Last Updated on October 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1355
Pinsky, Robert 1940–
Pinsky is an American poet whose work is characterized by vivid imagery and a clear, straightforward poetic voice. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
[Robert Pinsky] suffers at times from a shockingly complacent wounded-academic-falling-through-the-rye complex, and his worst stuff could have floated up from the very bottom of New Poets of England and America (1957 edition). Most depressingly, he commits the error of supposing that he can write poetry about the garbage heap from an unregistering deadpan. The title poem of Sadness and Happiness, however, gives one a jolt. It is indeed about the garbage heap, but its moods are extraordinarily varied, its resonance, through every turn of colloquial frankness, always clear and sure. Mr. Pinsky has written a long autobiographical poem about the confused yet mostly satisfying present tense of his life, and, because he holds everything at a distance, he makes the confusion exhilarating. To call "Sadness and Happiness" the best of its kind would be fatuous since there is nothing else like it. I am the more surprised when I note that Mr. Pinsky seems to have derived his method from the dreary backwash of Robert Lowell's Notebook…. [In "Sadness and Happiness" one sees] how surely and regularly this poet's high spirits are able to steer him away from self-pity. At all events Mr. Pinsky strikes one as—to steal a phrase from Coleridge—browhanging, shoe-contemplative, strange: and one comes to like him for it.
He is also, Stevensianly, the poet of "houses and cars, trees,/grasses and birds; people, incidents/of the senses": his admiration for landscape, always slightly abstract, comes through in a few of the short lyrics as well. But equally, and with a loping self-confidence, the poet of streets, "as a Salvation Army band marches/down the middle, shouldering aside/the farting, evil-tempered traffic,/brass pitting its triplets and sixteenths/into the sundown fray of cops, gesturing/derelicts, young girls begging quarters,/shoppers and released secretaries." The obvious complaint against Mr. Pinsky is that his respect for the prose of life has allowed him to concede too little to the poetry. Yet he seems to understand this, and to find his own temperament odd enough to follow anyhow. (pp. 1025-26)
There will be those who find Mr. Pinsky just too dry, too cautious and "squint-eyed," and they will be only angered by the descent he claims. To me, his slow and even circular journey was reviving: I hope he will move further in the direction of "Sadness and Happiness." Mr. Pinsky is in no danger of becoming fashionable, but he needs, as other poems of his indicate, to grow wary of the state of mind known as relax and collapse. (pp. 1026-27)
David Bromwich, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1976, by the University of Georgia), Winter, 1976.
Public, discursive, witty, ironic when not downright sarcastic, intelligent, at home with ideas and cultural references, sardonic, lightly formalistic: call them Roman. I don't mean Virgilian, of course, nor Horatian either; more in the lighter line from Catullus to Propertius that has influenced so much of American verse in this century, though 99 percent of those influenced have never read their models. At any rate, this is the kind of poetry offered to us [in "Return Your Call"]…. (p. 18)
Hayden Carruth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1976.
The feeling that, somehow, American poetry has entered a new era of confidence is borne out by … Sadness and Happiness, the first book of poems by Robert Pinsky…. Pinsky is the most exhilarating new poet that I have read since A. R. Ammons entered upon the scene. He has a crisp, unfaltering technique, a firm grip on images, a sense of humor, and above all, something to say. He speaks for a new generation that has ceased to complain about the shopping centers and the model homes, the garages and the parking lots and the transit systems; he even likes psychiatrists. The whole of the modern world is for Pinsky a region where the soul, yes the Soul, has to face its mysteries; and the outer conditions for him are no worse or no better than they ever were for any generation. What matters is
#x00A0; how love falters and flags
When anyone's difficult eyes come
Into focus, terrible gaze of a unique
Soul, its need unlovable….
Form is difficult, as Beardsley might have said to Yeats, but form is what the soul demands for Pinsky, and he tries to find it everywhere…. (p. 127)
[The] showpiece of the whole book is the long, concluding "Essay on Psychiatrists," humorously cast in the divisions of a formal disquisition or classical oration, while musing along in those familiar tercets of our day: Invocation, Terms, Proposition, Identification, Comparisons, Historical Instance (the Bacchae of Euripides as example: which is the true psychiatrist, Pentheus or Dionysus?), Consideration, Dismissal, a Footnote, a Generalization, more Examples, two Perorations, and a Conclusion—all couched in an ample, easy-going manner that includes everything from comic strips to Walter Savage Landor on Happiness and Yvor Winters on the course of English poetry. And the conclusion? "That 'psychiatrist' is a synonym for 'human being'"—
All fumbling at so many millions of miles
Per minute and so many dollars per hour
Through the exploding or collapsing spaces
Between stars, saying what we can.
In his peculiar and original combination of abstract utterance and vivid image Pinsky points a way toward the future of poetry. (pp. 128-29)
Louis L. Martz, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1976.
[Sadness and Happiness: Poems]—with its stark title, at once embracing and reductive—is an engaging [book]: its voice is open to complaint or acclaim, its strategies are straight-forward, its intelligence and sympathies are poised, its topics notably "normal"—the way we live now, fraying into the future: our eyes lowered, our jaws squared, our minds wary, our hearts exhausted. As a poet [Pinsky] is most successful where he is most generous—though not with the length of his attention. His extended poems on the game of tennis and the profession of psychiatry are catalogues for easy conclusions: tennis is like life, psychiatrists are like us. His other poems, while occasionally as discursive, are more tentative and probing, but they too prefer exaggerated gestures, which he grounds in drab remembered places or contemporary circumstantial scenes…. (p. 505)
[Like] a suburban Rilke, Pinsky is impatient to discover how
Against weather, and the random
Harpies—mood, circumstance, the laws
Of biography, chance, physics—
The unseasonable soul holds forth
As if the actions of this world were mere pretense, Pinsky bullies his subjects until they yield the vague comfort of a moral. It is an indication of his distrust of his own dramatic method, which seeks to imitate the world—to mime in art's foreign accents—only to realize he has duplicated rather than transfigured what he longs to change…. His concern for the contours of experience imposes on him the "tyranny of the world visible," which he at once indulges and resents, and so finally submits to, submits us to. But his admirable, if strenuous, intellectual persistence rarely succeeds in clarifying or refining his dramatic material into poetic vision—as, say, the early work of James Wright did with such natural conviction. Pinsky speaks in a large, outspoken voice, anxious to proclaim formulas of and for our condition, which he details with trenchant precision. The only problem with his poems—and it is the primary risk of such dramatic poetry generally—is that they more often assume rather than earn the lessons they draw us toward.
Given the monochrome of his material and the flat earnestness of his tone—and we must grant any writer his given—Pinsky is still capable of exciting moments: acts of attention within any one poem's dramatic appeal. But they are moments isolated from one another and from any cumulative force the book may have had apart from its author's engaged and engaging personality. (p. 506)
J. D. McClatchy, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 13, 1976.
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