made poetic already by Baudelaire, or Wordsworth, or Rilke, or Neruda.

To put it simply, and only a little fancifully, we have in our care and for our use and pleasure a valuable gift, and we must answer both for preserving it, and for changing it. And the second we fail to make good answer on either score, the gift stops giving pleasure, and makes us feel bad, instead.

Since there is no way to say what evidence will seem pressing but difficult to a given artist—Central America, the human body, taking care of one's paraplegic sister, theology, farming, American electoral politics, the art of domestic design—no subject ever is forbidden. Society depends on the poet to witness something, and yet the poet can discover that thing only by looking away from what society has learned to see poetically.

Thus, there is a dialectic between the poet and his culture: the culture presents us with poetry, and with implicit definitions of what materials and means are poetic. The answer we must promise to give is "no." Real works revise the received idea of what poetry is; by mysterious cultural means the revisions are assimilated and then presented as the next definition to be resisted, violated and renewed. What poets must answer for is the unpoetic. And before we can identify it, or witness it, an act of judgment is necessary. This act of judgment can only be exemplified.

Here is one of the most valued poems in our language. In quoting the poem, I particularly want to point out the insistently repeated absolutes, especially the words "every" and "most":


I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear:

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The word "every" throbs through all of the stanzas except the final one, repeated five times in the drumiike second stanza. This insistent chain of "every's" leads to the capping, climactic movement of the conclusion, with its contrary, superlative "But most": the immense force of the ending comes partly from the way "But most" piles its weight onto the already doubled and redoubled momentum of "every" and "every" and "every."

One thing that "every" and "every" brings into the poem is the sense of a social whole: it is all of us, we are part of it, no utter exception is possible, it is like a family, and a-family that bears a "mark." And though my brother and not I may have poured your blood or blighted your tear, it would be stupid of me to think that your response to me—or mine to you—could go uncolored by what you know of my family. The poem witnesses the legal entity of a city in a way that transforms it into this social whole.

Blake's "most" is reserved for the blighting of future generations—the extension of social corruption forward, into the future, through the infection of those still in utero. This continuation forward in time of the omnipresent blight and pain, under the climactic "but most," suggests both of the broad kinds of answerability: it is literally conservative, and it reminds us that we are witnesses for the future. Those who want to know about London in Blake's time read this poem. They may read the contemporary journalism, as well, but for an inward understanding of such evidence, they will again read Blake. If someone in the future wants to understand Newsweek and Time, or the CBS Evening News, our poems must answer to the purpose. We are supposed to mark the evidence, as well as continue the art.

In "London," all this is accomplished by the violently wholesale quality of what is "marked" in both senses, witnessed and scarred. The "unpoetic" part of the poem is the rhetoric that invents or enacts the vision of society as a kind of nightmarish, total family rather than an orderly contractual, chartered arrangement. Formally, the poem is a transformed hymn, the cadences of communal binding turned against the institutions of the visible community. And in a sense, Blake had to transform the city imaginatively, put the mark of his judgment upon it, before he could see it.

If all poems were like "London," the question might seem relatively simple. But not all poems invite a social understanding of themselves nearly as strongly as this. And few of us were attracted to poetry to start with by the idea of being a good witness, still less the idea of mediating between the dead and the unborn. Most of us were attracted to poetry because of language that gave us enormous, unmistakable pleasure: not only the physical pleasure of beaded bubbles winking at the brim, but also the intellectual pleasure of thinking of the thin men of Haddam who rode over Connecticut in a glass coach, how they are both creatures of fantasy and suburban commuters on the train.

Such transformation seems to precede witness, in the working of poetry and in the history of our need for poetry. Its relation to witness is like that suggested by a passage in Ben Jonson's great poem "To Heaven":

As thou art all, so be thou all to me,
First, midst, and last, converted one, and three;
My faith, my hope, my love: and in this state
My judge, my witness, and my advocate.

Faith in the absolute fairness of a judge like the Father is parallel to hope regarding a witness (the Holy Ghost) and love for an advocate, whose Christian mercy extends beyond justice. In keeping with the biblical and religious models, the transforming certainty of judgment precedes the processes of witness and advocacy. Jonson's intellectually elegant inversion of the courtroom sequence (evidence, argument, judgment) reflects the way that poetry seems to depend upon a prior and tremendously confident process of transformation.

Transformation, too, is a social role of poetry: its oldest, clearest form must be epideictic, the praising of heroes, celebrating one whose physical or moral gifts have brought gain or glory to the tribe: the woman in Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Eros Turannos," whose catastrophic love affair makes "all the town and harbor side / Vibrate with her seclusion" is a peculiar, American provincial version of such a figure. She makes the town more heroic, and the gossiping townfolk make her story more heroic:

The mean-minded little town, the superior, desperate woman, the vulgar man, even perhaps the complacent, spavined literary culture whose editors had no use for Robinson's work, all are resisted and transformed by a rhetoric that includes the coming together of the poem's peculiar form, its powerful narrative, and the heroic symbol of the ocean.

Formally, the resistant or "unpoetic" element in "Eros Turannos" is a kind of hypertrophy. As if in response to an insufficiently communal or folkloric relation between artist and audience, or heroine and community—even between the seemingly omniscient narrator of the beginning and the "we" speaking the ending—the poem exaggerates the formal, communal elements of the poem. With its feminine rhymes and triple rhymes and extension of ballad structure the poem is almost a parody ballad. The hyper-trophy of traditional folk or ritualistic formal means resists an idea of poetic language, and of poetry in relation to social reality, by exaggeration. In its own terms this virtuoso exaggeration is as violent as the sweeping terms of Blake's "London."

Based on a mighty, prior act of transforming judgment, "London" takes the rhetorical mode of witnessing ("I mark"); what is on trial is a transformed London, and the poet's eye roams through it like the Holy Ghost, seeing more than any literal social reality could make possible. His repeated "every" is in part a mark of ubiquity. Robinson's poem of tragic celebration, full of mercy and advocacy in relation to its heroine, evokes images and rhetoric of judgment; and judgment is formally emphasized almost to the point of parody by the quality of incantation. Yet the perspective in "Eros Turannos," too, is preternatural. Certainly, the viewpoint is more than socially located. It is the multiple perspective of the ubiquitous witness:

What "we" see or say; what is known of "her" fears and questions; what "they" hear or take; what the god gives; what "it" may be like—all of these narrated materials gain their authority from the underlying, invisible certainty that he has seen anew. That certainty appears in the "changed familiar tree," and its invisible, generative power leads to the stairway "Where down the blind are driven." The poet's own voice changes from impersonal omniscience at the outset to a communal first person plural by the close.

These examples suggest to me that society forms an idea of the poetic, an idea which has implications about social reality, and that the poet needs to respond by answering with a rebuttal or transformation of terms. But what about a poem that is deliberately irresponsible, that is anarchic or unacceptable in its social attitude? What, for example, about Frank O'Hara's poem "Ave Maria"?

The language of this poem dodges and charges so brilliantly on its way, with energy that is so happily demotic, that a reader is likely to want to keep up, to want to show that one can keep up. Among other things, the poem expresses love for the flawed, for imperfection—especially American imperfection—and the dark. O'Hara sprints happily through this terrain, leaping between such oppositions as "silvery images" versus "the peaceful home," to find the genuinely friendly, intimate and democratic note of "sheer gravy" and "so don't blame me if you won't take this advice." It is a contest between glamour and decency, apparently settled by an appeal to American idiom. His understanding of such speech, and by implication of the movies, is so clear and vivid that we want to share it, to assure ourselves that we, too, understand the dark, stained charm of Heaven on Earth as it appears in an actual New York. The language streaks forward impatiently and we want to go along.

One thing we are invited to go along with is the idea that children young enough to need permission to go to the movies may benefit from sexual use by adult strangers; that they may be grateful for it. Considered as advocacy, this is distinctly not nice. It is as if O'Hara chose the most repulsive proposition he could think of, to embed in the middle of his poem.

Various matters of rhetoric may soften or deflect the issue of unacceptability: since the group "Mothers of America" will for the most part not hear, and surely not heed, this oration, it can be looked on as not literal advocacy but mock-advocacy. And more legalistically, the seduction is conjectural: they "may" even be grateful. So the advocacy is hemmed by irony and disclaimer, with the outrageous jokes of "only cost you a quarter" and "sheer gravy" signaling how very much in the realm of rhetoric we are—an exuberant homosexual schpritzing.

But just the same, there is an element of the unacceptable in the poem, a violation of social boundaries. And far from seeming a regrettable, separable blemish, this repugnant element seems essential. It is what makes us believe the "darker joys," asking in effect if pleasure in the poem has a component of inexpensive, vicarious sexual naughtiness. Ultimately, I think it asks us to entertain the possibility of some one unusual eleven-year-old (should we imagine the lines as actual or fantasized autobiography?) who might conceivably feel grateful to his mother for the opportunity described.

In other words, the poem breaks or bends ideas about poetic method and content. And this resistant act seems prior to the poem, part of a preceding judgment that underlies what is seen and argued. Perhaps one thing I like so much in the poem is the daring and clarity with which it plays—and so clearly plays—at the definitive terms of judgment:

or the ratiocinative terms of advocacy:

The democratic, almost conspirational note of "sheer gravy," and "horribly mean," deftly contrasted with language like "prematurely" and "the latter," invites an alliance in imperfection. The poem happily witnesses a great communal imperfection ("what you're up to," "horribly mean") and excitement in American life, all the grotesque, glorious fantasy life associated with the movies. The bite of the poem comes from its comic perspectives: the imagination of a scene where the poet addresses the Mothers, the imagination of the future at the end of the poem, the imagination of idyllic sexual initiation for "tykes."

He is willing to share his sense of the movies, and of our culture, with us, and his willingness is rooted in his will to transform our idea of what is acceptable, in poetry or in the imagined oration itself. Other works of those late Eisenhower years get higher marks in the category "does not advocate awful crimes," but we do not read them with the pleasure and recognition this one gives, with its stern standard of being "truly entertained." In one way, the poem is a daring, ebullient prank; in another, it embodies the process whereby the vision and rhetoric of a poem spring from a prior resistance to what the culture has given.

"All poetry is political." The act of judgment prior to the vision of any poem is a social judgment. It always embodies, I believe, a resistance or transformation of communal values: Blake's indictment of totally visible, monolithic London; Robinson's dry rage that an aristocracy of grace and moral insight has no worldly force; O'Hara's celebration of what is cheerfully lawless in American life. Even when Emily Dickinson defines the ultimate privacy of the soul, she does it in terms that originate in social judgment:

The soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door.

As one of the best-known lines in contemporary poetry indicates, the unpredictable effect upon a community of what one writes may be less to the point than discharging the responsibility:

America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

The poet's first social responsibility, to continue the art, can be filled only through the second, opposed responsibility to change the terms of the art as given—and it is given socially, which is to say politically. What that will mean in the next poem anyone writes is by definition unknowable, with ail the possibility of art.


1 Carolyn Forché, "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire," American Poetry Review 10 (July/Aug. 1981): 6.

2 Ibid.

Principal Works

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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

Alfred Corn (excerpt date 1987)

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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 readings. It is also sometimes rash, as when Pinsky compares Landor's "To My Child Carlino" to Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode, with all the disadvantage on the side of Wordsworth. The same kind of rashness runs through The Situation of Poetry (1975), Pinsky's survey of recent American poetry, with special reference to "Ode to a Nightingale." The book argues interestingly but unconvincingly in favor of the "discursive" as a central poetic mode, and the one most able to bear moral content. Within this polemical framework, Pinsky makes many aberrant judgments, rating some poets too high, others—John Ashbery in particular—too low; and his treatment of Harold Bloom's views exceeds, in tone and manner, what could be considered a legitimate expression of difference in critical opinion. In 1976 Pinsky published a book of poems, Sadness and Happiness, which received high praise, and merited it. The title poem is one of the best written in the 1970s; and the overall convincingness of the book assures it of a readership for a long time to come.

It is possibly Randall Jarrell who provided Pinsky with a clue to the subject matter he has treated so tellingly in his poetry, the aspirations and disappointments of Americans "just like ourselves": dwellers in the suburbs, frequenters of shopping malls, zoos, Pancake Houses; parents of fledgling pianists and horsewomen, standers in line at the Savings and Loan. There is a sweetness and pathos to all this—the Cheever and Updike fictional turf—which has never been captured so well before in poetry. The effect would be marred if Pinsky had allowed himself to lapse into easy satire or sentimentality, or inaccuracy. His observations, like his style, have an irrefutable air of honesty about them; so impressive is the technical feat I'm tempted to apply to it something Yvor Winters said (overstating a little) about Edwin Arlington Robinson's poetry: "it is accurate with the conscientiousness of genius."

Accurate, truthful, conscientious: these are the terms that describe Pinsky's poetry. Still, it must be said that An Explanation of America is a strange and irrational book in many of its aspects. (I'm speaking of the long title poem, not the fine short lyric "Lair," which opens the volume, nor the affecting "Memorial," which closes it.) This long poem is strange both in its ambitious scope and in the organization of its materials. It has three parts, titled "Its Many Fragments," "Its Great Emptiness," and "Its Everlasting Possibility," each of these in turn divided into four subtitled sections. The metric frame throughout is rough iambic pentameter, with paragraphing rather than fixed strophic breaks. The second part of the poem includes a translation of Horace's Epistula I, xvi, and a discussion of his life and thought. Pinsky's poem is itself like an epistle, for he has subtitled it "A Poem to My Daughter," (the "you" of the poem), and means it in some sense to be addressed to her.

I don't mean merely to pretend to write
To you, yet don't mean either to pretend
To say only what you might want to hear.
I mean to write my idea of you,
And not expecting you to read a word …

Every long poem needs a Beatrice, in this case the poet's daughter. The fiction is useful here, allowing Pinsky to develop a colloquial or epistolary tone that holds the reader; I have read the poem many times, and always straight through, without stopping (this despite the obstacle of the unvaried pentameter frame). The fact that the poet's interlocutor is a child and not an adult—his wife, for example, whose entire absence from the poem is never explained—helps support the general tone of simplicity, fairness, and tact. Communing with ourselves, or addressing another adult at length, we can't plausibly avoid defensiveness of one sort or another—wisecracks, assertiveness, false modesty, even ill humor. When children are listening, we have to do better, and, given Pinsky's commitment to moral perspectives, he could hardly have found a better strategy.

The poem's narrator is present only as a voice and an observing eye, never as an actor; and this, too, helps keep intact our confidence in his moral authority. Most people can see and say what the right thing is, but few can plausibly present themselves as doing it; or if they portray themselves as having erred, avoid the impression of self-hatred or self-pity. None of the poet's actions, not even his profession, is given in the text, and the inevitable complications are circumvented. Actually, the poet does, I believe, appear briefly in the poem's third part, a scene where a father (presented in the third person) watches his daughter's riding lesson. It is likely that this character is really the poet, for the narrator (and reader) are let inside his thoughts. It is the only such instance in the poem, though, and even here the character is presented primarily as an observer.

I raise these issues about the structure and intent of the poem to emphasize the difficulty of the problems Pinsky has had to contend with. He has risen to the challenge. Among the many reasons to admire this book is its legitimate ambitiousness; and I don't think it should be received as just one more collection of poems, some good, some bad. "A country is the things it wants to see," we are told in the opening part of the poem. Like Elizabeth Bishop, he has a keen eye; and he can present what he sees, and, what's more, think consequentially about it. At the mere level of perception, it has already a vigorous, affecting clarity:

Thus he begins the characterization of his daughter, one of the most winsome in any recent poem. Before it is ended, you half wish she were your own daughter. "A country is the things it wants to see," Pinsky says, and lists some of the things she will become accustomed to, growing up as an American: all kinds of ball games, advertisements, Disney cartoons, Deep Throat, car crashes, Brownies (the Scouts, that is), collies, Colonial Diners, cute greeting cards, and "hippie restaurants." To be a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles on this scale is to have supreme confidence in the transforming power of lines in pentameter. Part of the fascination here is the nagging question of whether he has actually "gotten away with it." I think he has, partly because of the strange power of the "always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life," as Bishop once characterized it, and partly because of his use of incantatory, lulling repetitions of phrases and lines—a technique he may have borrowed from Bishop. As he moves through his topics, "Local Politics," "Countries and Explanations," his allusions as far-flung as Winston Churchill, Gogol, and Mayor Daley, one feels not so much instructed as chanted to, over a slowly, endlessly rocking cradle.

The most interesting part of the poem, conceptually and aesthetically, is the second, "Its Great Emptiness." The opening section, "A Love of Death," calls upon the reader to imagine a scene on the great Western plains (time unspecified), where a little girl is witnessing a communal grain harvest. As details are filled in, the imperative "imagine" is reiterated (some dozen times)—a device with precedents no less august than Canto XIII of the Paradiso and Bishop's "Little Exercise." These imaginings build up a powerful scene; the prairie takes on an hallucinatory solidity and presence, despite its having been carefully presented as fictive. Then, an untoward event: a half-crazed tramp climbs up on one of the threshing machines and throws himself into it; is killed. (I was reminded fleetingly of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony.") After this senseless occurrence, the scene dissolves, and the poem begins a meditation on the nature of the forces that might account for the atrocity, and others like it, on a philosophical or visionary level:

The obliterating strangeness and the spaces
Are as hard to imagine as the love of death …
Which is the love of an entire strangeness,
The contagious blankness of a quiet plain.
Imagine that a man, who had seen a prairie,
Should write a poem about a Dark or Shadow
That seemed to be both his, and the prairie's—as if
The shadow proved that he was not a man,
But something that lived in the quiet, like the grass.
Imagine that the man who writes that poem,
Stunned by the loneliness of that wide pelt,
Should prove to himself that he was like a shadow
Or like an animal living in the dark.

A possible antidote to these morbid imaginings of emptiness, dark, and death might, Pinsky proposes, be found in the consciousness of "immigrants and nomads":

Another salutary outlook proposed is the traditional Horatian "equal mind"—and a sense of the positive value of death. Pinsky inserts into the poem Horace's Epistle to Quinctius, in which the genius of the Sabine Hills discusses their divergent modes of life and their chances for keeping dignity and uprightness. Horace observes that the man who is not afraid to die is safe from tyrants and an unworthy life—suicide is his warrant. The position may strike us as drastic, but it is true to the spirit of Stoicism and can name any number of precedents in Roman history. Pinsky's translation reads fluently and colloquially; he joins here the distinguished company of English translators of Horace, notably Sidney, Dryden, and Pope. [the author adds in a footnote: For whatever reason the apologist of the Aurea mediocritas has never attracted many Americans, excepting writers like Franklin P. Adams, Louis Untermeyer, and Eugene Field—though I think I remember a version of the Carpe diem ode by Robinson, and a sonnet-length "imitation" in Lowell's History.]

The last part of An Explanation of America is its strangest. Here Pinsky takes up the issue of "everlasting possibility," that American theme, and juxtaposes it to a sense of limit and boundary. With only a tenuous sense of transition, he moves to an examination of evil, in its characteristic American form of violence. Random assault (with sexual connotations) and Vietnam are invoked. Pinsky views the Southeast Asia debacle as unprecedented, some sort of turning point in the national consciousness, a first loss of innocence. (But surely an earlier example is the 1860-1865 disaster, which still continues to deliver grievous consequences—reread Patriotic Gore.) If Pinsky fails to explain American violence, he can hardly be blamed; it is one of the country's ugly, unaccountable mysteries.

The poem comes to a close (three years after its author began it, we are told) with an engaging description of the young daughter performing the role of Mamilius in The Winter's Tale, suitably dignified in hose and tunic. This affectionate tableau of Romance is balanced, on the poet's side, by a fanciful panorama of an imagined mountaintop city; it is to be understood, I think, as a metaphoric portrait of America.

America having been summed up as "a pastoral / Delusion of the dirt and rocks and trees, / Or daydream of Leviathan himself, / A Romance of implausible rebirths," the poem ends its long survey with a last glance at "our whole country, / So large, and strangely broken, and unforeseen." My own survey of the poem doesn't do justice to its intricacy and richness, the artful weaving of theme and metaphor that makes for its dense, evocative texture. It is a poem in which intellect and reason play a large role; the attendant risks cannot be unfamiliar to the critic of Landor, whose poem "To Barry Cornwall" reminds us:

Reason is stout, but ever reason
May walk too long in Rhyme's hot season:
I have heard many folks aver
They have caught horrid cold with her.

Still, to have more than usual intellect is a fate like any other; if among the many mansions in the house of poetry there is none to shelter that fate, then poetry is not as inclusive as we believe—or need it to be. Myself, I consider An Explanation of America an important addition to American letters, even if it goes against the grain in some ways.

I should mention as well one or two dislikes, since the poem shows every sign of being able to weather them. The title: wouldn't "Reflections on America" have been (though no more appetizing) more exact? Poets can sometimes explain the universe (which is ahistorical and nonspatial), but a country so large and various as ours is beyond their scope. The effort to contain and account for all our American experience is felt in this poem as effort; it could only be partially successful. Then, the contents: although the Epistle makes nice reading, bringing it and Horace's life into the poem strikes me as misjudged. The insights developed from them could have been presented in another fashion, one more consistent with the general plan and texture of the poem. And for obvious reasons, the biographical summary of Horace's life following the translation is filled with flat, prosy lines: "Time passed; the father died; the property / And business were lost, or confiscated." "Horace came back to Rome a pardoned rebel / In his late twenties, without cash or prospects…." "I think that what the poet meant was this," (repeated later as, "I think that what the poet meant may be / Something like that"). These would be dull sentences even in a piece of prose.

No reader is likely to agree with all the opinions expressed or implied in the poem, of course. Pinsky is entitled to them; but I will mention one of his views that struck me as egregious. He describes an occasion when, during a flash flood on Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway, "Black youths" appeared and "pillaged the stranded motorists like beached whales." He says, "a weight of lead / Sealed in their hearts was lighter for some minutes, / Amid the riot." This imaginative leap into the state of mind of the assailants may well be accurate; but why wasn't the same leap made in behalf of the victims in this case? The implied approval of the incident is unfortunate; this sort of spontaneism has never had the support of effective civil rights leaders, and is viewed by them as at most a futile reaction to present oppressive conditions.

Another surprising detail in the poem is Pinsky's misapprehension or simply abuse of some of Whitman's most ringing lines from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." After describing teenage prostitution in New York City, Pinsky continues:

This is a willful misuse of Whitman—a poet who, faced with a young prostitute and her "blackguard oaths," wrote, in Song of Myself, "Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you."

The misuse is the more striking in that Pinsky himself owes quite a lot to Whitman—An Explanation of America is the most recent extension of that tradition, and one of the best. Pinsky is less sanguine than Whitman, of course; for more than a hundred years we have heard the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of faith in the American Dream. But he shows, nevertheless, a reassuring agility of spirit and generosity of affections, inside and outside the domestic round. His discriminations and caveats deserve a careful hearing—the author of Sadness and Happiness and An Explanation of America is a very distinguished newcomer among the unruly tribe of our poets.

Further Reading

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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.

Pritchard, William H. "Play's the Thing." Poetry CXXXVI, No. 5 (August 1980): 295-304.

Positive review of An Explanation of America.

Spiegelmen, Willard. "The Moral Imperative in Anthony Hecht, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Pinsky." The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, pp. 56-104. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Examines the shared characteristics of these three poets, in particular their shared ethnic and geographical backgrounds.

Zawacki, Andrew. "Hope for a Shared Home." TLS (24 January 1997): 14.

Mixed assessment of his poetry collected in The Figured Wheel, contending "Pinsky deserves our attention and appraisal, though he may be too level-headed to coax us back again."


Sorkin, Adam J. "An Interview with Robert Pinsky." Contemporary Literature 25, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 1-14.

Pinsky discusses his poetic concerns, the role of humor in his work, and stylistic aspects of his poetry.

Additional coverage of Pinsky's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, 58; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 9,19,38,94,121; DISCovering Authors Modules—Poetry; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 82, 98; Major Twentieth-century Writers.

Peter Sacks (essay date 1992)

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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 poets to purify the dialect of the tribe. Rather his essays and poems subvert the assumption of purity itself. They embrace language at its most diverse (hieratic to slangy) and they meld an equal range of reference (Kol Nidre to Naughty Nurses), while seeking to move us beyond the rigid "tribal" or categorical borders that keep us apart, or at each other's throats, or just plain stuck—whether in the mud or in the rules that keep us out of it.

In his acclaimed book-length poem, An Explanation of America, Pinsky celebrated (not without sorrows and warnings) the nation's "everlasting possibility"—a phrase that marks the conserving yet transgressive impulse inherited from Whitman and Williams, and seasoned by Pinsky's own immersion, as the grandson of immigrant Jews, in the "not-quite melting pot" of modern American culture. As vehicles for opening up that realm of potential, Poetry and the World and The Want Bone share not only the same interests but also an elegant yet forceful mobility. In each, as for Whitman and Williams, mobility is at once an aesthetic device and the means for quickening erotic, political and spiritual urgencies. It is the inseparability and rhythmic stress of these "wants" that give Pinsky's poetry its underlying heart ("The legendary muscle that wants and grieves, / The organ of attachment"), and that make his work central to our time. Such a centrality is oddly clinched by his forays outward, as if magnetized by what lies beyond the rim of our cultural and poetic assumptions: "Society depends on the poet to witness something, and yet the poet can discover that thing only by looking away from what society has learned to see poetically."

With a gliding grace that honors both the wayward impulse itself and the previously excluded or unrepresented objects of attention (again the political crosses with the psychological), Pinsky's essays and poems embody the inclusory motion he admires in a wide range of authors from Campion to Bishop, from Babel to James McMichael and Anne Winters. Celebrating "fluidity of tone, including the inseparable blend of comic and ecstatic, formal and vulgar," he shows how, in McMichael's Four Good Things, "range … and formal fluidity, embody an art that defies any trite social correlatives of form," or how the movement itself of Winters's poetry conveys emotion, while its "packed formal alertness is part of a characteristically American response to shifting, undetermined manners, forms and idioms, te-heroic structures and appalling lives and deaths." Similar fidelities drive his praise of Frost, Stevens, Williams, Toomer, Oppen and others, for their loops of high and low diction, their "formal resourcefulness in defining one's place on shifting ground," their "inclusion of many actual and potential voices," and above all the "flexibility and speed" that mark their "responses to American social reality."

These are the attributes of Pinsky's own recent poems, including "poetry's freedom to dart from narrative to meditation to exposition and back, inserting a self-reflexive undermining of narrative illusion and then restoring narrative again, without visible seams or audible creaks." The poems shimmer with the allure and tensings of fabular romance, the genre of crossed thresholds, transgressive desires, and nonstop metamorphosis; and with a few deliberate exceptions, they soar with an astonishing fluency both of syntax and line as well as of quick-changing internal narratives, stances and tones. Pinsky sets one of the fastest paces of contemporary poetry: from the stride of Whitman along the open road, or the vigilant cruising of Williams behind the wheel of his car in Paterson (the essay "Some Passages of Isaiah" gives us Pinsky's "profane and glamorous" Grandpa Dave, whose pearl-gray Packard's steering wheel was ivory), Pinsky accelerates into flight "Over the glittering / zodiac of intentions," or rockets his poetic creatures on a "Voyage to the Moon." With this speed-up and metafictional play comes a new elusiveness of the lyric speaker; he has partly slipped from the driver's seat while in motion, following the weirdly decentering revolutions of desire and of the mind (Pinsky has also created a computer novel called Mindwheel), balancing both at the hub and rim of his inventions. If this sounds as threatening as it is liberating, it should be acknowledged that part of the poetry's spell derives not just from its near-magical flights of inclusion, but from its compounding of exhilaration and panic, of elegant freedom and jagged hunger. To quicken the heart's appetite is to submit it to incessant self-removes—especially as these removes are reinforced by the very means of poetry itself, "As when desiring we desire / Fresh musics of desire, at concentric removes."

One form of this self-displacement is Pinsky's use of what I assume to be an array of possible character-tropes who are themselves volatile and on the move. Thus one of the Ovidian traits of many of Pinsky's situations or characters is that they in turn displace themselves beyond custom or received identity. The book opens with at least three inaugural poems of this kind: "The Childhood of Jesus," with its Sabbath-defying hero who troubles the margins of sacred and profane, human and divine, Jew and Gentile, free creation and punitive withering, artifact and life; "Memoir," which moves from the repetitive self-bindings of Jewish commandment, "It was like saying: I am this, and not that," to the "immense blue / Pagan, an ocean, muttering, swollen: / That, and not this"; and "Window," which places a young child against the storm-fluent window of language (window itself shifts from Wind-hold to Windhole, constraint to aperture) by which he or she, identity in the very moment of breaking and remaking, gropes toward "the motion / Of motes and torches that at her word you reached / Out for, where you were, it was you, that bright confusion."

From these figures the book spirals outward through such multiple yet recursive and often coupled vessels as those of "The Hearts," or the "Plural, playful … double-budded god" of the embracing Shiva and Parvati, or the shifty Dantel/Belteshazzar, who criss-crosses between Jew and pagan, man and lion, subject and authority, comely and corrupt. Hence onward to the remarkable prose romance, "Jesus and Isolt," in which Jesus, who "won't be bound by my own nature," assumes the form of a ciclogriff, and attaches himself to Isolt and Tristan (much as Pinsky's poems attach themselves to pair after pair of legendary illicit lovers): "… in the heedless contradictions and paradoxes of the behavior of the two lovers in Isolt's own account, the Son of Man felt something that eased the restlessness of his own double nature. At times, it was as if he walked the streets of Jerusalem again, defying the Sanhedrin by curing the blind on the Sabbath." With the figure of Daniel, and the famished yet melodic jaw-bone of the book's title poem, this figure of the ciclogriff may be one of the most revealingly empowered yet burdened figures for Pinsky's daemon: "The Jewish soul of Jesus, pragmatic, ethical, logical, found in the passionate and self-defeating codes of romantic love and knightly combat some of what he lacked in the jeweled pavilions of Heaven." No less revealing: "Playfully, Tristram cuffed at the little creature with his free hand. The ciclogriff raised its dainty paw and caught Tristram's wrist, arresting the blow with the strength of an iron bar." Our final portrait of this freakish creature, unable to save the lovers from their chosen inferno of desire, shows him soaring heavenward to a reunion with his mother, whose consolations cannot soothe his insatiable compassion.

Following Pinsky's tropisms through the "maze of displacement and sublimation," a further sequence leads to Mrs. W. and the Chief of Police, the doomed yet resurrective couple of "At Pleasure Bay." This brilliant yet gently haunting poem ends the book under the medleyed, Whitmanian arias of tenor and catbird—"Never the same phrase twice … borrowed music that he melds and changes"—beside a river which blurs the borders of law and transgression, life and death, eros and the spirit, endings and beginnings.

Such a partial tracing slights the range within Pinsky's poems, for most of them tend to work individually the way the book works as a whole—by fugues of permuting themes and characters. "The Hearts" swings from Romeo and Juliet to Art Pepper, heroin addict, to Antony and Cleopatra, their runious yet glorious idolizings "placed" (in the sense of Pinsky's essay, "Poetry and the World") by the unworldly perspective of Buddha, yet offset by the fantastic visions of Isaiah. These hearts revolve as if upon the potter's wheel in Benares, or the wheel of God's imagings, or yet again the turning record of Lee Andrews and The Hearts. Acting as a democratizing leaven as well as a token of continuity—perhaps the phonemic germ-plasm of immortal desire—the exclamation "Oh!" transmigrates from Enobarbus's "but Oh! … Then you would have missed / A wonderful piece of work" (the last three words are Shakespeare's, spun via Pinsky's shifting contexts into contemporary street slang, something Art Pepper might have said) to the closing ah's of the poem:

As the record ends, a coda in retard:
The Hearts in a shifting velvety ah, and ah
Prolonged again, and again as Lee Andrews

Reaches ah high for I have to gain Faith, HopeAnd Charity, God only knows the girlWho will love meOh! if we only couldStart over again! Then The Hearts chant the chords
Again a final time, ah and the record turns
Through all the music, and on into silence again.

In these supple tercets, a favored form for Pinsky, with their odd-numbered openness, shifting caesuras, and stanza-enjambing syntax, the poem reaches not only its merger of erotic and religious longings, but also the expression of one of the underlying wants of the book: "Oh! if we only could // Start over again." It is a desire prolonged or renewed throughout the book, extending to the final poem's vision of a posthumous embrace from whose climax the soul

To "begin again" on the crossed currents of a restless, and here eroticized, metaphysical hunger—such a want impels much of the lyric poetry of a secular, origin-starved yet origin-fleeing modern America. The need intensifies for Pinsky, as a man of heterodox piety, half-swayed by Judaism's redundant chants of faith and by its taboos against idolatry, even as he rebels against its bonds and discriminations. Like a jazz soloist escaping from a phrasal cage or cradle, he breaks free to value the heathen murmurings of the ocean, the clangor of idol-smith and marketplace, the "shifting velvety ah, and ah" of The Hearts. He shakes off whatever might keep him from registering the full range of a fetishistic culture and its idols beneath whose crude or polished surfaces his own genius seeks out the roots of authentic longing. Here Poetry and the World is again crucial reading, for it taps the autobiographical current of Pinsky's various departures not only from religious orthodoxy, but from what he calls "the coercion of circumstance." Jewish law, fixed identity, "birth and ancestry," "social fact," historical determinism, authoritarian education, time itself, and finally a view of death as fixed terminus—these are some of the limits against which the poet's appetite awakens. I should add that this appetite depends on such limits, both as they define and sharpen a desire for the unlimited, and as they reinforce the very differences which poetry as a medium of representation requires. It is this dependency that partly accounts for the more than occasional undertone of anxiety and sorrow in these poems. It underlies the book's thematic interest in illicit lovers, whose doom figures not only the attempt to undo totemic differences on which selves and societies depend, but also the ravenous desire of a poetry that wants to become the world, to get beyond the and of "Poetry and the World." And finally it is this rebellious dependency that, because of the reach and stamina of Pinsky's imagination, leads him to "immortal longings" and their eschatological hopes.

How to begin again? How to get truly free? How to include novelty without falling into an abyss of incoherence, unrepresentability, guilt? In Pinsky's work, at least two strategies come to mind beyond mobility itself or the inclusive displacements of "Also this, / Also that." One is to acknowledge, as in the latter line-breaking yet line-linking phrase, that breaking and bonding may mark all creative activity. The child Jesus breaks the Sabbath by creating a dam and molding clay birds which he then sends breaking into endless flight. Not only does their flight exceed the limits of his knowledge, but his display of power seems indiscriminable from the angry magic by which he cripples another child who broke the dam (and who also thereby set free the water's flow). The Benares potter molds new vessels from old smithereens and dust; the child in "Icicles" breaks the totemic beard of "crystal chimes" down to their originary stems (just as the careful off-rhymes break to new tones); couples burn through selfhood to the one life-force within yet beyond themselves; poetry breaks to absorb the unpoetic; a society ruptures to include new immigrants who in turn enlarge their own self-definitions; one story line is cut and spliced to others. A still more fluent version of such remakings is the "meld and change" of creaturely, linguistic and thematic transmigration, the undogmatic mythos behind such poems as "The Hearts," "The Refinery," "Pilgrimage" and "At Pleasure Bay."

Such inventions bring into focus a second, overlapping strategy—Pinsky's celebration of a shared activity that transcends aesthetic, social, temporal or religious divisions:

The crowd at the ballpark sing, the cantor sings
Kol Nidre, and the equipment in our cars
Fills them with singing voices while we drive.

When the warlord hears his enemy is dead,
He sings his praises. The old men sang a song
And we protesters sang a song against them …

As the poem unfolds, the multiple, various, and yet single song evolves to include the returning gods who sing us and themselves back into anonymity beyond the eschaton, "the whole cold salty world / Humming oblation to what our mouths once made." This is one of the far reaches of Pinsky's dreams of origins and ends, as in "Pilgrimage" or "The Refinery," where the gods "batten on the vats" of our utterances "As though we were their aphids, or their bees, / That monstered up sweetness for them while they dozed." A visionary circuit of song between human and divine, this pantheistic atonement would bind us all into a continuum of death and renewal, a continuum dependent on our own makings. Making, after all, is the only activity that can appease our wants. But because these wants exceed any object, they call for continuous remakings, not merely within our lives but between those of generations. Hence the "lament" and the immortality of sexual making, and of work—as additional poems like "The Ghost Hammer" or "Shirt" confirm: "George Herbert, your descendant is a Black / Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma / And she inspected my shirt." This great chain of making is forged in the monstrous, desperate, yet glorious labor

To stir the mysteries, Love and Work, we have made
And that make us willing to die for them—
That make us bleed, embodied maybe in codes,

Spurts of pressure and crucial variations
In the current of the soul, that lives by changing.

To close, we may wonder how a poet so devoted to openness will now reach beyond the spurts and variations of these unique poems. One possible shift (apart from moves toward yet other genres) may in fact lead toward less openness, less assimilation. Such a shift might embody a less defiant but still more searching view of the limits and differentiations on which Pinsky so resistantly depends. So too, getting outside or beside the "omnivorous verve" that drives these poems might be a way of achieving a different kind of success from the one reached by the most heterogeneous of the current works. If poetry must assimilate what Pinsky earlier called "the whole unswallowable / Menu of immensities," how to survive the threats of choking (as depicted in an earlier poem "The Saving") or of surrendering to a gaping, endless consumption—the shark's jaw picked clean by yet other hungry mouths? I cite these images to suggest that Pinsky is already aware that the predicament, as presently formulated, gives no rest. If Also this must make way for Also that (an inclusion that yields a new this, ringed by a new that), how to arrest the fugue of "concentric removes," or establish the limits of the poem, or achieve a degree of self-presence that may allow a deeper, still more indelible etching of what one is, rather than of what one may become?

Here again, Pinsky is ahead of such questions: there is a powerful imprint and signature in the astonishing originality of his poems as well as in such already mentioned figures à clef as Daniel, the ciclogriff and the stranded want bone. And those of his essays which focus on the unworldly—in the form of a religious faith, a resistant idiosyncrasy, or a "sense of limit"—reveal his interest in a vantage from which the poet may reveal his or her own inwardness while also discriminating the claims and place of the worldly. If Pinsky recalls Grandpa Dave's apparent "contempt for piety and rabbi-craft," he also notes that "if he was a bad Jew [he] was at least a bad Orthodox Jew," one who took his son (Pinsky's father) to eleven months of daily prayer for the dead—prompting that son ("young, pragmatic, preoccupied with worldly concerns") to do the same years later for his father. It is this self-limiting circle of humility and mourning (one which is here made possible by inherited ritual), which for Pinsky saves these acts of worship from idolatry, just as the recognition of scarcity brings value into the world. As a child, the poet of "The Night Game" devised a private baseball hero more gifted than the actual Whitey Ford: "a Dodger. / People were amazed by him. / Once, when he was young, / He refused to pitch on Yom Kippur."

In whatever direction Pinsky evolves—toward a more pressing sense of limits, or toward further acts of inclusion, or toward yet other ways of suspending such oppositions ("Doing a brake job, he sings into the wheel")—American poetry and culture will move with him. There are few poets or critics better able to challenge and lead us from this century to the next, and perhaps none who will do so with the dazzling combination of energy, invention and generous delight, both in poetry and the world, to be found in these two books.

James Longenbach (essay date 1994)

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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 legitimately "post-modernist" because in his work, "formal freedom feels assumed, and matters of technique no longer fighting issues in the old modernist sense." This quality seems to me even stronger in Pinsky's own work. If he is a postmodern poet it is not because he opposes modernism in the way that some modern poets rejected their Romantic forebears; the label sticks because he has understood that opposition itself is what holds other poets down.

A poet's mark may be measured by his or her ability to expand the language (which is to say the culture) available to poetry. The effort is usually subtle (we don't need to think of Shakespeare as a formally innovative writer), and it always depends on an openness to a variety of poetries, both past and present. Unlike other writers who seem, mostly because of their formal choices, more programmatically postmodern, Pinsky has slowly become the more truly innovative poet—the poet who increases the possibilities open to poetry. By being both completely distinctive and completely undogmatic, Pinsky reminds me of the idiosyncratic pianist Glen Gould, who was known as a champion of twelve-tone music and who consequently affronted his admirers by publishing a gorgeously tonal string quartet. Gould replied that he was simply a "student"—as he called himself—whose "enthusiasms were seldom balanced by antagonisms." What's striking here is that Gould's performances are unmistakably unique: his originality came from an embrace of everything that music had to offer him.

I think it's important to make this point about Pinsky because his criticism has been used to widen the poetic canon's artificial oppositions. This is in part understandable, since Pinsky is a writer with clear opinions; but he is not a writer who would say that he is "denying the hegemony of such dominant twentieth-century conventions as the subjective modernist lyric." Pinsky is too sophisticated a critic to put together the words subjective, modernist, and lyric, secure that the phrase means something coherent enough to deny. It's true that Pinsky has criticized what I might call (though it makes me nervous to do so) a strain of attenuated modernism—much smaller than the practice of any modernist poet—that privileges the "image" to the exclusion of other kinds of poetic discourse. But to capitalize polemically on this aspect of Pinsky's work is to diminish the scope of what he's doing. Pinsky did not set out to replace one orthodoxy with another; his goal is to resist any vocabulary for poetry that becomes exclusionary and taken-for-granted. The point of The Situation of Poetry is that all poetic language is more or less arbitrary, none of it closer to the heart than any other. Pinsky has his preferences, but his argument is not with the "image" as such but with the unquestioned acceptance of its values.

Throughout The Situation of Poetry Pinsky discusses this issue in what seem like purely formal terms. But as the title of his most recent critical work—Poetry and the World—suggests, Pinsky understands that any formal issue in poetry is simultaneously a social issue: "The poet's first social responsibility, to continue the art, can be filled only through the second, opposed responsibility to change the terms of the art given—and it is given socially, which is to say politically." Except that it's not afraid of the word art, this statement is similar to many current "New Historicist" ideas about poetry. (In fact, the essay it's taken from, "Responsibilities of the Poet," was first published in a special issue of Critical Inquiry on politics and poetic value: unlike most poet-critics, Pinsky seems in touch with academic literary criticism in profitable ways.) But the wisdom of this statement also resonates beyond critical fashion. Over the course of his career, Pinsky has made his finest poems not by harnessing beautiful language but by forcing the language of his time (the language that didn't yet seem beautiful) into poetry. This skill, discovered in the poems of Sadness and Happiness and perfected in those of The Want Bone, is the product of Pinsky's strong sense of poetry's historicity. Like the poets of his past, Wordsworth or Elizabeth Bishop, Pinsky resists not subjectivity itself but the dramatization of subjectivity uncomplicated by an awareness of the subject's social nature: this is Pinsky's inheritance, romantic and modern.

Pinsky was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey, a town that by 1940 was already a dilapidated resort. Graduating from Rutgers University in 1962, he wrote his senior thesis on T. S. Eliot. Then he enrolled as a graduate student at Stanford, and, quite by accident, became aware of Yvor Winters. During his first semester, after he read Robert Lowell's review of Winters's Selected Poems, Pinsky was impressed enough to show Winters his poems. On more than one occasion Pinsky has described this meeting with a delicately self-depreciating irony.

He asked me to sit down, and he thumbed through the manuscript while I was there. It took him perhaps four minutes, stopping once or twice at certain ones. Then he looked up at me, and said, "You simply don't know how to write."

He added that there was some gift there, but because I was ignorant of what to do with it, he could not estimate how much of a gift it was. If it was blind luck or happy fate or smiling Fortune that must be thanked for leading me to Stanford, let me congratulate myself for having the sense not to leave the room when he said that.

Pinsky stayed in the room for several years, taking directed reading courses with Winters and writing poems. He has subsequently expressed his debt to Winters many times (most wonderfully in the penultimate section of his "Essay on Psychiatrists"), but unlike other writers who identify with Winters, Pinsky has never seemed like a Wintersian, repeating the old man's idiosyncratic take on literary history. While Pinsky inherited Winters's preference for a Jonsonian clarity of statement in poetry, I think Winters was important to him as a poet-critic who stressed the necessity of coming to terms with the entire history of poetry: it was Winters's generosity rather than his crankiness that made an impression on the young Pinsky. In addition, I think Winters stressed in usable terms what Pinsky probably knew intuitively: that the reading and writing of poetry was a moral act.

Three years after he showed Winters his work, Pinsky published his first poems in the October 1965 issue of the Southern Review, then a journal where many of Winters's students and friends appeared. These poems sound almost nothing like the work Pinsky would produce three of four years later, but they are distinguished by a formal clarity and ease. Of the four poems, Pinsky preserved only "Old Woman" in his first collection, Sadness and Happiness.

Not even in darkest August,
When the mysterious insects
Marry loudly in the black weeds
And the woodbine, limp after rain,
In the cooled night is more fragrant,
Do you gather in any slight
Harvest to yourself. Deep whispers
Of slight thunder, horizons off,
May break your thin sleep, but awake,
You cannot hear them. Harsh gleaner
Of children, grandchildren—remnants
Of nights now forever future—
Your dry, invisible shudder
Dies on this porch, where, uninflamed,
You dread the oncoming seasons,
Repose in electric light.

Like one of the poems that accompanied it in the Southern Review (another was set in rhymed couplets and the fourth in terza rima), "Old Woman" is organized syllabically, the eight syllables of each line variously accented. The subtlety of their rhythm does stand apart from the lines of the other poems ("The marriage bed awakes to hear / A voice reciting, without fear"), but "Old Woman" showed only half of what Pinsky would become: the expert craftsman.

Pinsky published no more poems until 1969-70, when he appeared again in the Southern Review and also in Poetry: all but one of these poems remain uncollected, as do three of the four additional poems that later appeared in the September 1971 issue of Poetry. The fourth poem, "The Destruction of Long Branch," seems in retrospect like a breakthrough.

When they came out with artificial turf
I went back home with a thousand miles.

I dug a trench by moonlight from the ocean
And let it wash in quietly
And make a brackish quicksand which the tide
Sluiced upward from the streets and ditches.
The downtown that the shopping centers killed,
The garden apartments, the garages,

The station, the Little Africa on (so help me)
Liberty Street, the nicer sections

All settled gently in a drench of sand
And sunk with a minimum of noise.

It's tempting to say that the new power of these lines comes from Pinsky's focus on the peculiarity of his home town. In some sense, the poem does represent the finding of a "subject matter," and Pinsky has subsequently written in sophisticated ways about the importance of subject matter and of poems that are organized by the earnest presentation of their meaning. But this advance happened when it did because Pinsky broke through an earlier idea about poetic language. He has recently said that "Old Woman" represents a kind of poetry that no longer interests him because of its "overt lyricism of vocabulary and syntax." In contrast, the force of the language of "The Destruction of Long Branch" depends not on an extravagance of image or wit or metaphor—not even on the sonorous quality of lines like "Deep whispers / Of slight thunder, horizons off, / May break your thin sleep"—but on the unfolding of an argument that includes words like shopping center. Pinsky has joked that he tends to suspect a poet who hasn't gotten a shopping center into his poems: his point is to stress not only the place of the everyday world but the place of everyday language—language not yet poetic—in poetry. The phrase shopping center could never appear in "Old Woman," just as Yeats could never have gotten the words greasy till into "To the Rose upon the Rood of Time"—even if he'd wanted to.

"The Destruction of Long Branch" sounds even more like the mature Pinsky because the introduction of phrases like shopping center, artificial turf, and so help me does not disrupt the formal clarity evident even in his earliest work. In "American Poetry and American Life" (collected along with "Responsibilities of the Poet" in Poetry and the World) Pinsky has described the social qualities of Anne Winters's poetry, and, like all influential poet-critics, he seems to account for aspects of his own poetry when he praises certain qualities in others'.

I don't intend anything as quixotic or odious as prescribing a subject matter, or proscribing one. Rather, the point is that a certain kind of fluidity, a formal and moral quality, seems to have been demanded of American poets by their circumstance…. Winters's laundromat with its "I mean to live" seems simultaneously to challenge and embarrass poetic language, and to incorporate it: to defy poetic form, and to demand it.

These sentences describe perfectly later poems like "Pleasure Bay" or "The Hearts" (the long, fluid poems that "The Destruction of Long Branch" looks forward to). They also describe the values that give those poems their idiosyncratic movement (Williams's diction plugged into Stevens's pentameters). Pinsky has no interest in the mysterious "freedom" often associated with the breaking of poetic forms, since he understands that forms are, as part of the historicity of his writing, unbreakable; but he is interested in bending them, testing them against the warp and woof of his experience.

Perhaps it isn't coincidental that "The Destruction of Long Branch" embodies thematically this double attitude toward history and culture—defying it and demanding it. The poem isn't about the slow decay of Long Branch; rather, it's about Pinsky's desire to flood the place and pave it over—an act which he accomplishes, like any romantic poet, "by moonlight." But the loving specificity of the poem's catalogue of everything that disappears belies his desire to destroy, and the poem ends not with destruction but with Pinsky's recreation—"cautiously elegiac"—of his home town. In the process, the words that threatened to make him what he is (artificial turf, shopping mall) become the words with which he names the world and makes it his own.

Comparing Elizabeth Bishop to Wordsworth, Pinsky has said that "her great subject is the contest—or truce, or trade-agreement—between the single human soul on the one side, and on the other side, the contingent world of artificats and other people." This is Pinsky's great subject too, and it accounts for Pinsky's emphasis on the historicity of his language: it is only through the social structure of language that the single soul is constituted, and it is only through language that the soul asserts its power over the social structure. "Naming and placing things," says Pinsky apropos of Bishop (though he could have been talking about "The Destruction of Long Branch"), "is an approach to genuine liberty. This is true even though the very means of naming things … are also part of the terrain."

This concern unites the poems of Sadness and Happiness. If Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" is a poem that dramatizes the difficulty of realizing that the self is a social construction (the individual merely "one of them"), then the first poem in Sadness and Happiness is about the opposite difficulty of seeing the individual as anything but a product of the categories that constitute it—"an I." The opening stanzas of "Poem About People" offer a comfortable account of other people seen less as individuals than as exemplars of a kind of Johnsonsian "general nature." The difficulties begin here:

But how love falters and flags
When anyone's difficult eyes come
Into focus, terrible gaze of a unique
Soul, its need unlovable.

Pinsky offers several examples of this problem, the last of which explores the sentimentality of his earlier remark that it is "possible / To feel briefly like Jesus," crossing the "dark spaces" between individuals.

In the movies, when the sensitive
Young Jewish soldier nearly drowns

Trying to rescue the thrashing
Anti-semitic bully, swimming across
The river raked by nazi fire,
The awful part is the part truth:
Hate my whole kind, but me,
Love me for myself.

The truth is partial because single selves have meaning only as the parts of whole kinds; the difference is frightening, and difficult to calibrate. But it is not impossible, as the poem's final lines suggest, restating the opening stanzas' hope in darker, more tentative terms: "we / All dream it, the dark wind crossing / The wide spaces between us."

Two years after Sadness and Happiness appeared, Pinsky published The Situation of Poetry. But as his fugitive essays and reviews from the early seventies reveal, the book's argument had been in his mind for some time. Its thesis appeared in concentrated form in the June 1973 issue of Poetry.

Some contemporary poems tend, pretty distinctly as such matters go, toward coolness: the aspect of modernism which effaces or holds back the warmth of authorial commitment to feeling or idea, in favor of a surface cool under the reader's touch.

A previous generation sought coolness through concentration on objective images. But the techniques implied by the term "imagism" have come to look rhetorical and warmly committed…. When it fails, it resembles other forms of "poetic diction."

This was the problem. In the January 1974 issue of Poetry Pinsky offered a solution.

Most people who read poetry have some loose idea of what the prose virtues are—a demanding, unglamourous group, including perhaps Clarity, Flexibility, Efficiency … ? This is a drab, a grotesquely puritanical bunch of shrews. They never appear in blurbs. And yet when they are courted by those who understand them—Williams, Bishop—the Prose Virtues, which sound like a supporting chorus, perform virtuoso marvels. They become not merely the poem's minimum requirement, but the poetic essence.

The only word missing here is discursive: the word is Pinsky's, but it has become the word most often used to describe his poems, especially those from Sadness and Happiness like "Essay on Psychiatrists" and "Tennis." Throughout these poems, Pinsky tries to recapture the pre-Romantic sensibility of Dryden or Virgil (the sensibility that was supposedly available, as Winters is made to say in "Essay on Psychiatrists," before "the middle / Of the Eighteenth Century" when "the logical / Foundations of Western thought decayed and fell apart"). If Virgil could write poems about the skills of farming, why not poems about the skills of tennis?

Hit to the weakness. All things being equal
Hit crosscourt rather than down the line, because
If you hit crosscourt back to him, then he
Can only hit back either towards you (crosscourt)
Or parallel to you (down the line), but never
Away from you, the way that you can hit
Away from him if he hits down the line.

When these lines were first published, they seemed like an incredible breath of fresh air: nothing could have stood more at odds with the fashion for confessional poetry. But after almost twenty years, the more egregiously discursive poems don't seem to me to be the finest achievement in Sadness and Happiness—necessary though they were for Pinsky's development. While the textures of "Essay on Psychiatrists" or "Tennis" do encourage the expansion of poetic language, they do so programmatically, making the inclusion in poetry of phrases like crosscourt and down the line sound like a feat rather than an achievement that later poems will build on. Consequently, the poems seem more like attempts to write like Virgil (no more possible than it is to write like Keats) than efforts to adapt his pre-Romantic sensibility to the poetry of today. In contrast, that is exactly what poems like "Poem About People," "Discretions of Alcibiades," or "The Beach Women" do.

In retrospect, then, how dangerous it was for Pinsky to embark on the long poem Explanation of America, published in 1979. This poem is as plainly discursive as "Tennis," but unlike "Tennis" or even "Essay on Psychiatrists," Explanation is a poem in which Pinsky has something urgent to say. Halfway through, Pinsky offers this hope to his daughter, to whom the poem is addressed.

The words—"Vietnam"—that I can't use in poems
Without the one word threatening to gape
And swallow and enclose the poem, for you
May grow more finite; able to be touched.

This is what Pinsky had learned, writing his first book of poems. But the word that he chooses here, so much more charged than shopping center, reveals how much he feels is at stake in the expansion of the language of poetry. Pinsky begins Explanation by stressing the vast multiplicity of images in American culture ("Colonial Diners, Disney, films / Of concentration camps, the napalmed child / Trotting through famous newsfilm"), and he wants his daughter to seel all these images—just as he wants to build a poem ample enough to contain them. Such a poem might satisfy Pinsky's smaller hope:

The Shopping Center itself will be as precious
And quaint as is the threadmill now converted
Into a quaint and high-class shopping center.

But the larger hope—the larger word—is not dispatched with so easily:

Someday, the War in Southeast Asia, somewhere—
Perhaps for you and people younger than you—
Will be the kind of history and pain
Saguntum is for me; but never tamed
Or "history" for me, I think.

J. D. McClatchy has called An Explanation of America Pinsky's "most capacious and aspiring work," but I agree with him when he says that History of My Heart, published in 1984, represents a turning point in Pinsky's career. Pinsky's great subject—the dialectical relationship of the self and the social structure—was necessarily at the center of his meditation on what the word "America" might mean. But while the poems of History of My Heart and The Want Bone continue this meditation, they do so dramatically, enacting the dialectic as well as explaining it. These poems retain the discursive clarity of the long poem, but their narratives seem (even within their smaller compass) more comprehensive and complex, more a dramatization of a mind thinking than the product of thought (to borrow a distinction Elizabeth Bishop favored).

The opening poem in History of my Heart, "The Figured Wheel," describes the rotation of a great wheel throughout history. A catalogue of culture, high and low, familiar and foreign, it begins with a shopping mall rather than a center and ends with the creation of Robert Pinsky's single self.

These lines establish the terms in which the title History of My Heart must be understood. Virtually all of Pinsky's poems are autobiographical, but they recognize that an autobiography, like the self it narrates, is constituted by a wide array of cultural and historical forces. To get to the "heart" of these poems is not to find some essential core but to recognize that the heart is on the surface of everything the poet sees or speaks. Any distinctions between private and public "history" become difficult to sustain.

The second poem in History of My Heart adds a more plainly political charge to this history. "The Unseen" begins with a group of tourists in Krakow, touring the death camp. The scene is "unswallowable," both unbearably familiar and unbearably horrific: "We felt bored / And at the same time like screaming Biblical phrases." Stalled between these extremes, Pinsky remembers a "sleep-time game"—an insomniac's dream of heroic destruction: granted the power of invisibility, Pinsky roams the camp, saves the victims from the gas chamber, and, as a finale, flushes "everything with a vague flood / Of fire and blood." As in "The Destruction of Long Branch," Pinsky dreams of having power over his history, remaking what made him.

It's not possible to take that dream too seriously in "The Destruction of Long Branch," of course: its act of destruction serves as a kind of metaphor for the self's struggle with language and history. But in "The Unseen" the act is too literal, too historically charged, and Pinsky must back away from it more clearly.

I don't feel changed, or even informed—in that,
It's like any other historical monument; although
It is true that I don't ever at night any more

Prowl rows of red buildings unseen, doing
Justice like an angry god to escape insomnia.

Though he feels unchanged, Pinsky describes an important transformation here. Having imagined himself as the "unseen," Pinsky now recognizes a more potent invisible presence.

And so,
O discredited Lord of Hosts, your servant gapes

Obediently to swallow various doings of us, the most
Capable of all your former creatures …

I think this force could be called "history" as easily as "Lord of Hosts." Having earlier found the scene "unswallowable," Pinsky realizes that he has no choice but to take in the past. And as "The Figured Wheel" suggests, the past—however sordid—is already inside him: in this sense, the force could also be called "my heart."

This historical wheel rolls through all of Pinsky's work, but these lines from The Want Bone (his best and most recent book) point to a slight change in his attitude: "How can I turn this wheel / that turns my life?" Throughout History of My Heart Pinsky is amazed by the vast array of images that make up the self; throughout TheWant Bone he is equally amazed by the images that the self can make. The desire—the want—to turn the wheel of history has certainly been present in Pinsky's work since "The Destruction of Long Branch"; but in The Want Bone Pinsky sometimes stands aghast at the potential hubris of the human imagination—or what in "What Why When How Who" he calls

The old conspiracy of gain and pleasure

Flowering in the mind greedily to build the world And break it.

Behind these lines stand Old Testament injunctions against idolatry—"they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made"—but in an essay on the prophet Isaiah Pinsky concludes that "all worship, even the most meticulours or elaborate, may be flawed by the spirit of idolatry." Since idolatry is in some way essential to human action, good or bad, Pinsky's fascination is less with greed as such than with the point where pleasure begins to conspire unhappily with gain.

The astonishing first poem in The Want Bone, "From the Childhood of Jesus," is impatient with both Old and New Testament wisdom, both the laws of Judaism and Jesus' revision of them. Pinsky tells the apocryphal tale of a young Jesus who makes a little pond of mud and twigs and models twelve sparrows from clay. The scene seems innocent enough until "a certain Jew" (Pinsky incorporates the language of the anti-Semitic joke or story here) scolds the child for "making images." In response, Jesus makes the sparrows come to life, and, when the son of Annas accidentally ruins the little pond, Jesus makes the boy wither away. The petulant tone of Jesus' anger is familiar from the gospels ("what did the water / Do to harm you?"), but his actions are merciless, filled with the childish greed and self-importance that the tone suggests. (As Pinsky says in "Lament for the Makers," worship is "tautological, with its Blessed / Art thou Ο Lord who consecrates the Sabbath … And then the sudden curt command or truth: / God told him, Thou shalt cut thy foreskin off.") "From the Childhood of Jesus" ends like a parable gone wrong.

Alone in his cot in Joseph's house, the Son
Of man was crying himself to sleep. The moon

Rose higher, the Jews put out their lights and slept,
And all was calm and as it had been, except

In the agitated household of the scribe Annas,
And high in the dark, where unknown even to Jesus

The twelve new sparrows flew aimlessly through the night,
Not blinking or resting, as if never to alight.

Jesus is resolutely human in this story, granted the powers of a god but the emotions of a child, and, like any man, he cannot control the things he has made: the poem's final image is more frightening than the child's petulance. "From the Childhood of Jesus" is astonishing because, while it is ultimately about the consequences of the simple human desire for power, it tells that profane story in the vocabulary of the sacred. Consequently, this poem about hubris is itself startlingly hubristic—a paradox that embodies Pinsky's uneasy double attitude toward the human imagination.

"From the Childhood of Jesus" exemplifies one of the two kinds of poems that make up The Want Bone. The other kind, rather than adapting Biblical rhetoric, combines a multiplicity of vocabularies and narratives into a shape that seems both wild and controlled, random and planned. Most of these poems are organized something like a Baroque concerto with a ritornello or repeating theme that returns (though in a different key) after each episode of new material. In "The Uncreation" various ideas of singing hold the poem's disparate materials together. In "At Pleasure Bay" some version of the phrase "never the same" recurs. And in "The Shirt" the repeated motif is neither a theme nor a phrase but simply a rhythm: "The back, the yoke, the yardage" or "The planter, the picker, the sorter." Similar to those of History of My Heart but even more accomplished, these poems are what "The Destruction of Long Branch" ultimately made possible.

In "The Hearts" the ritornello is an unsentimental image of the heart, itself the sentimental image of desire, as "pulpy shore-life battened on a jetty."

Slashed by the little deaths of sleep and pleasure,
They swell in the nurturing spasms of the waves,

Sucking to cling; and even in death itself—
Baked, frozen—they shrink to grip the granite harder.

Between the recurrences of this image comes a catalogue of harsh desires. The victim of a suffocating lover is equated with a heroin addict who knows, the first time he shoots up, that he will suffer, go to prison, and probably die. But this knowledge doesn't stop the addict, whose consolation is that proposed by Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra when Antony laments "Would I had never seen her": "Then you would have missed / A wonderful piece of work." This passage, in turn, invokes a sentence from Stephen Booth's commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets: "Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, / Bisexual, or heterosexual, the sonnets / Provide no evidence on the matter." This link in the chain of associations provokes the poem's central question: why does human desire fuel, over and over again, the making of images—the singing of songs, the throwing of pots, the writing of poems?

All of these creative acts are invoked as the chain continues, one image leading metonymically to the next. The question of Shakespeare's sexuality invokes the rhetoric of courtly love (tears, crystals, hearts) which still infects the songs (Lee Andrews and The Hearts—"My tear drops are / Like crystals") we sing in the shower (falling like tears or crystals).

To Buddha every distinct thing is illusion
And becoming is destruction, but still we sing
In the shower. I do. In the beginning God drenched

The Emptiness with images: the potter
Crosslegged at his wheel in Benares market
Making mud cups, another cup each second
Tapering up between his fingers, one more
To sell the tea-seller at a penny a dozen,
And tea a penny a cup. The customers smash
The empties, and waves of traffic grind the shards
To mud for new cups, in turn; and I keep one here
Next to me: holding it awhile from out of the cloud

Of dust that rises from the shattered pieces,
The risen dust alive with fire, then settled
And soaked and whirling again on the wheel that turns

And looks on the world as on another cloud,
On everything the heart can grasp and throw away
As a passing cloud….

The image of the wheel returns here, but unlike "The Figured Wheel" the potter's wheel is turned by a man: the result of all human making, Pinsky suggests, is this absurd, this transient—not the potent images with which the Old Testament god drenches the emptiness but the mere images that the Buddha denounces as empty. And yet, as the poem continues to unfold, the wheel continues to turn—perhaps productively. The visions of the Old Testament are dismissed as "too barbarous for heaven/And too preposterous for belief on earth" (Pinsky rehearses the horrible vision in Isaiah 6, after which the prophet's unclean lips are purified by a live coal), and "The Hearts" ends by returning to Lee Andrews and The Hearts, their record spinning like the potter's wheel.

As the record ends, a coda in retard:
The Hearts in a shifting velvety ah, and ah
Prolonged again, and again as Lee Andrews

Reaches ah high for I have to gain Faith, Hope
And Charity, God only knows the girl
Who will love me—Oh! if we only could
Start over again! Then The Hearts chant the chords
Again a final time, ah and the record turns
Through all the music, and on into silence again.

These lines of the poem answer the song: you can start again, though you'll end up in pretty much the same place. Finally, Pinsky's suggestion is that the turning itself—the longing, the singing, the making—must constitute our human value. If this seems like a paltry consolation, the empty images condemned by the Buddha, we should remember in contrast the uncontrollable, unsatisfying images conjured by the Son of Man.

The final lines of "The Hearts" cannot sound like too definitive a conclusion since, like so many of Pinsky's later poems, "The Hearts" eschews the normal kinds of progression or closure we associate with lyric poetry. Less than the final lines it is the turning of the poem itself that is most memorable. In his essay "Poetry and Pleasure" Pinsky praises the apparently random succession of thoughts and observations that a letter can accommodate, and in his quest to keep poetry open to all kinds of language and experience, Pinsky has tried to establish that kind of movement in poems like "The Hearts," "Shirt," or "Pleasure Bay." He asks in "Poetry and Pleasure" the question implicit in his work since "The Destruction of Long Branch": "if gorgeous, impressive language and profound, crucial ideas were all that poetry offered to engage us, would it seem—as it does to many of us—as necessary as food?" What engages us is not the product—the achieved word or thought—but the process of a mind moving through those thoughts and words: "This movement—physical in the sounds of a poem, moral in its relation to the society implied by language, the person who utters the poem—is near the heart of poetry's mysterious appeal, for me." In its sinuous investigation of desire, "The Hearts" tries to describe this appeal: more profoundly, the poem enacts it.

I've quoted "Poetry and Pleasure" to elucidate Pinsky's poems, but of course Pinsky is trying to say something about the pleasures of poetry at large; the phrase "Death is the mother of beauty" is not particularly interesting except because it occurs within the idiosyncratic movement of thought and sound in Stevens's "Sunday Morning." In "American Poetry and American Life" Pinsky returns to this quality of movement, emphasizing that it is visible in a wide range of American poetries.

One could exemplify this fluidity of tone, including the inseparable blend of comic and ecstatic, formal and vulgar, in an enormous range of American poets, John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop, George Oppen and James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg and Marianne Moore. (I think that the stylistic trait I mean also characterizes poems that do not explicitly take up American cultural material such as bus rides or movies.)

Pinsky is interested in developing categories for the discussion of American poetry that do not encourage the polemical oppositions of Oppen and Merrill, Ginsberg and Moore, or—even more culturally overdetermined—the high and the low. His strategy not only clarifies the position of his own work but helps to insure the future health and diversity of American literature: the segregation of poetic schools only limits the possibilities available to poetry.

Even the most deeply entrenched battle positions of American poetry don't interest Pinsky. In an essay occasioned by the centennial of T. S. Eliot's birth, he has admitted that the subject of his undergraduate thesis first alerted him to the quality of movement he so values, the "clangorous, barely-harmonized bringing together of the sacred and profane."

Eliot is above all the pre-eminent poet of this clash or yoking…. Because he identified and penetrated this dualism in the rhythms and noises and smells and surfaces of modern life, without simplifying what he saw into false ideas of squalor or perfection, Eliot remains entirely essential for us. He is not merely whatever we mean by "great poet," but precisely what Pound means by "an inventor." For this, Eliot's readers forgive him his mean side, his religio-authoritarian claptrap, the plushy grandiosity of "Ash Wednesday," the tetrameter anti-Semitism, the genteel trivialities of the late plays.

Today, almost thirty years after Eliot's death, there still seems something daring about this expression of debt and affinity.

I began this essay by proposing that it is precisely through such acknowledgements of debt and affinity that Pinsky's originality is constituted. Tracing his artistic development, I think we can see that Pinsky's own work provides the terms in which my proposition must be understood. Since our selves are turned on the great wheel of history and language, we owe whatever combination of qualities that might distinguish us, formal and vulgar, comic and ecstatic, to mysterious forces we disregard at our own peril. Pinsky's is a poetry of acknowledgment, and its power grows from his deep awareness—sometimes wariness, sometimes worship—of the literary, linguistic, and historical precedents that continue to design his life even as he writes today. Acknowledging Eliot, Pinsky calls him an "inventor," which Pound defined as a writer who discovers "a particular process or more than one mode and process." Above inventors, said Pound, stands the small class of "masters," those "who, apart from their own inventions, are able to assimilate and co-ordinate a large number of preceding inventions." This, near the end of the twentieth century, in both his poetry and his prose, is what Robert Pinsky is doing.

James Longenbach (review date 1996)

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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 Poems allows us to recognize the most scrupulously intelligent body of work produced by an American poet in the past twenty-five years.

Being the least dogmatic of poet-critics, Pinsky could never lend his name to an age. But in retrospect, it's difficult not to feel that the one-two punch of Sadness and Happiness (his first book of poems, published in 1975) and The Situation of Poetry (his account of American poetry after Modernism, published in 1977) had something to do with the swift decline of what we used to call the Age of Lowell—the age of high-wire, hard-drinking confessional poets. "But it is all bosh, the false / Link between genius and sickness," said Pinsky in "Essay on Psychiatrists," the long poem that concludes Sadness and Happiness: "The contemporary poets of lunacy—none of them / Helps me to think of the mad otherwise / Than in clichés."

With its provocative blandness, the very title of Pinsky's first book of poems announced his distance from the dramatically personal poetry of Sexton, Berryman or Plath. It was the style (more than the content) of poems like "Essay on Psychiatrists" that made the announcement meaningful. Rather than plumbing his soul in agitated free verse, Pinsky constructed an argument about the world in unruffled pentameters. In The Situation of Poetry, he helped to create the taste by which he was judged, offering the word "discursive" to describe a poetry that might be organized by abstract statement rather than primal images.

Almost overnight, the reception accorded these two books transformed a well-educated kid from Long Branch, New Jersey, into the new hope for American poetry. From the start of his career, however, Pinsky has worked to expand the possibilities available to American poetry—not to replace a narrow vision of poetry with one more sectarian view. The title poem of Sadness and Happiness, with its invitation to treat human emotions as abstract categories, turns out to be Pinsky's most movingly intimate performance: "Sadness and Happiness" is the name of a bedtime game he and his wife played with their daughters. Pinsky could have been describing himself when he recently said that the legitimately "post-modernist" poet will be one for whom "formal freedom feels assured, and matters of technique no longer fighting issues in the old modernist sense."

As far as Pinsky's own career is concerned, the most important aspect of Sadness and Happiness is the way in which its title poem suggests that emotions are both personal and public property. "Hate my whole kind, but me, / Love me for myself," thinks the Jewish soldier rescuing the anti-Semitic bully in "Poem About People." It can be difficult to separate the "unique soul" from its "kind," and Pinsky has struggled in all his poems to imagine a community that will give an individual meaning without threatening to dispense with individuality—a community we might exist in rather than be thoroughly of.

In An Explanation of America (1980), Pinsky undertook this task on a grand scale: Because of its imperialist hunger, American culture threatens to swallow us; but because of its vastness, the culture provides a sense of community amorphous enough to sustain us. Explanation is deeply intimate (it is addressed to Pinsky's daughter) and broadly discursive, an account of the world more supple and less arch than "Essay on Psychiatrists." But this style, however boldly extended, was never destined to be Pinsky's signature. In "The Figured Wheel," from History of My Heart (1984), Pinsky unveiled a poetry that, while retaining the clarity of his earlier work, moves with breathtaking rapidity, each phrase spilling out of the one before it. The "wheel" of the poem is a metaphor for historical process, the ever-evolving sense of community that both constitutes and dismantles the unique soul:

Pinsky has titled his collected poems The Figured Wheel because this poem announces his characteristic theme and inaugurates his fully mature style. Just as Pinsky himself is "figured" and "prefigured" in the forward-moving wheel of history, the theme is embodied in the restless, agglutinative movement of the poem.

In "Impossible to Tell," one of the most stunning new poems in The Figured Wheel, Pinsky describes the way in which medieval Japanese poets worked together to write linked poems, or renga: "The movement / Of linking renga coursing from moment to moment / Is meaning." This is a good description of what Pinsky tries to accomplish in his own poems, creating the texture not only of one poet's mind but of a community's accumulating stock of reality. At first, the poems might seem to move haphazardly, jumping from the sacred to the vulgar to the commonplace. Yet, as Pinsky suggests, the movement of the poem between these elements—more than the elements themselves—ultimately satisfies us. In "Impossible to Tell" Pinsky cuts back and forth between the Japanese poet Basho, nurturing his disciples, and Pinsky's friend Elliot Gilbert, a consummate teller of ethnic jokes. The jokes Pinsky repeats in "Impossible to Tell" are side-splitting, but the poem is also deeply moving. A kind of courtly community grows from the conventional yet idiosyncratic work of the joke-teller:

As these lines suggest, Pinsky often explores the racial and ethnic components of identity, and though all the ingredients for an identity politics are contained within his poems, such a politics never emerges. Rather than assert the singular importance of his lower-middle-class Jewish heritage, Pinsky instead emphasizes the mongrel, compromised heritage of everything: Communal activity fosters allegiance to "a state impossible to tell." Pinsky has on many occasions spoken of the wonderfully mixedup world of Long Branch, New Jersey (a tacky boardwalk resort populated by Jews, blacks and Italians that was also the summer residence of President Grant), and his poems seem like an effort to re-create his hometown's ambience in words. While the poems are not often about Long Branch, their linguistic texture feels like Long Branch: beautiful yet vulgar, poignant yet funny, preserved out of time yet, like the waves, relentlessly in motion.

But if Pinsky's poems are "cut shimmering from conventions of the dead," the shimmer is all Pinsky's. The poems often end in flights of lyrical fancy that do not transcend conventions but transfigure them in ways we would never have predicted. In "At Pleasure Bay," the final poem of The Want Bone (1990), a characteristically fragmented history of Long Branch segues into a sustained vision of the afterlife. After we die, we float across the river where a mass of bodies lie sleeping:

You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs
Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you
And you make love until your soul brims up
And burns free out of you and shifts and spills
Down over into that other body, and you
Forget the life you had and begin again
On the same crossing—maybe as a child who passes
Through the same place. But never the same way twice.
Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows,
The new café, with a terrace and a landing,
Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was—
Here's where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.

Compared with these lines, some of the new poems in The Figured Wheel might at first seem dense and difficult. Still, these poems seem to be Pinsky's most focused body of work—the poems he has been writing toward for twenty-five years. In "The Ice-Storm" he rephrases the question he has been asking since "Poem About People": "What is life? A specimen, or a kind?" The answer, over and over again, is both. The notion of a community's atonement (or, more literally, its desire for at-one-ment) preoccupies him in "Avenue," which surveys a crowded city street, a cacophony of voices and images, before it becomes the point of view of one human specimen. This nameless "one"—a man lying drunk in the street—explains how he was rescued by the many:

Their headlights found me stoned, like a bundled sack
Lying in the Avenue, late. They didn't speak
My language. For them, a small adventure. They hefted
Me over the curb and bore me to an entry
Out of the way. Illuminated footwear
On both sides. How I stank. Dead drunk. They left me
Breathing in my bower between the Halloween
Brogans and pumps on crystal pedestals.

But I was dead to the world. The midnight city
In autumn. Day of attainment, tall saints
Who saved me. My taints, day of anointment.

"Avenue" suggests that, through anonymous acts of charity, a multitude might imagine a sense of community. But the drama of the poem is more resolutely linguistic than thematic. Poems like "The Figured Wheel" and "Impossible to Tell" move down the page phrase by phrase, twisting and turning, while in newer poems like "Avenue," "Ginza Samba" and "Desecration of the Gravestone of Rose P.," the syntactical units are shorter, and the poems move almost word by word. The language seems to generate itself (atonement, attainment, tall saints, taints, anointment), and consequently creates a threat of randomness in the poem's movement—as if the sound of the words alone were determining the direction of the poem's meaning. The poems never succumb to this threat. But we need to feel a swirling cloud of language congealing to make the poems, just as the crowd in "Avenue" seems as if it were condensed down to the nameless one in the street.

These poems are exciting to read. And however many times I re-read them, they remain mysterious. Not in the sense that they are obscure or merely difficult: The poems remind me of how the people we know best can, in an instant, become inscrutable. Among the new poems in The Figured Wheel, elegies are prominent; Pinsky commemorates the lives of lost friends, his mother, a grandmother he never knew. These poems tell us about other people, but even more profoundly, they let us feel the insoluble mystery of otherness. In "Poem With Refrains,' Pinsky looks at his mother so intently that he must wonder if he knew her at all. This woman—who refused to visit her own dying mother, although she lived four doors away—remains the "dark figure, awaited, attended, aware, apart."

Though threateningly intimate, "Poem With Refrains" is studded with quotations from other poems. And in a sense, all of Pinsky's poems are poems with refrains—poems that, while built from quotation and repetition, seem "to happen / Always for the first time over and over again." They make questions of language, culture and identity seem visceral. They suggest that we plumb the depths of our souls by surveying the grand diversity of names and roles we occupy throughout our lives. Pinsky is a poet who has also written criticism, translated Dante's Inferno and composed a hypertext novel. It isn't easy to explain why a culture needs poetry; but as we look forward to the next century, Pinsky offers a model for everything a poet could be.


Robert Pinsky Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 121)