Robert Pinsky

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Robert Pinsky with Harry Thomas, et al. (interview date 2 February 1993)

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SOURCE: "A Conversation with Robert Pinsky," in TriQuarterly, Vol. 92, Winter, 1994–95, pp. 21-37.

[In the following interview, which was conducted originally on February 2, 1993 in Thomas's classroom at Davidson College, Pinsky discusses the art of translation, the cultural ways Judaism affected him personally, the influence of Eastern philosophies in his poems, and the transformative, historical aspects of his poetics.]

[Jim Knowles:] There's an essay by Seamus Heaney called "The Impact of Translation" in which he starts out with a translation by you. He talks about the problem a poet writing in English might have when he realizes that the kind of poem he is struggling to write has been written already in some other part of the world.

[Robert Pinsky:] The poem is "Incantation," by Czeslaw Milosz, with whom I worked on various translations. Not long after Czeslaw and I had done the translation, Seamus was over to the house and I read it to him. He was struck by the same quality in it that I was. The poem is very explicit and quite, one might say, moralistic or idealistic. Could a poet in English, I thought, particularly an American poet, write such a poem? It's quite short; I'll read it to you:


     Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
     No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
     No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
     It establishes the universal ideas in language,
     And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
     With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
     It puts what should be above things as they are,
     Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
     It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
     Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
     It saves austere and transparent phrases
     From the filthy discord of tortured words.
     It says that everything is new under the sun,
     Opens the congealed fist of the past.
     Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
     And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
     As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
     The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
     Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
     Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Seamus has quite complex things to say about this poem. First, he admires it rather eloquently, and then he says something like, on the other hand, this is a poem that one can imagine being written by a prelate or somebody at the seminary on the hill, some literate and bromidic Catholic: someone of intelligence and good will who isn't really hip to poetry.

Instead, "Incantation" is, somehow, a truly wonderful poem. In a way, you can say that the most difficult thing to do in a poem is to present ideas, abstract ideas of this kind, this explicitly, and attain strong emotion. And perhaps the implication is that parts of the world that have experienced totalitarian regimes are fertile ground for this kind of direct approach, while our own good fortune in not having experienced war on our terrain for over a hundred years, nor having experienced a totalitarian regime or a police state, makes us less capable of such writing.

I don't think Seamus says that, in fact, although he takes up the idea. Milosz's own opinion of that idea is interesting—he says this is like envying a hunchback his hump. He considers it a very silly sentimentality on the part of Western writers, romanticizing or idealizing the situation of the artist in extremely oppressive...

(This entire section contains 7384 words.)

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political circumstances. Certainly, if there is a kind of writing we admire and would like to emulate in relation to our own woes and desires, that is up to us. A lot of American poets were disappointed, as I was, that the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, read something that lacked exactly the kind of cogency or depth or impact or precision that distinguishes the abstractions and noble sentiments of "Incantation" from the clichés of journalism or from what Seamus's imaginary seminarian might write. Ms. Angelou's poem was on the side of goodness, but lacked the passion of art; considered as a work of art it had the vagueness and figurative muddle of plausible journalism at some times and the awkwardness of mere public speaking at others. But that doesn't mean it can't be done who knows, by Ms. Angelou next time out, or by the poet laureate Mona Van Duyn, or whoever. Like everything else in art, it can't be done only until someone does it.

And the Heaney essay is quite subtle on the question, as I remember, and not easily paraphrased—he says something like, such writing depends immensely upon context. He says I read it aloud to him—he describes the house, he describes the moment, he's a Catholic writer of one generation thinking about Milosz, a Catholic writer of another generation; Seamus is from a country torn by violence and Milosz is from another country torn by violence, in short there's a whole context that made him especially receptive to the poem: and I think he's raising a question about context, rather than proposing to envy the hunchback his hump. It's a good essay, a wonderful essay, and I would not attempt to summarize it. I see you're nodding, so you'd agree with me that he doesn't exactly say we can or we can't write in this way.

[Jim Knowles:] Right. I don't think the essay says that it's impossible to write a poem like this, but Heaney does seem to say that there's a trap we fall into when we try to write a poem that sounds like a translation.

Yes. Yes. But I think we did a good enough job of translating "Incantation" that this translation doesn't sound like a translation, which therefore makes me think about this poem in some of the ways that I think about any poem in English that I admire. That first sentence and line—"Human reason is beautiful and invincible"—I believe I thought something like: damn it, I wish I had thought of that: and "that" could hardly mean the idea or sentiment. It must mean something more like, I wish I had found that mode and written that sentence; or, I wish I had heard that imagined music of meaning, I wish I had played that, made that sound. Which again I take to mean that it was possible: it was there to be written. The reason I couldn't have written this poem has to do with all the same reasons that I didn't write "Sailing to Byzantium" or didn't write "At the Fishhouses" but not to do with the fact that I am a Western writer or American or that I write in English. I couldn't have written this in the same sense that I couldn't have written "Sailing to Byzantium."

[Harry Thomas:] On this same subject, though, near the end of his book, Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric, Donald Davie quotes your translation of Milosz's poem "The Father" from the sequence "The World," and he calls your translation a "brilliant" translation, he's full of praise for it, but when Milosz came to put together his Collected Poems he decided to use his own flatter, more trotlike version of the poem rather than yours.

This is a complicated issue. Strictly speaking, the Collected Poems version is not entirely Czeslaw's own translation: it's largely word-for-word a trot, originally prepared by the scholar Lillian Vallee, though the note in the Collected says "translated by the author." Some arbitrariness of this kind in crediting translations is common, and more or less inevitable when many hands share the task. Lillian (who had very ably translated Milosz's Bells in Winter) generously provided her literal version of "The World," from which Bob Hass and I worked to make our translation for The Separate Notebooks.

I think sometimes a translation enters so much into the spirit of the new language that by a kind of luck it forms a new aesthetic whole; and if the author who first forged the poem deep in the furnace of the original language, and who fueled it with his heart, happens to know this new language well enough to perceive that new aesthetic whole, then it may seem to him in its formal spirit to be too much itself even though it may be extremely close, even more or less literal: he may prefer something that is not a poem in English, that is a mere rendering, even if the rendering is not particularly more accurate, even though it may be less literal. That is the interesting part: it has nothing to do with loose or free, literal or approximate, because the issue is not accuracy or maybe even not formal equivalence—but the issue of life, an alien aesthetic life. The translation that crosses over into the poetry of the new language may be so good it is bad.

Possibly something a little like this may have occurred with Czeslaw and "The World." I remember how the spirit of that project was reflected by the way we worked, in a committee: the poet Milosz, who is bilingual; Renata Gorczynski, who is not a poet but who is also bilingual, English and Polish; and then Hass and me, neither one of us bilingual, American poets dependent upon the other two and occasional helpers like Lillian Vallee as informants. I've discovered a new phrase I like: Bob and I were the metrical engineers! Also, I guess, idiom experts. This committee or writing troupe met in various combinations—two or three or four. Czeslaw used to joke about crediting the translations to The Grisly Peak collaborative, named after his street in Berkeley, or maybe crediting them to a single, pseudonymous translator, Dr. Grisleigh Peake. I remember one day Renata said Czeslaw can't make it today. His Korean translators had come to town, and he was meeting with them, she explained. Bob and I looked at one another and started to grin. Renata said, "What's so funny?" And I said, we were just envying his Korean translators, thinking how lucky they are. She said, what do you mean? He doesn't know Korean, was the answer. So he's not there looking over your shoulder, having a view and all the authority there is.

The translations from the "The World" we did in that period were much praised. People sometimes requested Czeslaw to read from them at public occasions, and reviewers singled them out when The Separate Notebooks appeared. This was all complicated by the fact that the originals are written in a form that doesn't exist in English. In Poland, for decades children learned to read by the use of rhymed primers. Not exactly an old-fashioned American primer, not exactly Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, not exactly the didactic poems of Isaac Watts. Bob Hass describes the problem very well in Ironwood's Milosz issue. And the poems of "The World," though the sequence is subtitled "A Naive Poem," are a sophisticated response to World War II: "The World" is about Europe destroying itself. But in this "naive poem," what you see on the surface at the outset is the children, sister and brother, walking peacefully to school together. In separate poems, the children draw pictures; the mother carries a candle in a dark stairwell; the family have dinner. In another the father shows them the world, saying here's the global map, that's Europe, this is Italy, beyond the forest is Germany. He shows them the world, with a certain tone that by implication and context—making Seamus's point again—becomes in its overtones sinister and heartbreaking.

And these poems involve very simple, hard rhymes. In working with our translation committee, trying to get some of that formal note, thinking about the predominance in Polish of feminine rhymes, I made a thing that had a certain kind of rhyme in it, slanted or blunted feminine rhymes, and a certain sound, and to some degree it works, a compromise that does some little thing in English. But it does become another creature, another monster. So I can identify with Czeslaw in saying, well, this thing that has slouched and slanted its way into our committee is living and breathing in some kind of half-assed way; the sense is pretty literal, but there is also this smell of an alien, English-speaking animal, and I don't want to listen to it inhaling and exhaling and grunting around in its cage, I want something more like a telephone or a conduit.

[Harry Thomas:] To the original's explicit abstract language?

Yeah, The other thing made him nervous.

[Harry Thomas:] But he seems to suggest that the tone you got through the peculiar feminine rhymes and so forth prevented you from rendering the abstract language and statements of the poems explicitly enough.

Yes, but I think it was more "technical" than that. The rhymes in Polish are plain, like the cat sat on the mat. Virtually all endings in Polish are "feminine": they end on an unstressed syllable, so it's more like the kitty felt pity. They're like that, very hard and exact, and they're very simple. The rain fell on the garden and froze and the ice began to harden. They're just very, very plain, and the ones I cooked up for the version of "The World" printed in The Separate Notebooks are more like—well, Czeslaw called them "modern rhymes." Here is the opening poem of the sequence in The Separate Notebooks version:

     "The Path"

     Down where the green valley opens wider,
     Along the path with grass blurring its border,
     Through an oak grove just broken into flower,
     Children come walking home from school together.

     In a pencil case with a lid that slides open,
     Bits of bread roll around with stumps of crayon,
     And the penny hidden away by all children
     For spring and the first cuckoo in the garden.

     The girl's beret and her brother's school-cap
     Bob, as they walk, above the fringe of bushes.
     A jay screams, hopping in a treetop;
     Over the trees, clouds drift in long ridges.

     Now, past the curve, you can see the red roof:
     Father leans on his hoe in the front garden,
     Then bends down to touch a half-opened leaf;
     From his tilled patch, he can see the whole region.

"Roof/garden, leaf/region" that is our version, with the consonantal rhymes, mostly feminine. Here is the same poem in the Collected Poems:

     "The Road"

     There where you see a green valley
     And a road half-covered with grass,
     Through an oak wood beginning to bloom
     Children are returning home from school.

     In a pencil case that opens sideways
     Crayons rattle among crumbs of a roll
     And a copper penny saved by every child
     To greet the first spring cuckoo.

     Sister's beret and brother's cap
     Bob in the bushy underbrush,
     A screeching jay hops in the branches
     And long clouds float over the trees.

     A red roof is already visible at the bend.
     In front of the house father, leaning on a hoe,
     Bows down, touches the unfolded leaves,
     And from his flower bed inspects the whole region.

I think that the rhymed version is fairly close, and that it's just as abstract—the literal meaning is not much different. It is not a matter of abstractions. But the Collected doesn't attempt the rhymes; you can just be informed that they were in the original. I think that it is the rhythms and rhymes that help create an aesthetic creature—a kind of art-organism—and it is the breathing of such a creature that perhaps must make any author nervous simply by being other. I think it would make me nervous.

[Susan Wildey:] Something that came up in class is that we were wondering in what way, if any, Judaism has affected your writing.

I'm certain that it must have, in many ways. For instance, I talked last night about my interest in things that are made, made up: I am deeply interested in the subject of creation—high and low, great and small. And religions are notable makings, religion itself is. For one kind of religious person creation itself is an episode in the career of God. For me God is an important episode in the history of creation. Possibly having been raised as an Orthodox Jew, which is to say with considerable separation from the majority culture, has contributed to my interest in making. Not sharing such creations as Christmas or Easter or the—our, your—Saviour, and at the same time having other creations like the kosher laws or the prohibition against saying or writing the word for "God": that is a richly interesting conflict. It may have increased the impact upon me of the fact that we creatures—we mammals, we colony-insects, whatever we are—have invented not only language, but Christianity and Judaism and the United States of America and the violin and the blues and so forth.

The experience of a gorgeous, fading European reality—the rich, lower-class Eastern European Judaism and its culture, which were still present and very European in my childhood—must have had an impact on me that I can't fully understand. I grew up in a nominally orthodox family. My parents were quite secular people. They were good dancers, my father was a celebrated local athlete, they didn't go to synagogue except on the high holy days. We did have two sets of dishes—that is, we did "keep kosher." And as the oldest child, the oldest son in the family, I was expected to go to synagogue every Saturday. The musaf, the orthodox service, lasts three, maybe three and a half hours. Imagine for a moment being eleven years old: you don't like school; it's Saturday morning; you spend nearly four hours every Saturday morning in the company mainly of old men, chanting prayers in a language you don't understand, in a prolonged, accreted liturgy that is not dramatic. What happens is an accumulation of prayers and rituals, a liturgy that feels medieval. It does not have the drama of Mass: you don't eat God. It just happens. It comes time for "Adon' olam," so everybody stands up and sings "Adon' olam," and then you sit down again. Time for the Shema, you open the curtains, look at the Torah, sing the Shema, close it, and sit down again. And then you sing some other prayers. Three, three-and-a-half hours. And for the old men, it's picnic, they love it. It's a social club for them. And afterwards everybody goes down to the basement and drinks schnapps and eats kichele. You aren't supposed to drive on the Sabbath, so it may be one o'clock, one-thirty, before you get home. Meanwhile, outside it is the great era of American baseball and the great formative era of rock and roll; across the street is a Catholic church, where they come and go, sometimes girls in First Communion dresses, they are doing something over there, something relatively brief and one may suspect dramatic, and relatively included by the majority culture.

And you just … well, I believe that for many people with Christian upbringings there's this thing I have read about in Joyce and others called a "crisis of faith" or "crisis of belief." That is not what happens in relation to Judaism, in my experience. You don't have a crisis of belief. Faith in any such sense was not something I could apprehend as a great concept in the religion. The religion is kind of a surrounding reality, no more "losable" in its own terms than the color of your eyes, or the force of gravity. It's like having faith in the universe, for the Jew to have "faith in" Judaism: it's just there. And there's only the vaguest idea of an afterlife. There's not a state of sin or a state of grace; everybody's kind of culpable vaguely and chosen vaguely. There's a merit system. You get mitzvahs, that is you get credited with good points, while waiting for the Messiah. Or you are credited with sins, bad points.

So you don't have a crisis of faith. You look over at the Church across the street, and you say to yourself, hmmm, Catholic girls and communion dresses and Jerry Lee Lewis and Jackie Robinson: it's the whole world out there, the splendid traif [non-kosher] cookie jar of the world. So you just turn to the world as soon as you get a chance. Or so you do if you are a child like me then. And I made a vow, I promised that little child: once you don't have to do this, you aren't going to do it again. They are making you do this, but when you are autonomous and you don't have to do this again, I promise you that you won't have to do it. And I am still keeping that promise. So Judaism was in large measure a powerful boredom for me, but it was a very powerful boredom: a serious and for me stilling force. And the force of that boredom, no mere ennui but a desperate, animal sense of being caged and trapped, left me, I think, with a feeling about the majority culture that makes me both feel more inside it than I might have been otherwise—because I chose it, I might not have, but I chose the majority culture and I like it—yet by the same process also more outside it, in my feelings, than I might be otherwise. There are special ways in which a secularized Jew feels both additionally in the new culture, compared to others, and outside it. Terms like "assimilation," or numbering generations from the first act of immigration, do not begin to deal with these intricacies.

So that's a quick sketch of my guess of what cultural ways I might have been affected by Judaism, to which I feel loyal in ways that have more to do with, say, the stories of Isaac Babel than the celebration of Passover. On the more purely religious aspects of the subject, I'd prefer to be silent right now. But to think of it theologically, exclusively theologically, would be wrong. That would neglect something else, a kind of tear-laden and enriching cultural struggle.

[Ed Breman:] In the conclusion of a review of The Want Bone in the New Republic, the poem"At Pleasure Bay"is mentioned, and the reviewer says that in that poem you cash in your debts to Eastern philosophy that had been accumulating throughout The Want Bone. I was just wondering what your familiarity with Eastern philosophy was and how it might have influenced your poems.

Oh, Eastern philosophy: I'm even less of a scholar of it than Judaism or Christianity. I lived in Berkeley, California, for nine years. I've done some superficial reading. Zimmerman's books about Hinduism and art are fascinating to me. I am attracted by the Hindu conception of time in the many parables where, say, Shiva will come, and then while he's talking there's a parade of ants and each ant is carrying a world, and each world has a thousand Shivas in it, and each of those Shivas is gesturing at a column of ants. They have many little parables or images like that, trying to enforce the immensity of the great cyclicalness—how everything comes back and comes back literally more times than you can imagine. And you give yourself games like that figure of the ants, as you try to imagine as best you can.

And I guess that at some point the idea I was talking to you about last night, about the way that culture is itself a kind of possession by the dead, coming back—at some point that idea illuminated for me the idea of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. And the way that the genetic inheritance is comparable to the cultural inheritance, each of them a constant shifting and combining of so many variables, as many variables as ants and Shivas, got connected in my mind with the migration of souls.

It is a trickle or thread that runs through this book. I suppose you could say I mock Buddha in "The Hearts." In an early draft of "The Hearts," I can remember one line that I took out was, "Easy for Buddha to say." There's that tone in the poem still, of "Easy for Buddha to say" this or that. And as I understand it, there is a considerable Buddhist tradition of mocking Buddha. It's one of the things I like about Buddhism. A Zen saying I have heard is: "Buddha is a very good stick to pick up shit with." That's one Buddha saying, and there is something awfully admirable about it; I don't know, I suppose I do think Judaism or Christianity might be better off if they had that spirit. The Torah is a good stick to pick up shit with! It would transform the religion if you could say that, if the religion were capacious enough and calm enough to embrace that.

[Oma Blaise:] In your essay, "Responsibilities of the Poet,"you talk about the poet needing to transform a subject. Can you say more about that?

Bad art does what you expect. To me, it's not truly a poem if it merely says what most intelligent, well-meaning people would say. In the other direction, total surprise is babble, it's meaningless; I don't mean to say that one is on a quest simply for novelty. But your responsibility is, even if it's only to versify something you perceive as truth, to put that truth or homily into a rhyme in such a way that you are transforming it. Your job is to do something that the reader didn't already have. And this does not mean simply the lazy reader. One kind of popular fiction just spins out explicitly and doggedly the most vague, generalized fantasies the reader already has—the least individuated fantasies. The reader, on his or her own, has vague, perhaps commercially provoked fantasies of having quite a lot of money and many a sexual adventure; but the nature of these dreams or of the reader as a person makes him or her a little lazy imaginatively. So someone else puts in a lot of industry, and makes up specific names of characters, and puts them in rooms and buildings and airplanes, and flies them around, and has them have illegitimate children and meet them again twenty years later, and goes through all of the laborious spinning out of the plot.

This is an art, in the old broad sense, but it is not what I mean by the art of poetry. As I understand it, soap operas take the kind of fantasy people have in common and do the work—quite skillfully—of making such fantasy material explicit, without depriving it of a vague, dreamy generality that is part of the appeal. And the reason Anna Karenina has a loftier reputation, dealing with very similar material to the material of soap opera, is that the material is transformed by a powerful individual imagination. It is changed by not just anybody's imagination, but by that of a great, particular transformer. The result is that the material, the adultery and money and so forth, smells and feels like something that's both recognized and strange. Somewhere in that recognition and strangeness lies your job as an artist.

For instance, a lot of people have the notion that totalitarianism contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that art is somehow linked to truth, and therefore is the opposite of totalitarianism. According to such a belief, Fascist poetry at some level would become a contradiction in terms, as in Montale's essay on the subject. And one such person with notions of that—what is the word, let's say of that humanistic kind—Czeslaw Milosz wrote in the poem we were talking about earlier: "Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia / And poetry, her ally in the service of the good … The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo." That changes it; the unicorn and the echo, for example, transform the idea with a peculiar blend of irony and astonishment. And it's your job, if you are an artist, to find that moment of transformation. In contrast, sometimes people really like clichés, they really like being told what they already think.

[Wyman Rembert:] Can you tell us a little bit about Mindwheel? Something we have says it's an electronic novel or complex interactive computer game. Does it have anything to do with poetry?

It is a text adventure game, and I did put a lot of poetry into it, mostly borrowed. There are many poems in the game, and it was a great pleasure to see the playtesters at the company I wrote it for say, about some two- or three-hundred-year-old piece of writing, "that's neat." For example, there's a wonderful Walter Ralegh poem that you could call a riddle; it's in the form of a prophecy. It says, "Before the sixth day of the next new year … Four kings shall be assembled in this isle" and there shall be "the sound of trump" and "Dead bones shall then be tumbled up and down." What's being described, but never named, are the playing cards and dice. The charm of the poem is that it sounds like a mystical, rather frightening prophecy, and it's the cards and dice. At the end the poem says,

            this tumult shall not cease
     Until an Herald shall proclaim a peace,
     An Herald strange, the like was never born
     Whose very beard is flesh, and mouth is horn.

Until a Herald calls: "… the like was never born / Whose very beard is flesh, and mouth is horn." Well, Mindwheel is a narrative game where text appears on the screen; and in response to each bit of narrative, which ends with a prompt, you decide whether to go north or to look around a room, say. You type in an imperative or complete the sentence "I want to…." and the machine responds by giving you more text on the screen. Early on in Mindwheel, a winged person is trapped behind bars, and you—the reader-protagonist—can free this person by solving a riddle. The riddle is, "an herald … the like was never born / Whose very beard is flesh, and mouth is horn." Has anybody guessed it yet? There is a hint in the expression of insult popular when I was in grade-school: "You weren't born, you were hatched." The answer is, a rooster. They play cards all night until the rooster calls: a morning herald which isn't born, but comes out of an egg; it has a beard of flesh and a mouth of horn.

This exemplifies a basic form of transformation, because the little riddle takes the extremely ordinary perception—that the cock crows in the morning and the night is over—and gives it a mystical aura: its "very beard is flesh, and mouth is horn." Ralegh's poem is a commentary on mysticism, and indeed on poetry, perhaps more than it is on the cards and dice. It is a delighted, somewhat sardonic commentary on rhetoric.

[Ursula Reel:] In your essay on T. S. Eliot you write: "True poetry is never really misunderstood or discarded, because its basis is in pleasure. Explanations and theories are misunderstood; pleasures are either had, or not." Can you elaborate a little bit on that and talk about the effect you want when you write a poem?

It's very much involved with the sounds of the words. I hope that such an answer does not seem disappointing to you, or simple-minded. I have a conviction that if you write whatever it is well enough—Wallace Stevens is a good author to demonstrate this with—the reader will put up with quite a lot of incomprehension. Look at the rooster. I think, I hope, that you all recognize that there is something appealing about the sound of those lines. "Whose very beard is flesh, and mouth is horn" is a good line, one whose appeal may come not only before you think it's a chicken, but before you even think it's a riddle. You can sense that it's something, you get a little frisson of something interesting from it, though you don't "understand" it in the sense that you don't have "an answer" to it. You understand what kind of thing it is. Possibly before you "understand" that it's a riddle, you "understand" that it has a mystical quality, or that it sounds impressive. You come to understand how it's meant to make you think.

It sounds good, and it sounds good as a syntax, as well as an arrangement of consonant and vowels, and it sounds good as an unformulated recognition of other kinds of fact: the fact that "flesh" and "horn" are good words here, and the fact that horn means the substance of fingernails as well as the bony process of, say, a ram's horn, and that the ram's horn makes a pleasing connection with "herald," because it's the same word—to blow into a horn, a goat's or a ram's horn. That's how we have the word "horn," which we now apply to a sax or a trumpet, instruments made not of horn but brass. And a jazz musician will call his piano or drum set his "horn"! And so forth, through innumerable chimes and associations. A horny thing is a callous, a hardening of flesh. There is a sexual component to the flesh and horn and born and morning and certainly to the buried image of the rooster.

All of that is operating, operating and alive in you long before you think "rooster"—or else if it isn't operating, then no amount of cleverness or profundity will make it good, will make it poetry. So that "I don't get it" is a more damaging thing than "I don't understand it," because I think often you get it long before you understand it. We are familiar with this phenomenon in music. A record comes out, and part of the pleasure of it may be that the first five or six times you hear it you don't know what the words are; then you gradually find out what the words are. But you know whether you like it or not before you understand it. The words seem to be going very well with the tune, with what the chord changes and the harmony and the instrumentation and the singer's voice sound like, and you half-perceive whether you like these words, already. It is the same with a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.

And I don't think these things are forgotten. I think that once something really gets under somebody's skin—is recognized as really good, in the way of art—it tends to remain, always a source of what I have to call the art-emotion: whatever that feeling is that art gives to us. And this happens in the culture in general, too. Eliot is rather out of style now, particularly with academics. But he's too good, the pleasure is too solid, for his work to truly fade. Kids are still reading "Prufrock" in high school, memorizing parts of it without meaning to. It's there forever, for everybody.

[Will Anderson:] When you were talking about transformation earlier, I believe you used the word mystic or mystical, and it reminded me of, in"The Refinery,"the idea of refined from "oil of stone," and it seemed like the imagery is sort of chemical there, but there is a sense of a wondrous transformative power. Is that the same idea?

Yes, it is the same idea. As I said last night, I always seek a way to experience these ideas as part of what's very ordinary. And "oil of stone" is a literal translation of "petroleum." You know, if something is petrified, it is turned into stone. And Peter is the rock you found your church on. So petroleum simply means stone-oil, oil of stone. The idea in that poem, that the transformations of petroleum—into gasoline, benzine, naphtalene, and motor oil and heating oil and all the other things it makes—WD40 and margarine and whatever else—is comparable to the transformations of language. I mean the way language itself changes, the way it changes other things, the way it illuminates our life, and in some ways is very toxic, quite poisonous and dangerous.

[Will Anderson:] It's a pretty volatile mix.

Yes, that is the sort of thinking the poem invites. It was a metaphor or comparison I liked so well that, maybe uncharacteristically, I based the whole poem upon it. The proposition is that language is like petroleum: it is dead life; it was once alive in a different way; in some other sense it remains stubbornly alive; it comes to us from the past, and we do gorgeous things with it—we wear these clothes, these fine woven stuffs and subtle colors, we have light, we have music—and there is also something terrifying about it. You are tapping an energy that can feel supremely ordinary, yet that can also associate itself with mysterious awe. Explosion, gusher, leak—energy, as in a word like fuck or Jesus or vendetta.

[Will Anderson:] I believe you said last night that you like the mix of the high and the low. Towards the end of that same poem, "The Refinery,"it seems like there's that idea, the apposition of "Loveeries and memorized Chaucer."

Yes—and "lines from movies / And songs hoarded in mortmain." Varying texture in language is a pleasure partly as a reflection of the variety in oneself. My terminology of "high" and "low" oversimplifies this variety, or whatever I was trying for with "smeared keep" or "a gash of neon: Bar," or pairing "pinewoods" and "divinity"—to me, contrast, maybe even more than the richness of some single word, is a gorgeous, living part of language, like contrast in music or cuisine. The degrees and kinds of crunchy and smooth, high and low, the degrees of pungency or volume or hotness. In the refinery, they have that whole chemistry, as I understand it, that tunes a kind of hierarchy of degrees of refining. They call it "cracking" petroleum, breaking it into its components. And that is sort of like language too, maybe especially English, and maybe especially in America.

[Ann Brooke Lewis:] It seems that in"Window"you use the word "Window" as an artifact or, as you talked about last night, as a matrix of its own, with its own history, its own part in the culture. How do you feel about the language that you grew up with personally? Do you feel that, as your Irish mother says, your house has a "windhole"? How much history or culture actually is in your language?

Ideally, I would like to have it all in there. I would like to speak and write a language that does not deny either my lower-middle-class childhood or all the books I've read. I am what is called an educated person as these things go. That does not negate the way I spoke when I was a child, or the way the people around me spoke in what I suppose was a small town slum—so my mother would call it when she lamented our living there, and was certainly a working-class, racially mixed kind of a neighborhood. Just as the history of the language is in the language, the history of any person's language is in that person's speech and writing, and should be honored. One doesn't want to be limited to a pose or mode as either a pure street kid or as a pure professor, because one is not pure, and the pose or mode is a confinement. As an ideal, I would like to have it all together.

And sometimes you discover the plainness in the learnedness. It is delightful to discover that the origin of a word like "window" may be something as homely or simple as "windhole." Is that a "learned etymology"? In a way, but what could be more down-home, what could be plainer? It's [pointing] the windhole, the hole where wind comes in. Is that a piece of arcane learning, or a bit of fundamental, funky information about these brutal Anglo Saxons in their hut with its windhole?

Something comparable is found in the lovely language of the trades, for which I have considerable affection. A carpenter won't even call it a "window." Those separate panes are the "lights" to any builder or carpenter, and the whole is also a light. And these things, the vertical members in here, are "mullions." That piece of wood, the flat piece against the bottom below the sill, is the skirt, and the movable unit with the separate lights in it is the sash. This one has an upper sash and a lower sash. And there's a parting bead between the two sashes. And a head jamb and the side jambs. And they'll use these words very unself-consciously, in the interest of clarity and precision. Hand me some more of the parting beam and the four-penny nails. Because you need to be precise. Go to the lumber store and bring me back some 3 5/8″ head jamb. Or I forget what this other thing is called, face molding or something. There's some other kind of jamb that goes this way. The word j-a-m-b: is that a high word or a low word?

One more pleasing example. I went to the hardware store and bought some fertilizer. The guy says, you could buy one of these little whirling things to spread it with, but really you could just strew it broadcast. And I realized what someone from a farming background might have always known, that "broadcast" was not invented by television or radio. The word was there: it's what you do with, say, seeds. If you have a sack slung around your shoulder, and you do this [swings his arm forward], you're broadcasting. The word existed before Marconi and before TV, and for me it had been an unrecognized, dead metaphor, it's just a homey word—not archaic, for farmers, I would guess, nor for the guy in my hardware store.

[Susan Wildey:] Did you write The Want Bone from the picture by Michael Mazur that is reproduced on the book's jacket or did you actually see a shark's jaw?

The image is tied to a weave of friendships that pleases me. I saw one that my friend, the poet Tom Sleigh, had given Frank Bidart. It was on Frank's mantle, and I saw it shortly before I was going on vacation to the beach—a vacation where I saw something of Mike and Gail Mazur, in fact. And I wrote the poem at the beach, remembering the bone on Frank's mantle. When Tom saw the poem, he generously gave me a jawbone too!

Later, when I needed a jacket for the book, I couldn't find an image: the ones The Ecco Press liked, I didn't like, and the ones I liked, Ecco didn't. And Mike, working from the poem and from Tom's present to me, made the picture—a monotype, a form of which he is one of the contemporary masters. I happened to be in the studio when he pulled this monotype from his pressit's a wonderful, sensuous thing to see a monotype pulled: it is a one-of-a-kind print, the plate gooey with color pressed against paper by powerful rollers, a big surface, and a motor drives the roller across the sandwich of wet plate and paper, shhhhh. There's a certain amount of chance in the medium. If you're an expert, you can make textures that look like water or hair or smoke or these bubbles here. But you don't know exactly what it's going to look like. Maybe that is a model for what it is like to make any work of art?


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Robert Pinsky 1940–

American poet and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of Pinsky's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 19, 38, and 94.

Named poet laureate of the United States in 1997, Pinsky is a poet-critic whose writings resist the categories of American contemporary poetry. Admired for its blend of vivid imagery and clear, discursive language, his poems explore such themes as truth and memory, cultural and individual history, and the transcendence of seemingly ordinary acts. Pinsky strives to create an organized world view by confronting the past in terms that would bring clarity to the present. His moral tone and mastery of poetic meter have been favorably compared to that of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets, and his critical insights about the theoretical function of poetry in the world as presented in his analytical works squarely situate him in the tradition of such other poet-critics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. Pinsky's literary fame also derives in part from his accomplishments as a translator, whose version of the first part of Dante Alighieri's Commedia (c. 1370-c. 1314), entitled The Inferno of Dante (1994), has garnered wide acclaim and numerous awards. Katha Pollitt has remarked of Pinsky that "here is a poet who, without forming a mini-movement or setting himself loudly at odds with the dominant tendencies of American poetry, has brought into it something new."

Biographical Information

Pinsky was born October 20, 1940, in Long Branch, New Jersey. Since his grandfather owned the local tavern, and his father had an established optometric practice, the Pinsky family enjoyed a measure of local prestige. Although he was not an accomplished student in school, Pinsky attended Rutgers University, where he associated with other young writers and poets who considered their literary apprenticeships to be beyond the pale of creative writing programs and professors' judgments. After graduating from Rutgers in 1962, Pinsky entered Stanford University, where he held Woodrow Wilson, Wallace Stegner, and Fulbright fellowships. While there Pinsky studied with the noted poet, critic, and instructor Yvor Winters and earned a Ph.D. in 1966. He briefly taught humanities at the University of Chicago before he accepted a position as associate professor of English at Wellesley in 1968. A Massachusetts Council on the Arts grant provided the impetus to publish his first book of poetry, Sadness and Happiness (1975), which promptly was followed by his first volume of critical commentary, The Situation of Poetry (1976). From 1978 to 1986 Pinsky also served as poetry editor of The New Republic. With the publication of the book-length poem An Explanation of America in 1980, Pinsky left Wellesley for an English professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he remained until 1988. During the 1980s Pinsky completed another poetry collection, History of My Heart (1984); collaborated on translations of Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz's The Separate Notebooks (1985) and on a computerized novel called Mindwheel (1985); and published another book of criticism, Poetry and the World (1988), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award in criticism. After the publication of The Want Bone (1990), Pinsky finished The Inferno of Dante, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry and the Howard Morton Landon Prize for translation. In 1996 Pinsky issued a collection of both old and new poetry, The Figured Wheel. Since 1989, Pinsky has taught creative writing at Boston University and currently serves as poetry editor of Slate, an online magazine.

Major Works

Both The Situation of Poetry and Poetry and the World articulate his belief in linguistic clarity as the means to expand the boundaries of poetic expression. These works also acknowledge the role and significance of literary tradition in modern poetry. The Situation of Poetry presents Pinsky's views on the nature of poetry which emphasize the continuity of contemporary poetry with the poetic tradition of the past. The essays comprising Poetry and the World expand his concept of poetry, including a series of articles on the impact words have had on his own life. Pinsky's poetry follows the principles outlined in his criticism. Characterized by vivid imagery and a clear, straightforward voice, his poetry covers diverse subjects by using expansive narratives which are both intellectually stimulating and optimistic in tone. Pollitt has suggested that among Pinsky's "greatest accomplishments is the way he recoups for poetry some of the pleasures of prose: storytelling, humor, the rich texture of a world filled with people and ideas." Sadness and Happiness contains short lyrics, reminiscences, semi-dream poems, and long meditations, the latter exemplifying the form at which Pinsky excels. Noteworthy in this collection is the 17-page poem "Essay on Psychiatrists," which alludes to various cultural and literary references to the modern science. Similarly, An Explanation of America, one of Pinsky's most ambitious and strongest poems, forms a long, unified meditation on American history. Addressing his daughter, the narrator attempts to describe America's past so that she could use his knowledge to fulfill the promise of the future. Pinsky's subsequent collections continue to examine history—sometimes national, sometimes personal. The title poem of History of My Heart, for instance, presents a lyrical evocation of memory and desire in the form of an autobiographical narrative that draws upon Pinsky's life experiences but refrains from sentimentality. The poems of The Want Bone feature a pastiche technique marked by overt word-play which symbolizes and reveals a lust for life and a desire for sensual experience. The volume also features mock biblical stories about Jesus's childhood, including an extended prose narrative in which a disguised Jesus enters the story of Tristan and Isolde so that he can learn about love. The Inferno of Dante simulates the terza rima rhyme scheme of the original by using "slant-rhymes," a scheme based on like-sounding consonants at the ends of lines in each tercet. Pinsky's translation attempts to preserve Dante's intended meanings by expanding or compressing a literal translation of the original Italian.

Critical Reception

Esteemed by most for his abiding respect of literary tradition, Pinsky has earned critical acclaim for his intelligent appraisals and knowledge of his subjects. Scholars have observed that the intellectual virtuosity of Pinsky's criticism challenges readers, obliging them to uncover the intricate arguments beneath his lucid, plain language and imagery, yet by adopting a common, almost conversational tone his theories are readily comprehensible. Often extolled for his grasp of traditional metrical forms and his evocation of universal meaning within the confines of contemporary idiom, critics have applauded Pinsky's ability to reveal the wonder of common images and the hidden order behind the accidental events of ordinary life. Reviewers also have admired his poetry for its juxtaposition of personal experiences with universal feelings, of the past with the present, and of the minutiae of the self with the largest philosophical concerns of history, culture, and art. Pollitt has noted that "the poems of his maturity manage their startling shifts and juxtapositions in ways that give intellectual and sensuous delight." Although most commentary about his translation skills has recognized the ease and accessibility of his language, particularly praising his evocation of Dante's "vulgar eloquence," some have found Pinsky's syntax stilted or, in the case of his Dante translation, that his slant-rhyme scheme lacks the "momentum" of the original terza rima. Still, critical opinion about Pinsky's writings seems to be indicated by his nomination as poet laureate. According to Elizabeth Mehern, "in Pinsky's view, poetry is the people's art form, and Pinsky, in turn, is content to bear the mantle of the people's poet."

James Longenbach (essay date Summer 1994)

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SOURCE: "Robert Pinsky and the Language of Our Time," in Salmagundi, No. 103, Summer, 1994, pp. 157-77.

[In the essay below, Longenbach traces Pinsky's artistic development in terms of the poet's "deep awareness—sometimes wariness, sometimes worship"—of historical, linguistic, and literary forces at work in his art.]

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 originally 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 Winter'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 Winter'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 Winter'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 Winter's students and friends appeared. These poems sound almost nothing like the work Pinsky would produce three or 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 Winter'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…. Winter'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 artifacts 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 see 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.

    It is hung with devices
    By dead masters who have survived by reducing themselves magically

    To tiny organisms, to wisps of matter, crumbs of soil,
    Bits of dry skin, microscopic flakes, which is why they are called "great."
    In their humility that goes on celebrating the turning
    Of the wheel as it rolls unrelentingly over

    A cow plodding through car traffic on a street in Iasi,
    And over the haunts of Robert Pinsky's mother and father
    And wife and children and his sweet self
    Which he hereby unwillingly and inexpertly gives up, because it is
    There, figured and pre-figured in the nothing-transfiguring wheel.

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 The Want 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 meticulous 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 O 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.

Principal Works

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Landor's Poetry (essays) 1968
Sadness and Happiness (poetry) 1975
The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions (essays) 1976
An Explanation of America (poetry) 1979
History of My Heart (poetry) 1984
Poetry and the World (poetry and essays) 1988
The Want Bone (poetry) 1990
The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation [translator] (poetry) 1994
The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966–1996 (poetry) 1996

Robert Pinsky (essay date March-April 1996)

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SOURCE: "American Poetry in American Life," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, March-April, 1996, pp. 19-23.

[In the essay below, Pinsky contemplates the social contexts of American poetry in contemporary America, tracing the development of its various manifestations and emphasizing the individual scale of its character.]

What is the place of American poetry in American life?

Walt Whitman saw that the United States in its size and diversity, its relative freedom from aristocratic institutions and folk traditions, would need holding together. He thought it would be held together by poetry, by the American bard. He took that to be the meaning of American poetry: the machine created from words that would provide a form to hold us together, as other nations are held together by forms that hark back to old court cultures or to ancestral folk roots.

That has not been the case. You could make a stronger argument that such binding together of what threatens to come apart is accomplished by television, by twentieth-century popular music, and by professional sports, forms of the American genius which Whitman could not have predicted, and which he might have adored.

What then is poetry's actual place here, and what does the answer tell us about our country? For instance, is poetry in America today altogether an elite art: for, by and of the few? Or does it reflect some of the democratic ideals and vision—still powerfully appealing, however vague or unfulfilled—of Walt Whitman?

To put the question differently, do the various ways the art of poetry pops up in American life today suggest any historical meaning or coherence? I mean to include all the diverse social facts we see that might mean "poetry" to anyone: the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry; Poets in the Schools, in hospitals, residences for the elderly, prisons, and so forth. (Having occasionally visited prisons to teach or to attend readings by inmates, as many American poets have done, I have wondered if the prison system is at least one area of American life where poetry sometimes has central, unquestionable importance, both for individuals and as a good that helps bind various individuals together.) I include, also, the poems published in the New Yorker and The New Republic each week; rap music; poetry slams in bars; poetry readings; summer conferences; middle-aged nostalgia for the heyday of Bob Dylan; the importance of ethnic, gender, sexual-preference paradigms and audiences; the decline among academics of the old modernist idea of art as replacing religion; current highbrow movements like "language poetry" or "new formalism"; successful publishing phenomena ranging up and down the scale from Rod McKuen and Khalil Gibran, through Charles Bukowski, to Allen Ginsberg; the resurgence of regionalism; the ascendance of theory in scholarship and a dearth of serious, practical criticism of new work; and, along with the rise of creative writing as an academic discipline, magazine articles deploring that rise, associating it with a decline in the art itself.

As a practical matter, I am interested in the flourishing but much-criticized institution of university creative writing programs—a subject that has taken on heightened interest for me in recent years, since I joined such a program. (Like many writers of my generation who now teach in creative writing programs, I never attended one as a student.)

All these activities are a matter primarily not of art, but of culture. That is, poetry like any art has a complex social setting. And arts change, and their social setting changes, in related processes that affect the cultural meaning of any new work and the world that surrounds it, in the mind of the writer and in the mind of the reader.

When I was a child, in the nineteen-forties, many of the high-school-educated adults in lower-middle-class families like mine could recite some lines of poetry, often something sonorous and richly elegant purely as language: the opening stanza of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," perhaps; or some of Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strained" speech from The Merchant of Venice; or one of the better known Shakespeare sonnets; or Wordsworth's "The world is too much with us" sonnet; or perhaps even part of Keats's "To Autumn," or part of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" ode, which in a survey of English teachers conducted by the American Mercury magazine in the 1920's was voted the greatest poem in the English language.

Or in a different, but related vein, people of the older generations might have by heart some "philosophical" tags: stanzas of Edward Fitzgerald's gorgeously fatalistic and melancholy Rubaiyat; or some of the Victorian and post-Victorian poetry of existential, implicitly or explicitly, agnostic moral uplift, such as Kipling's "If," or W. E. Henley's "Invictus" ("Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the pit from pole to pole," said Mr. Poppik, the man who delivered seltzer to our apartment, "I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul").

Finally, and more widely known than either of the first two categories; there were sentimental verse narratives, elegiac and nostalgic, like "The Old Oaken Bucket"—a copy of which is found on the body of the man who throws himself into the threshing-machine in Willa Cather's My Antonia. "Casey at the Bat," which is extremely elegiac and nostalgic toward its small-town past, is a journalistic and vaudeville example of the genre, and Longfellow's Hiawatha is a high-culture, literary example. (Robert Frost's poem "Directive" is the greatest modernist variation on this genre.)

I suppose that this presence of poetry, thin but distinct, in the minds of the adults I knew can be credited to an American conception of democracy: that is, to American public schools in the spirit of John Dewey. Practical yet high-minded, those schools found a place for poetry in the education and social integration of the offspring of immigrants, farmers, and workers. Poetry functioned as ornamental language, as medicinal, uplifting language to replace a waning religious certainty, and as a narrative expression, thereby containment, of grief for a lost, innocent past.

This cultural pond I have tried to sketch should not itself be the object of our nostalgia. Fairly shallow and quickly evaporating, it had become cut off from its sources in the nineteenth-century past. In the Protestant country's towns and cities, on the Fourth of July, in the nineteenth century, people used to gather around bandstands for the purpose of hearing not so much fireworks or band concerts as patriotic speeches—which invariably quoted and borrowed swatches of Milton's Paradise Lost. John Hollander's monumental recent anthology of nineteenth-century American verse shows how deeply poetry permeated the culture, and how entirely Milton permeated the poetry.

Cut off from that past, the backwater body of poetry I now and then heard was also severed in another way—being cut off, too, from the upper-middle-class culture. In the "high" culture of salons (still extant), and of quarterlies, galleries, and universities, the nineteenth-century canon of Mr. Poppik had already decades before, been displaced and discredited by the onslaught of modernism. The eloquence of Gray and FitzGerald, though it may have indelibly formed the taste of the Modernists Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot themselves, had in another sense been banished, though we can of course hear its echo in the contemporary high-style writing of, say, W. S. Merwin, just as there may be some ghost of secular moral uplift in Gary Snyder or of nostalgia for lost innocence in John Ashbery. Styles in an art change more rapidly than the needs they fill.

In sweeping away sentimentality and softness, as I was taught in college that they did, Pound and Eliot do not appear to have had in mind the sweeping-away of the upper-middle-class audience. When Pound titled a prose piece "The Constant Preaching to the Mob"—the point of the piece is to discredit "the lie" that Anglo-Saxon poets or Homer performed their "lordly art" for the amusement of ordinary folk and warriors at dinnertime—he had in mind a large, if genteel, "mob" of cultivated readers. Pound's dictum that the artist supplies the antennae of the race implies such readers.

Whether such a "mob" of readers existed; whether Pound and Eliot had to leave America for London in order to find a cultural setting, rigidly stratified by class, where poetry was attended to by the upper classes; whether they went to London in order to invent the figment of such a culture; whether contemporary nostalgists are sentimental in imagining some supposed heyday of poetry in America—however you look at these questions, they suggest the way Pound and Eliot generated a powerful sense of social context, an idea of a poetry audience that affected my generation and perhaps later ones too.

The firm sense of a leisure-class poetry audience is more obvious in Eliot's essays, and in the Eliot persona, than in the case of Pound, who liked to boast that his ancestors the Loomises were very well known horse thieves in New York state. But Pound was also related to Longfellow, on his mother's side, and was taken to Venice at the age of twelve: that is, he was a member of the American provincial elite. The flamboyant rhetoric of his early journalism is that of an insurgent, but not an invader; it is a raucous insider who writes in 1918:

As for the nineteenth century, with all respect to its achievements, I think we shall look back upon it as a rather blurry, messy sort of a period, a rather sentimentalistic, mannerish sort of a period. I say this without any self-righteousness, with no self-satisfaction.

Possibly this assumption—of being inside a literary culture in which poetry commands significant attention, and exerts considerable force—provides the story of modernism with some of its enduring power and allure, underlying the more obvious appeal in the idea of a revolution sweeping clean.

Power and allure such passages surely had for me when I first read them in college. Like many Americans, I read this modernist denunciation of the overthrown nineteenth century with a thrill of assent, as a knowing recruit, at virtually the same moment as I was beginning to acquaint myself with the thing overthrown—or maybe not at the same moment, maybe even a little before. To put it differently, many of us learned simultaneously to be intoxicated by the Yeats of "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven"—improvising an imagined former immersion in such art, like delighted millionaires buying the ancestors with the country home—and to be de-toxed by the later Yeats of "Sailing to Byzantium," a poem that for a time became poetry itself for me.

With a thrill perhaps related to the attraction of deconstruction for a later generation of students, at college in the late fifties and early sixties I discovered the great mainstream of Romantic eloquence behind the puddle of snatches and chestnuts I knew as a child, at the same time as I was in some imaginary way disclaiming that eloquence—"blurry, messy"—through the surrogates of Pound, Eliot, late Yeats, Williams, Stevens.

These are complicated transactions. The nineteenth century, for example, was about to be rehabilitated by critical fashion, and the nineteenth-century core of the modernists to be anatomized. Though the social attitudes of many modernists were reactionary—snobbish, anti-Semitic, provincial, even fascistic—they could be perceived as welcoming first generation newcomers to "high culture" because they disrupted that culture by despising certain pillars of it, and because the gentility or complacency of the displaced Georgian poetry, especially to urban Americans, seemed inherently anti-democratic. The narrative of revision and overthrow, itself, lets air into the perceived culture.

Modernism offered a way to join the club, in a variation on Groucho's joke, and to disclaim it: or conversely, and more personally, a way to feel both loyal and superior to my father beaming as he chanted a forced-memorization fragment, "Great God! I'd rather be / A pagan suckled in a creed outworn!" (I wish I could remember which Jewish friend of mine recounts how while reading that poem one day he realized with a sudden shock that he was a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.) It seemed possible, in other words, to attempt to write a poem that might be both part of poetry in English, and part of oneself.

It is important to say at this point that none of this would have any meaning if it were not based on great works of art. When I was a freshman in college I typed out the poem "Sailing to Byzantium" and taped it to the wall over my toaster:

O sages standing in God's holy fireAs in the gold mosaic of a wallCome from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desireAnd fastened to a dying animalIt knows not what it is; and gather meInto the artifice of eternity

"Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is; and gather me / Into the artifice of eternity." This retains a majesty not to be explained, but I think that part of its power for me was and is the universalizing gesture: the soul is tied to a dying thing, and does not itself know what it is, but those mortifications also betaken that the soul struggles toward a destiny unencompassed by any terms it has ever heard or seen: explosive as a meaning in American Sign Language bursting out of a body. That struggle, toward something specific but mysterious—"the artifice of eternity"—anchors the noble sweep of the triads near the beginning, "Whatever is begotten, born, and dies"; and at the end, "Of what is past, or passing, or to come."

Yeats's "holy city," being at least half pagan, embodies a spiritual center that is not Christian nor Jewish nor anything quite under the sun. It embodies the nineteenth-century religion of art, in other words, presented in modernist terms. For English-speaking readers coming into the great literature of the language from groups previously outside it, outside by virtue of circumstances like geography or social class or race or politics, that holy city of art, in this work and in others—"Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" for example—has been a transforming presence. This is an ideal fresh for all its ties to the remote past, exhilarating, made in part out of the language used every day since childhood as casually as dimes and nickels, yet austerely challenging—"lordly," to borrow another Poundian term—in ways independent of such matters as, for example, the this-worldly opinions and outlook of William Butler Yeats.

As an evocation of that lordly presence or holy city, "Sailing to Byzantium" contains the most cogent critique possible of creative writing courses:

Nor is there singing school but studyingMonuments of its own magnificence.

I think of these two lines whenever I think about my profession of teaching writing. These terms are quite absolute—as absolute as the neglect that in the country of begetting, birth and death is shown by "all" toward "monuments," a word whose repetition, especially in comparison to the delicate enameled gold bird, has an unsettling funerary or civic quality. The older poetry in Yeats's mind must have included Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," a monument which was itself written by a member of the urban lower class who heard the nightingale singing not at an English country estate or in Fiesole, but outside a friend's house in Hampstead. Our first sense of Yeats's transformation may be to emphasize artifice, the change from Keats's hidden, live nightingale to a mechanical bird displayed on a branch. But another aspect of this transformation is to introduce the city omitted from Keats's poem: to make the bird part of a social space: official, splendid, courtly.

The formulation is not only uncompromising, then; it is awe-inspiring as well: the only singing school is studying monumental examples of magnificent singing. The delicate quality of the image of the bird, and the charming, intimate, Persian-miniature quality of the drowsy emperor are balanced by the idea of a school made of magnificent monuments with singing-masters who stand in the gold mosaic of a wall.

We can giggle a little in noting that Yeats does not say, there is no singing school but taking workshops with Derek Walcott, or there is no singing school but registering for the translation seminar, two literature courses and so forth. But in reminding me in my own belief that any study of art must depend upon attention to great examples of the practice of that art, Yeats's lines with their solemn air of the public, perhaps even the imperial, also remind me that art is not pure: the curator and transmitter of art is society.

Let me now present a small theory of creative writing, a relatively recent phenomenon, in relation to American society. When I began writing poems there were a few writing programs, at Iowa and some other schools, but they seemed a minor part of the scene. Like many of my poet friends born, like me, around 1940—Robert Hass, Frank Bidart—I attended a Ph.D. program. But beginning with people a little younger than us something changes.

To see this watershed clearly, consider the Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry, edited by Helen Vendler and published by the Harvard University Press in 1985. Until the most recent generations you could have assembled quite a respectable anthology representing American poetry of this century by including only poets who went to Harvard. I mean not only graduates like T. S. Eliot and dropouts like Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, but recent figures as diverse as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, Frank O'Hara, and Adrienne Rich. An imaginary and aesthetically wide-ranging anthology that extended beyond Harvard would include such Ivy Leaguers as Allen Ginsberg (Columbia) and W. S. Merwin (Princeton), or in their generation Marianne Moore at Bryn Mawr and Ezra Pound and W. C. Williams at the University of Pennsylvania. Apparently, some kind of change occurs with the generation born after that of Adrienne Rich at Radcliffe and Sylvia Plath at Smith.

A remarkable fact about the Harvard Book is that of the younger poets represented, those born since 1935, not one attended college at Harvard or Radcliffe.

In fact, hardly any of the younger generation in the book attended an eastern private college or university. This is partly coincidence, no doubt, but just the same, I think that this sampling reflects the fact that American highbrow culture, though still very far from classless, is much less of a northeastern or Ivy League property than it was just twenty or thirty years ago. Since Vendler is a strong-minded critic, not particularly populist, who made her selections according to her literary judgement, the poets in her anthology represent a reasonable sampling—that is, one that could be considered "random" in this respect. Here are the alma maters of the eleven youngest poets included, born between 1935 and 1952: Davidson College; California State College in Los Angeles; N.Y.U.; University of California, Riverside; Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; the University of Virginia; no college degree; the University of Illinois; the State University of New York at Binghamton; "a French lycée in Rome"; and the University of Miami. It would be laughable to suggest that this inventory represents some catalogue of the oppressed or the excluded. And no one ever said, "There is no singing school but Harvard." But I think the list does reflect a relatively subtle but distinct social change: in region and in class, poetry like much else has been dispersed—to Montana, to Iowa, to Illinois, to those prisons and schools for the blind, and to adult creative writing classes. It is a truism that factors like the expansion of state universities, the GI bill, and demographic movement have meant that many kinds of cultural goods are more widely distributed, less contained in traditional centers, than they were before World War II.

Along with many other aspects of American life, poetry is less concentrated in a region or an elite—and more professionalized—than it was before. In the absence of the folk traditions or the aristocratic traditions or the cultural homogeneity another society might have, we develop more or less professional, middle-class institutions to satisfy what seems to be a fundamental hunger for the art: the MFA, the summer conference where people can work on their writing skills as if on their tennis or violin technique. What once provided a center of taste in one region and class of the country—something slightly resembling the great European capitals—has been replaced by the newer institutions, spread around the country. In the spirit of Whitman, we ought to welcome this, even if it is equally true that in the spirit of—who? Mencken or Twain?—we ought to be wary and critical as well.

This dispersal or transformation—and a nostalgic, half-conscious snobbery that resents it—may underlie some of the peculiar scorn directed at creative writing programs, and at contemporary poetry. It is tempting merely to dismiss such scorn, especially insofar as it laments a vague or implausible good old days of poetry. Such lamenting of poetry's present state—sometimes sentimentalizing or inflating that vague utopian former day—has become a journalistic category.

The authors of these pieces rarely pay convincing attention to contemporary poems, nor to the supposedly longed-for poetry of the past. From that vagueness of attention I conclude that whatever they signify—and they certainly signify something—it probably has to do with some area of feeling, different from poetry itself, some social current or attitude. I will share one particularly silly example, a sentence written by Joseph Epstein in his article "Who Killed Poetry," published in Commentary:

     The crowds in London once stood on their toes to see
     Tennyson pass; today a figure like Tennyson probably
     would not like poetry and might not even read it.

Think about it—I dare you. Tennyson would not read Tennyson, if he were alive today? Is this a way of saying that Epstein does not read In Memoriam? Is the standing on toes of "the crowds" really Epstein's cultural touchstone? Or were they bums? How does he know what Tennyson "probably would not like"? What is "a figure like Tennyson"? If the crowds were standing around flatfooted when Hopkins or Hardy passed, does that mean the decline had set in by their day? Or—finally—did Tennyson perhaps draw a crowd for historical reasons not entirely to do with poetry? Perhaps that is what "a figure like Tennyson" means.

It is hard not to conclude that an important element here is a myth of the superior past, when edifying highbrow artifacts were popular, and their artificers rich and famous. This myth can be grafted onto crowds of Victorian celebrity-seekers or for that matter onto the sweet but unheroic quotations and fragments that were in the heads of my parents' generation. As a myth, this idea may have been more plausible in the days when American "high" culture was centered in a relatively small number of places and institutions. The author of the sentence seems to me to be half in love with the idea of popular taste as the measure of all things, and half terrified by that same idea. In the decline of an aristocratic standard of taste that he half loathes, half would like to rely on, he turns his scorn toward something that he calls "poetry nowadays."

Such gestures in other words may respond more to a half-conscious idea about the culture as a whole than they respond to actual poems, old or new. Insofar as they have to do with poetry, it may be that poetry's actual diffusion—into the often ungraceful or clumsy terrain of local adult education classes, summer conferences, creative writing classes at varying levels of distinction, poets encouraging the writing of blind or deaf children, etc.—offends the myth of its golden age.

On the other hand, however feeble or inauthentic the attacks on it may be, there are repellent elements in the institution of creative writing: valuable insofar as it makes the art available as a conduit for poetry from the past to the present, creative writing is a blight when it becomes a guild, implicitly limiting practice to certificate-bearing members, or when it becomes an Academy, promoting official styles and sanctioned authors. Certainly, there is something to resist as well as something to admire in the spirit of creative writing—a spirit which I'll summarize as dispersed in the provinces rather than centered in a capital, rhetorical and practical rather than scholarly, professional rather than hieratic, American rather than European, middle-class rather than aristocratic. The dispersion is in itself more noble than the elite it replaces; the guild, or an Academy with "poet" merely another job description, is more offensive than any elite.

As with many aspects of American life since World War II, the fact that the university has become a harbor for art—even the arts of jazz and cinema!—seems part of an ambiguous bargain, where heightened possibility may be bartered for lost autonomy. Does the improvised or extended institution bring a cultural good to more of us, or merely feed us a cheap imitation? Does it keep alive what our artists have made, or officially embalm it—or briskly turn away from the past, from "monuments of its own magnificence," altogether?

We can hope that as the organism of culture generates an institution, it also makes antibodies of a kind to resist it. From this viewpoint, disparate phenomena like the rise of poetry bars, with their raucous contests, and the elevation of estimable foreign writers—Milosz, Akhmatova, Neruda, and Rilke seem to be the favorite poets of my students—can be seen as two responses counter to provincialism, to the potential for a dreary, Soviet-like poetry, chauvinistic and institutionally sanctioned.

I take it to be a kind of sacred principle that the purpose of study is in part reverence for the thing studied—beyond any benefit to us who study. Creative writing is still adjusting its relation to that principle, and doing so at a time when it is inheriting responsibilities from older forms of study. I have heard that some universities no longer have a Department of English, or a Department of French, and so forth, but a new entity called the Department of Literary Theory. The next logical step is for creative writing to evolve into a Department of Literary Practice.

Leaving institutions aside, poetry's social place must also be understood in relation to poetry's form. In fact, if challenged to define what is most often or essentially lacking in the cultural institutions we Americans have improvised for poetry—from prisons to universities, from rock poetry to language poetry, from Creative Writing to Deconstruction—my answer would be an understanding of the form.

The form of an art is determined by its medium.

I have said before in writing that poetry is the most bodily of all the arts—and my friends have gently suggested that I had gotten a bit carried away: "Uh, Robert—dancing has more to do with the body, doesn't it?"

But no, I insist: the medium of poetry is not words, not even lines, not even sounds; the medium of poetry is the vibrating column of air rising up from the chest of one person, shaped inside the voice-box and inside the mouth into meaning sounds, emerging one at a time and therefore in a certain order.

That is, the medium of poetry issues from an individual body—and not necessarily a gifted body, not necessarily the body of the artist. Because the medium comes from inside of the body, and because it is shaped by the artist for the ordinary person's physical presence and performance, I repeat that poetry is a physical art, indeed a bodily art, and indeed the most bodily of arts.

A poem is written to be said and heard, not necessarily by an impressive actor or by a poet who has studied self-presentation; it is a more intimate or personal form than theater, then. This explains why I have been so moved by certain performances of poems by undergraduate students in classes where I have asked everyone to have a poem ready to recite from memory. The sound of a young woman I had underestimated saying the words of Yeats's "Easter 1916" with understanding, or some student of an unlikely ethnicity shaping his breath to the intricate passion of Herbert's "Church Monuments" or Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" moves me not because I am sentimental about American students, but because I am witnessing this art in practice. The relation between the sounds of poetry and memory are especially clear when the author, like Yeats or Herbert or Hayden, is long dead—the immediate intimacy of breath is combined, at such times, with the long survival of the past.

In contrast, the same set of principles explains to me why I have felt covertly bored when friends play for me their recording of Sir John Gielgud reciting Shakespeare's sonnets, or when a poet skillfully infuses not very distinguished work with a lot of personal force, thrilling an audience with what is basically the art of monologue. I try to murmur politely, recognizing the performance skills, but feeling the absence of poetry's form in these presentations.

If I am right, the meaning of poetry's form is extremely intimate as well as bodily; the form is also related to memory, and not only personal memory: it is cultural and historical memory as well. At this intersection of inward and outward, the form of poetry is based on the sounds of the words—not as set to music or as pronounced in a special way, but as spoken—words arranged to make an art of their sounds; the conventional printed notation for that art is lines. (In his important book, The Founding of English Meter, John Thompson says that by the Aristotelian principle that all art is imitation, what poetic rhythm imitates is the utterances of a language; lines of verse imitate sentences.) The art is not dependent on large numbers of people or elaborate equipment—unlike, say, the movies. It tends toward the scale of one body, and as a result it may be limited by a certain resistance to some means of mass presentation, and to mixed media. (I am thinking of the high-minded TV show where while an actor reads Stevens's "The Snow Man," we are shown banally artistic footage of a snowman.)

There is a social meaning to poetry's form, worth thinking about in relation to our time. To take a dramatic example of such social meaning—I hope not a melodramatic example—Czeslaw Milosz relates that during the Nazi occupation of Poland poetry became more popular. Even the most timid soul could feel, by carrying in a pocket a copy of some poem in Polish—a poem perhaps not even particularly political in content—that this possession was an assertion of identity, and therefore of resistance. In the presence of that monolithic, violent, totalitarian menace, a form based on the sufficiency of the individual—the sufficiency not merely of the individual itself, but the individual as bearer and instrument of a culture, in this case of a national past—took on a heightened social significance.

On a less extreme level, I think that the presence of poetry, of even one poem, in a contemporary American life has comparable powers and associations: with something defiantly ungovernable, or something loyal to a certain vision of the past, or merely something personal—personal in scale, as well as in nature. This art that ranges from the lyrical to the heroic takes place in the modest, intimate theater of the reader's human voice.

Any art has social significance if only because works imply who the art belongs to; if I am right about the form of poetry, poetry belongs to communities as a form of memory, but to individuals as a form of existence: the read or memorized or recited poem refers to the sounds of words and sentences formed in one present person's body, yet it functions as a reminder of the past. Whitman makes the great statement of this insight: that poetry, in a single human body, can embrace multitudes and epochs.

What might such a form mean in the context of a culture in love with mass, technological phenomena, distributed and duplicated and made available by astoundingly elegant and impressive devices? I love my CDs, my television, my computer, all my modern dazzlements: what does the form of poetry mean for me in this context?

The answer is not "nothing." On the evidence of the many applications to the writing program where I work, and on the evidence of writers' conferences, Poets in the Schools, and so forth—and on the evidence of my own soul—I would guess that poetry, true to its form and to its peculiar history in American culture, embodies a particular appetite for the equivalent, in art, of individual speech. It embodies the idea that in someone's voice, forming the words and sentences we exchange all day, there is the model for a form of art, with its defining place among other arts.

Sometimes we read that American poetry is in "crisis"—maybe the crisis is general, and projected onto poetry at a moment when art in general is being redefined: professors are writing about music videos and network series; Sven Birkerts is worried that electronic media are pillaging the domain of fiction; film actors are giving readings of their poetry at Chateau Marmont; creative writing seems to be simultaneously marking the end of one elite and—at its worst—spawning another.

It is dizzy-making, maybe fruitless to contemplate this "crisis" of mass and individual, elite and popular, academic and demotic. Muddling at trying to think through such tangled immensities, I realize that what I crave to hear is a voice—a voice in a poem. The single human voice—which cannot match film for spectacle, or music for glamour, or drama for ready emotion—conveys something of all of those things, along with the precious sense of human scale. Contrary to the vision of Leaves of Grass, poetry may not hold us together in the mass; yet we seem to carry it as the vessel of some valuable property, the property, perhaps, of a singular imagination inside some one of us. Such imagination sometimes finds its actual voice in poetry. The time of its greatness is by no means over.

Katha Pollitt (review date 18 August 1996)

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SOURCE: "World of Wonders," in The New York Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, p. 9.

[Below, Pollitt admires the freshness of Pinsky's verse in The Figured Wheel.]

Robert Pinsky's extraordinarily accomplished and beautiful volume of collected poems, The Figured Wheel, will remind readers that here is a poet who, without forming a mini-movement or setting himself loudly at odds with the dominant tendencies of American poetry, has brought into it something new—beginning with his first volume, Sadness and Happiness (1975), and gathering authority with each subsequent book. Call it a way of being autobiographical without being confessional, of connecting the particulars of the self—his Jewishness; his 1940's and 50's childhood in Long Branch, N.J.; his adult life as "professor or / Poet or parent or writing conference pooh-bah"—with the largest intellectual concerns of history, culture, psychology and art.

Poetry has become so disconnected from the other literary arts that we don't usually look for a poet to share important affinities except with other poets. But one of Mr. Pinsky's great accomplishments is the way he recoups for poetry some of the pleasures of prose: storytelling, humor, the rich texture of a world filled with people and ideas. In its free and vigorous play of mind, his "Essay on Psychiatrists" really is an essay, a witty, clear-eyed 21-part argument that moves from a group portrait of psychiatrists as a bourgeois social type (liberal politics, B'nai B'rith, "a place on the Cape with Marimekko drapes") to a large and fully earned conclusion: "But it is all bosh, the false / Link between genius and sickness."

A full accounting of his literary connections would have to include Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick—Jewish novelists with whom he shares a wide variety of concerns. There's the fascination with fables and rabbinic lore ("The Rhyme of Reb Nachman," "From the Childhood of Jesus," the jewel-like prose tale "Jesus and Isolt"). There's the nostalgic love-hatred for the stifling familial urgencies of the now-vanished world of lower-middle-class Jewish immigrants and the celebration of the talismans—movies, pop music, comics, sports—by which those immigrants' children defined themselves as Americans. In "The Night Game," Mr. Pinsky recalls himself as a child imagining a Jewish southpaw "Even more gifted / Than Whitey Ford" who refuses to pitch on Yom Kippur. The long poem "History of My Heart" begins with his mother remembering Fats Waller improvising on a piano "the size of a lady's jewel box or a wedding cake" in the toy department of Macy's, that symbol of democratic glamour. In "A Woman," a grandmother figure attempts to instill in a child her own Old World suspicions and terrors as they walk through an ordinary Long Branch day that seems to range across centuries—from the "imbecile / Panic of the chickens" slaughtered in the market to the purchase of a uniquely American treat, a milkshake. Although the poem ends with the child's vow "Never to forgive her" for holding him back from a Halloween parade, what it shows is that the woman's half-mad smotherings and warnings have awakened the child to self-awareness and a heightened perception of the world. As the title suggests, she's a muse.

It is not surprising that Mr. Pinsky, whose last book was a widely praised translation of Dante's Inferno into modern terza rima, should have large ambitions for his own poems. Even the titles of his books proclaim his intention to grapple with major themes: Sadness and Happiness, An Explanation of America, History of My Heart, Poetry and the World. One of the earliest poems collected here, "Poem About People," is a tragicomic meditation on humanity itself:

     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 determination with which the early poems set themselves in opposition to the then-dominant confessional mode in favor of the ironic, the didactic, the "discursive" (to use Mr. Pinsky's own term) can make them seem dry or willed today, a bit like the benign and prudent therapists cautiously lauded in "Essay on Psychiatrists." It is really with History of My Heart (1984) that Mr. Pinsky finds a way of making a poem that is, well, poetical, that makes images and the connections—or gaps—between images bear a meaning whose emotional resonance derives in part from its indeterminacy. "The New Saddhus" imagines a multicultural assortment of middle-aged men, "Kurd, Celt, Marxist and Rotarian," setting out on a mysterious pilgrimage. Is it a rejection of breadwinning and family life, or a new bend in the masculine (and why only masculine?) life path? In the poem "The Figured Wheel," what is that fantastically decorated juggernaut that rolls over teeming, unresisting humanity—language, culture, history? The way all three both create and destroy? These images have a vitality, a strangeness that overflows interpretation.

Similarly, "Shirt" is a kind of free-associative catalogue that encompasses technical sewing terms, Asian sweatshop workers "Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break," the Triangle factory fire, Hart Crane, the invention of tartans, Southern slavery and more. A shirt, it would seem, is a kind of poem:

      George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
      Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
      And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
      And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
      Both her and me.

"Shirt" is a dazzling bravura performance, but it suggests a risk attached to the Whitman stance of "I am large, I contain multitudes." I'm not so sure that Irma is as happy to inspect that shirt as Mr. Pinsky is to wear it. There are times in these poems when one feels that Wordsworth's egotistical sublime is trying very hard—too hard—to be Keats's negative capability, and that what is presented as a kind of grand vision of humanity is a version of self-delight. As with Whitman, as with the Eastern philosophies that furnish him with so many gorgeous examples and metaphors, there's a potential for coldness in Mr. Pinsky's wide-angle vision.

Most of the time, though, the poems of his maturity manage their startling shifts and juxtapositions in ways that give intellectual and sensuous delight. You can read "At Pleasure Bay" a dozen times and still feel a kind of delicious surprise at the way Mr. Pinsky moves from the 1927 double suicide of "the Chief of Police and Mrs. W." through music and bootlegging and boats and Unity Mitford's infatuation with Hitler, all the way to reincarnation—the whole ultimately unfathomable round of violence, passion, beauty and sorrow that is human experience coming back always a little different, like the catbird in the willows singing "never the same phrase twice." Who else could have written "The Refinery," in which ancient animal gods from the collective unconscious wake up and take a train to the factory of language (imagined as a kind of petroleum, pressed out of human history while they were sleeping)? Or the recent "Impossible to Tell," which moves between the 17th-century Japanese poet Basho and a friend's sudden death, gives full-dress and very funny versions of two Jewish jokes and—while positing that human existence resembles a renga, a Japanese interlinked poetical form—is itself a kind of renga.

What makes Mr. Pinsky such a rewarding and exciting writer is the sense he gives, in the very shape and structure of his poems, of getting at the depths of human experience, in which everything is always repeated but also always new. The feathery and furry tribal gods, Jesus, Basho, the frail old people who came to his father for eyeglasses, Shiva and Parvati, the chief and Mrs. W. and Robert Pinsky himself are all characters in a story that has no end and possibly no ultimate meaning either but to which we listen spellbound because, like the figured wheel covered with mysterious symbols, it is our story.

Further Reading

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R. W. Flint. "Feeding the Hunger for Stories." The New York Times Book Review (8 April 1984): 14.

Finds that Pinsky's "manifold talents have become better servants of memory" in History of My Heart.

Ralph Blumenthal (essay date 28 March 1997)

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SOURCE: "A New Poet Laureate at Home with Dante, the Internet and Sometimes Both," in The New York Times, March 28, 1997, pp. C3.

[In the following essay, Blumenthal provides an overview of Pinsky's life and career, reporting his response to being named poet laureate of the United States.]

Robert Pinsky, a prize-winning poet who bridges Dante and the Internet, has been named the nation's next poet laureate. The selection is being announced today by the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, who cited Mr. Pinsky's mastery of computers as well as his translations and "his own probing poetry."

Like the last 8 of his 38 predecessors, the 56-year-old Mr. Pinsky will also carry the title of consultant in poetry, but there are few statutory duties for the pay ($35,000) outside of organizing several literary programs, readings and talks. Laureates, however, have used their two-year platform since 1937 to foster poetry in schools, workshops and cityscapes and to enhance the library's archives. The reigning laureate, Robert Hass, who bows out with a final lecture on May 1, crisscrossed the country taking the measure of literacy at citizen forums and Rotary Clubs and, not incidentally, collecting snippets of impromptu haiku from passers-by.

Mr. Pinsky, a professor of graduate writing at Boston University who propelled Dante onto the best-seller lists with his acclaimed 1994 verse translation of the Inferno, said in an interview in New York yesterday that he might take a tack from his classes and ask a broad spectrum of Americans, including powers that be in Washington, to read and record their favorite poems for the library. "What would President Clinton or Al Gore pick?" he asked. "Or Jesse Helms?"

"If people ask in 1,000 years who Americans were, this might help them figure it out," he said. Although poetry seems to be in some vogue, cropping up in movies and ever more popular public readings, Mr. Pinsky said it was still widely manhandled in schools.

"Teachers have pedagogically treated poems as an occasion to say something smart," he said. But poetry, he said, is as simple as art on an individual scale, its medium a single human voice. That, he said, is the secret of poetry's "immense power in an age of arts dominated by mechanical reproduction."

Not that Mr. Pinsky has anything against modern technology. He is the poetry editor of the Internet magazine Slate (at, and as a certifiable computer pioneer wrote a 1984 interactive "text adventure" [Mindwheel] modeled loosely on the Inferno. "A side of me wants to try anything," he said.

In fact, he has commented, poetry and computers share two key attributes, speed and memory. "They share," he wrote, "the great human myth of trope, an image that could be called the secret passage: the discovery of large, manifold channels through a small ordinary-looking or all but invisible aperture."

And anyway, he asked, what is poetry but technology that uses the human body? He also likens poetry to ice-skating with its daring leaps and flashing vistas.

If Mr. Pinsky's translation of the Inferno popularized his name, the work becoming a selection of the Book of the Month Club and a best seller, he has long been highly regarded in literary circles for his five books of poetry since 1975 (Sadness and Happiness, An Explanation of America, History of My Heart, The Want Bone, The Figured Wheel); three books of prose (Landor's Poetry, The Situation of Poetry, Poetry and the World) and a translation of The Separate Notebooks by Czeslaw Milosz. He was at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Boston last week giving a reading from The Figured Wheel, his latest collection, published last year and just now coming out in paperback, when calls reached him about his appointment.

He achieved his translation of Dante without a scholar's knowledge of Italian. "My work is not a work of scholarship," he said. "It's a work of metrical engineering."

Poetry gripped him from youth in Long Branch, N.J., he recalled, although his was not a literary family. His father was an optician and his grandfather. David Pinsky, was a small-time prizefighter, tavern-owner and bootlegger. But even before he know what poetry was, he said, he savored the sounds of words like the conductor's cry: "Passengers going to Hoboken, change trains at Summit."

At Rutgers University he wrote out Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" and taped it to a wall. Why? "It was the speed with which he covered the ground," Mr. Pinsky said. "Wow: 'artifice of eternity'!"

After college, he received a graduate fellowship at Stanford and taught English at the University of California at Berkeley before moving to Boston University, where, he said, he hopes to continue teaching after taking office in October. He and his wife, Ellen, a clinical psychologist, have three grown daughters.

He takes his poetic inspiration from everywhere and anything, he said. "If you look at this Tropicana container," he said, lifting it from the table, "when did they start putting paraffin on the carton and the fluttering banner here? If you could understand that, you might understand a lot of Western history." His poems seem hard to classify, ranging widely over Judeo-Christian themes, autobiography and genre scenes. "I like human artifacts," he said.

Being used to a noisy, crowded household, he says, he writes fast and almost anywhere, even in airports. "I can easily get a mass of clay on the table," he said, although he added that the last 20 percent could entail many drafts.

He plays the saxophone, and is an avid baseball fan and Red Sox rooter, by way of the Brooklyn Dodgers. "Being a Dodger fan is good preparation for being a Red Sox fan," he said.

Both teams, he said, exemplify "values deeper than success."

He said he was proud to follow many of his icons, including Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren. But he is also glad, he said, that the job description has expanded from just plain poet laureate to consultant in poetry as well.

"It's a greater distinction to be consulted than to be laureled," he said.

Elizabeth Mehren (essay date 10 June 1997)

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SOURCE: "The Meter Is Running," in Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1997, pp. E1, E6.

[In the essay below, Mehren summarizes the achievements of Pinsky's life and career, focusing on his passion for making poetry accessible to the masses.]

A small smile brightened Robert Pinsky's face as he pondered the weekend's entertainment offerings. Listed in the newspaper—along with club happenings, flower shows, dinner theaters and the movie guide—were 16 separate poetry events.

Readings. Discussion groups. Open-mike poetry performances. Poetry slams, sort of like sports contests, but where 100 meters is not likely to induce a sweat.

"It's a truly popular art, an art everybody can enjoy," declared Pinsky, champion of odes on the Internet, advocate of everyday lyricism, believer in the simple certainty that a sonnet may dwell anywhere—for example, on the label of a catsup bottle. In Pinsky's view; poetry is the people's art form, and Pinsky, in turn, clearly is content to bear the mantle of the people's poet.

Which makes his official title, poet laureate of the United States, seem … "Kind of a paradox, isn't it?" he volunteered.

Raised in Long Branch, N.J., the 56-year-old professor of graduate writing at Boston University hardly seems the type to sport a crown of laurel leaves. He has a delicious sense of humor and an e-mail addiction issue. He haunts Fenway Park and cheers for the Red Sox, anyone's definition of a non-noble cause.

His father was an optician and amateur baseball player (for a team called the Jewish Aces); his grandfather was a tavern owner, bootlegger and small-time prizefighter. When he went off to Rutgers, Pinsky became the first member of his family ever to go to college. Even at graduate school at Stanford, his mother would call every week and beg him to take the optician's licensing exam, "something to fall back on." Pinsky would remind her he intended to become a university professor, a prospect from which his mother drew only scant comfort.

As the father of three grown daughters, Pinsky knows that "it's hard to say what makes a kid go a certain direction." But as a youth, even while playing sandlot baseball, he knew his own direction would be toward the arts. "Even my daydreams about being an athlete were rather theatrical," Pinsky remembered. He played the saxophone, moved by the rhythm as much as the sound. At Rutgers, he hand-wrote Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" and taped it to his dormitory wall. It remains his favorite poem.

His mother's fears notwithstanding, he found gainful academic employment. After Stanford, he taught at Wellesley before moving to the English department at UC Berkeley. But a feeling of intellectual smugness there made him uncomfortable, Pinsky said. His friends at Berkeley thought he was crazy when he uprooted his children and his wife, Ellen, a clinical psychologist, and headed for BU, a lesser-ranked school in a far colder place.

For Pinsky, it was a warm return to an active and prolific community of poets he had befriended during his Wellesley years, headed by his old friend Frank Bidart. "His literary ties, intellectual ties, spiritual ties, ties of direction were all here," poet Lloyd Schwartz, head of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said of Pinsky. "The center of Robert's writing life was here."

Like many in what Schwartz called "this strong circle of serious poets," Bidart and Pinsky were disciples of the late Robert Lowell and followers also of the late Elizabeth Bishop. From his earliest days in this loose, but loyal group, Pinsky stood out as a speculative, abstract thinker. He took risks. He wrote a poetic essay about psychiatry. He forged a new translation of the InfernoThe Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation (1994)—and landed Dante on the bestseller list. Refusing to cede to the traditional aversion of some intellectuals to popular culture, he penned an ode to television and a poem about computers. One of his grand works, An Explanation of America (1979) is an epic poem written for his oldest daughter, now a manager at Borders Books in Los Angeles.

"There's a line, the last line, in An Explanation of America," Schwartz said. "It reads: 'So large and strangely broken and unforeseen.' I think those phrases describe Robert's poetry. It's very ambitious, in the largest sense of the word. He deals with very big issues and themes. America! Poetry, and the world, what it means to be a humane person in the world. He deals with them not with the most traditional, logical, orderly and abstract, intellectual methods, but he uses a sort of intuition and psychological association. His mind in that poem is swinging wildly, in an unexpected and quite irrational, poetic way."

Pinsky's works combine "both a manic expressiveness and gesture, plus a very immediate and colloquial tone," agreed David St. John, a poet who teaches at the University of Southern California and who has lectured with Pinsky at the Napa Writers' Conference, where poetry readings are held amid the grapevines. "People feel very much at ease within one of his poems," St. John added. "They are very companionable poems."

Not only that, said St. John, but he is "absolutely enthralling to listen to. His sense of language is enacted in his own conversations."

Pinsky runs on megahertz energy, but even pausing for a cafe latte around the corner from his office, he speaks with dizzying eloquence. Here is Pinsky's explanation for why, in an increasingly mechanistic world, poetry is growing in popularity.

The craving for it is even stronger in reaction to how powerful and brilliantly organized mass art has become. Mass art is being designed by talented experts, and being distributed and rapidly duplicated. The copy is the medium. The ultimate medium of the poem, even if the person reads the poem from a book that has been printed from 50,000 copies—the ultimate medium is one person's voice. Poetry is a vocal art. The medium of popular music is an album. It's an easily duplicable CD. In poetry, the mass distribution of the written word is only the means to an end.

As this country's 39th poet laureate, Pinsky follows on the poetic heels of his own icon. Lowell, as well as Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren. Most recently, Californian Robert Hass and Rita Dove held the post. Both said they came close to collapsing from the way they threw themselves into a job whose official duties are only to give one reading at the Library of Congress, to deliver one essay and to organize the library's literary programs.

But Hass and Dove took seriously the job's less carefully articulated mandate of increasing public awareness of poetry, and Pinsky can be expected to do the same. He plans to make mass access to poetry one of the primary planks of his platform. He envisions huge read-ins. He wants weekly poems on the Internet: Punch the right button and you can hear them read aloud. "One week it might be a contemporary poem, then a week later it might be a 16th century poem by Ben Jonson," Pinsky said.

Part of the $35,000-a-year poet laureate's job is to serve as a consultant to the Library of Congress, and already Pinsky is making plans for a giant poetry repository, videotaped readings, "25% to 30% by prominent Americans, and 70% to 75% the rest of us." Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Helms, Pinsky's tailor: "Everyone will read a favorite poem. The only thing that will be excluded is that you can't read your own work. My goal is to create an archive—what Americans do with the poems they love, what they do with their faces as they read them."

He also aims to broaden the teaching of poetry. By introducing small children to poems, he said, "you are teaching them the intellectual, physical coordination of ideas and meanings in a way that is fundamental to our nature as animals. Dr. Seuss is good for you."

There is little secret to his methodology for introducing young people to the wonders of verse. "I put it in two words. Read aloud," he said. "Not just when they are small. I still read aloud to my three daughters, who are 20 to 30 years old."

He is equally ferocious in his defense of the relationship between poetry and modern technology. Pinsky is the poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate, and feels fiercely that poetry online is "part of our time." He has little patience for the suggestion that posting poems in cyberspace might be construed in some circles as a cheap imitation.

"You might as well ask, did it cheapen poetry for poets to write odes celebrating the birthdays of kings in the 17th century?" Pinsky rejoined. The electronic revolution "is part of the world, and poetry is part of the world, too," he said.

His friend St. John sees Pinsky's passion for technology as one of his greatest virtues in his official role. "To Robert, to do something as ancient and as timeless as to write a poem, should not be at odds with the future, at odds with how consciousness is understood," he explained.

One way Pinsky said he interprets consciousness is by integrating humor and poetry. "For me, there's a kind of quickness, restlessness, surprise, vividness and sharpness that characterizes both poetry and comedy," he said. In the middle of "Impossible to Tell," a poetic elegy that appears in Pinsky's major anthology, The Figured Wheel (1996), for example, Pinsky pauses to tell jokes, citing at one point—of all unpoetic references in an ode to a dead friend—Mel Brooks.

But there it is, Pinsky's sense that poetry knows no barriers, his belief that "poetry goes very, very deep," that it has "a mysterious power to assuage us and to bring us, together"—and that if, by some fluke, poetry is not in all of us, it should be.

Louise Glück (essay date July-August 1997)

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SOURCE: "Story Tellers," in The American Poetry Review, July-August, 1997, pp. 9-12.

[Below, Glück explains the ways a narrative impulse informs Pinsky's poetics, comparing his poetry with that of Stephen Dobyns.]

The poet Stephen Dobyns, who is also the novelist Stephen Dobyns, once remarked with just irritation that the narrative, as a poetic strategy, is usually misread, or not taken for what in his opinion it is: a metaphor. As though when the poet couldn't think of anything interesting, he told a story.

Like Homer. Like the Bible.

Contemporary critics prefer, it appears, the static/rhapsodic, in which the translation of event to art is more literal: what is event in the world becomes, in the poem, luminous image. In fact, narrative is also transformation and recreation, and the use of stories managed in more ways, to more ends, than one. In the old battle to determine the greater form (a subject in itself) poet critics, eschewing the story, seem, like the Puritan fathers, to eschew entertainment, as though having a good time couldn't happen in the presence of sublime art. But the impulse to use narrative informs the work of some of our best (and certainly most original) poets. Dobyns, obviously, but also, in a quite different way, Robert Pinsky.

It is a standard misfortune of poets (and artists in general) that their work continues to be read according to whatever impressions or verdicts attended its debut. In consequence Robert Pinsky is often regarded as a poet of extensive dispassionate curiosity and wide learning, ethical by disposition, rational in bias, a maker of grids and systems, an organizer—the opposite of the fiery prophetic, the poet claimed by, overtaken by, emotion—and, in his calm, somehow disguised or withholding. Even when, as now, he is regularly and perceptively admired, he tends to be admired for his masterful interweavings of public and private, for his formal brilliance, for the extraordinary variety of his gifts (even passionately reverential notices sometimes digress with odd eagerness into Pinsky's work as a translator, his explorations of high-tech forms like computer games).

It is difficult to account exactly for the tone of this approbation. Pinsky is neither a poet of lyric compression nor a rhapsodist—the two forms to which readers habitually ascribe warmth, or intense feeling. And readers are, often, genuinely overwhelmed by the breadth of his erudition. But neither that erudition nor the poems' virtuosity completely explains the curious reticence and demurrals of even his most impassioned reviewers. It has sometimes seemed to me that he is read as though he were a cultural historian, in whose mind individual agony and enterprise are subsumed into, or emblematic of, panoramic history. Readers are, I suppose, distracted by Pinsky's considerable memory, his grasp of (and fascination with) data. But they mistake, I believe, the background for the foreground.

This problem with emphasis is in part a problem of expectation. In the ways we expect (at present) to see (or hear) the poet, Pinsky seems invisible, more the impresario than the coloratura. This preference for the heart-on-the-sleeve heart of lyric and rhapsodic poetry mistakes the performative nature of all art, mistakes performance for essence.

Moreover, there is, in Pinsky's human portraits, an evenhandedness that can seem, by present standard of judgment, concealing. Unlike most of his peers, Pinsky is not especially interested in individual psychology. Like the parent of many children, determined to appear to love all equally, Pinsky seems, by this standard, either withholding, or (the explanation usually settled for) not interested in such things. We have been trained to distrust apparent absence of preference. And yet the same balanced affection informs everything Whitman ever did, though his work is, obviously, more effusive in manner. Human passion, human life—these seem, protected against the historical which is taken to be Pinsky's field of vision, merely the poignant laboring of tiny figures in a Bosch painting, or the stalwart repetitious efforts of valets and elevator boys, working hard for promotion. To the absence of visible bias, we impute either coolness of heart or, alternatively, larger, less immediate, aims, focuses.

None of these assumptions is correct. And yet, curiously, they are, none of them, exactly incorrect either. Pinsky truly is interested in history; he truly is not a poet of the struggling or transported first person. What is so strange is the persistence of my impression that Pinsky is, among poets singled out for highest praise, the poet read both most closely and most anxiously. The poet, perhaps, whose work makes most plain the limitation of the contemporary reader, even (perhaps especially) the trained reader.

For most of this century, poets have been divesting themselves of the arsenal of devices which had come to seem static or imprisoning. What remains is tone, the medium of the soul. Set aside, for the moment, the fact that very few poets are capable of evolving even a single unprecedented tone: the depressing corollary of this divestment has been marked atrophy of skills within the reader. Because Pinsky isn't using tone as an instrument of hasty self-portraiture, tone is hard to fix, fluid: for all their dazzling aural pleasure, these are not poems made to be acted out in Theater 101. Moreover, in Pinsky's art, form does what we have come to believe only tone can do. That is to say, form here is not intellectual construct but rather metaphor. For the poems to be understood at all they must be apprehended entire, as shapes.

I said earlier that readers have mistaken the background for the foreground. It may be more accurate to say that they miss the larger scrim against which history is projected, by which it is dwarfed. History, in these poems is a means not an end: to view it as an end is to miss the awe that permeates Pinsky's work.

History is what human action accumulates into. If Pinsky is not particularly interested in psychology, he is gripped by cause-and-effect. Hence (at the most obvious level) the mechanical figures. Hence, formally, the larger musical analogies, the way, in poem after poem, one figure answers another figure, like jazz improvisations: bird song, shard of narrative, shimmer of tree over water. The overwhelming preoccupation of the poems is less history than what lies beyond history: chaos, eternity. Projected against this unknowable void, history takes on the poignancy of what is (in other poets) the property of individual life. And the need to understand the shapes of history is driven by the hunger to know how chaos works: the poems try to outsmart, second guess human limitation: all their constructions are postulates, the single provable side of an algebraic equation, a seeking after parallel inference. Human life is to history as history is to chaos. Pinsky is less a synthesizer of data than a student of the great mysteries: against the background of the eternal, the void, stories are musical phrases, simultaneously completed formal shapes and inconclusive fragments.

Narrative elements, characteristically, figure in, but do not dominate the poems. Even when, as in "From the Childhood of Jesus" the story gives its shape to the whole, the poem invokes, in its closure, the shifting ground of the eternal, in a classic cinematic dissolve:

                                     … 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.

Precisely because stories are not explored as psychological archetypes, Pinsky is free to use them as notes, or phrases, as a painter would use a wash of violet or sepia. A suggestion, a resonance. They fade in, fade out, unravel, and their long unwinding or unraveling is part of Pinsky's intent, and characteristic of his treatment of every element in the poem: don't shut it down, play it like a kite on a very long string, let its every implication, its every nuance, elaborate itself, express itself: if shape is metaphor, dangerous to impose it prematurely.

     In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
     A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.

And then, answering the catbird, a swatch of story:

     Here under the pines a little off the road
     In 1927 the Chief of Police
     And Mrs. W. killed themselves together,
     Sitting in a roadster …

Layer after layer, the poem builds. The tenor in his clown costume finishing his aria, applause, cheers, other stories, all accumulate into the long trance, the held note of Pleasure Bay, our little errand in the world. The Chief and Mrs. W. come back again in the poem as they meant to, having died "to stay together, as local ghosts." No poem I can think of renders so indelibly the evanescence of the palpable:

     Here's where you might have slipped across the water
     When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.

That the poem begins and ends with the same words, the first line echoed in the last line, makes it seem to have occurred in a heart beat, or less than a heart beat, all the stories, the war, the catbird, accumulating (in the absence of lyric compression) into the lyric moment: stopped time. Only in Pinsky's art, lyric time pulses and quivers, like the tenor's vibrato, shifting, adjusting. "At Pleasure Bay" (a title rich in itself in associative possibility) never undertakes to describe or fix the consciousness in which it occurs. Toward the poem's mid-point, "Shivers of a story that a child might hear / and half remember …" simulates the birth of awareness as much as it names a focus. In lesser hands, the poem would turn on itself here, the various elements reiterated, reconverging, as a mind forms itself around these details, sounds, mica-chips of narrative. But as Pinsky designs the poem, the emerging "you" who dominates its latter third presides over a movement increasingly spectral, non-concrete: the fixed verbs of the story, of the catbird's song, the "killed themselves together" of historical time, become the loose hypotheses of eternal speculation, as though individual mind and individual identity were the most, not least, elastic element:

     Here's where you might have slipped across the water
     When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.

We don't respond to the narrative elements in Pinsky as we respond to stories, in part because outcome isn't an issue. The materials are either the materials of legend or, more typically, the narrative comes to us in pieces or summaries; these are, with the sensual data more common to poetry, components of developing perceptive life: one brain cell imprinted with a bird call, one with an old story, their apparently arbitrary juxtaposition less arbitrary than it initially seems—we have to back away a bit, so that perspective grows wide enough to accommodate diversity.

The visual correlative of a Pinsky poem would be an arc yearning upward. A poem by Stephen Dobyns is nothing like that: where Pinsky is essentially meditative, the poems elaborating themselves in coils and spirals, Dobyns's poems are a rapid downward trajectory, the poems' accumulating mass increasing their speed. Where Pinsky is speculative, Dobyns is apocalyptic, his use of narrative material much closer to what prose reading leads us to expect. Here, typically, the story shapes the poem; like the great novelists, Dobyns has a moral vision; he seems, sometimes, a cross between Jonathan Edwards and Quentin Tarantino, with something of Twain's slyness mixed in. The poems are fierce, impatient, judgmental, wildly funny. He has not been, as Pinsky has, praised and misunderstood. Neither has he received (except from other poets, among whom he has the status of the hero) the kind of attention his gifts deserve. His practice of several arts (and his staggering productivity) unnerve readers who have adopted a mantra concerning range: it bespeaks, they think, superficiality. Like all mantras, this simplifies judgments. In any case, the manifold examples of Dobyns's mastery continue to appear with stubborn frequency under various numbers in the Dewey decimal system.

Dobyns's range has cost him attention; so has his wit. Though the poems move like slalom runs, hair-raising, relentless, they are (many of them) too entertaining, too well written (to invoke Pound's notion) for classroom pieties. No one devises wilder, more unexpected occasions. But Dobyns's brilliance lies less in his initial inventiveness than in his sustained resourcefulness: in poem after poem, that resourcefulness builds, invention doubling and tripling like poker stakes.

His habit is to begin casually:

     This morning, because the snow swirled deep
     around my house, I made oatmeal for breakfast.

And the slight adjustments and modifications and amplifications that follow seem initially perfectly reasonable:

     At first it was runny so I added more oatmeal …

Within a few lines though the radio is "playing Spanish music," the speaker has become "passionate." And a great deal of oatmeal is being generated. Characteristically in Dobyns the casual occasion gets very quickly out of hand, the figurative taken too literally; even his wittiest poems generate, in their pacing, some flicker of dread.

It matters that this poem, in which the amassed pots of oatmeal become "souvenir ashtrays" and, eventually, an erotic Galatea, begins innocently; it matters that, once begun, its momentum is unstoppable. Life, Dobyns means us to see, is all momentum, speeding up as the end approaches; it won't (like poetry) stand still.

At a certain point in the poem, under the influence of that inspiring Spanish music, the impulse toward creation dislodges the impulse toward mass production (as in the evolution of mind or of civilization); the many pots of starchy clay become a woman made of oatmeal, and the poem reveals itself as parable, not anecdote. One of the conclusions you come to, after studying the work of Stephen Dobyns for a few decades, is that it is possible to be inventive and obsessive simultaneously (Frank Bidart's career offers another example of this phenomenon). Dobyns understands that the obsessive writer runs the risk of self imitation: he deals with this risk in several ways, partly by shrugging it off, knowing that in a career so monumentally fecund, larger architectural shapes must sooner or later be apparent, and partly, crucially, through the combining of dramatic resourcefulness with a sort of tonal fearlessness. No one since Plath (and, before Plath, no one since D. H. Lawrence) has taken on the reader in such inspired and varied confrontations: this is one of poetry's genuinely thrilling tactics—impossible not to react (it is also, interestingly, the most dramatic way in which Dobyns is misunderstood, mainly by listeners who mistake the strategies of art for personal violence, personal aggression). As a tactic, combativeness of this kind must be inventive; we arm ourselves very quickly as readers; for combativeness to work, it must surprise us, throw us off guard. Too, there must be a sense of something more serious at work than simple misanthropy. Dobyns's confrontations are rooted in, fueled by, his insistence that we recognize our own taste for palatable falsehood, and, having recognized it, recognize its capacity to destroy feeling.

The diversity of Dobyns's scenarios has a second function (beyond what it accomplishes in service of tone), a function specifically connected to the obsessive core of his work. The story he tells, over and over, is the death of hope (or delusion), the death of innocence, an aspect of which becomes, through the endless variety of the poems' locales and circumstances, its omnipresence. By showing us the wall everywhere, the poems insist that we see it: the hope they hold out is not the false hope of evasion but the hope that there may be, after the devastations of accuracy, durable wisdom.

As contemporary prose fiction has grown more static, evolving mainly as exploration of voice or consciousness, it has grown less explicitly moral in its preoccupations. Perhaps more clearly than any other American poet, Dobyns knows why: as an artist driven by moral passions and imperatives, he sees that only narrative can adequately represent in art the insidious onset of harm. This is hardly the lyric's forte: with its commitment to the concluded, the archetypal, the timeless, the lyric can hardly hope to embody what is by definition both progressive and dramatic. Dobyns writes poems in which it is impossible to fix the turn, the moment: how do you say, in "Oatmeal Deluxe," when, in the elaborate comic turn that constitutes the poem's first, say, two-thirds, the red flag goes up? When the speaker turns to his lover, the point is already made, the poem has proven what is now asserted as self-evident, because it has been, as metaphor, richly enacted:

                         … You ask me
     why I don't love you, why you can't
     live with me. What can I tell you? If I
     can make a woman out of oatmeal, my friend,
     what trouble would I make for you, a woman?

That "Oatmeal Deluxe" would not be grouped among Dobyns's harrowing poems makes the structural point more tellingly. The poem parallels creation as invention with creation as self delusion: the woman in this poem cannot be spared suffering, but her insistence on self delusion will prolong that suffering, and complicate it. As the turn makes plain, she insists on seeing this confrontation as a conflict of will; the point, though, is that if she gets what she wants (a life with the speaker, the demonic creator) her suffering will begin in that life and culminate, after that life explodes, in a moment like the present moment, with the added bleakness of self accusation. Why hadn't she read the signs, why had she wasted so much time trying to effect impossible transformations? The alternative isn't freedom from pain, but the substitution of the pain that comes of facing truth for the prolonged pain of denial.

As in all the great Dobyns poems, it is possible to see, even at the level of the grammar, the single fascination Dobyns shares with Pinsky, a fascination with cause-and-effect. (In an interesting reversal of lyric, which freezes narrative into static archetypal configurations, Dobyns has dramatized this fascination in a book of poems based on paintings; The Balthus Poems construct, for that painter's riveting tableaus, dramas, story lines; they recreate the implications of stillness in a different, more volatile, contemplative mode.)

Under the poems warnings and chastisements and ferocities, there seems to me to be a core of deep tenderness, increasingly apparent. The turn at the end of "Oatmeal Deluxe," the direct address with its complex nuance, that phrase "my friend" has been more widely copied by young poets than any similar gesture by any poet in my generation. Ironic, distant, and yet informed also by helpless affection, the tribal affection of mortal for mortal, all of us flawed, doomed, embarked on courses of damaging affection, always ready to respond to Spanish music, in our foolish, desperate obsessions, all of us incipiently scarred. Dobyns's notion of the social is more immediate, more pressing than Pinsky's: he tracks damage; not surprising that among his myriad forms is the detective novel, the novel in which the self's collision with the world must, as a matter of form, involve punishable crime. But I think at bottom Dobyns means to spare and to save: the savagery of his poems is less a taunt than an intended deterrent. He is a poet appalled by human fate, appalled that what can be foreseen cannot be prevented.

My dictionary defines "moral" in a paragraph of ways, almost all of which unite the idea of character and the idea of action. In practical terms, it is difficult to separate the two; in life, character inevitably becomes behavior (though the translation is sometimes surprising and includes the various devices by which we try to avoid revealing ourselves—silence, withdrawal, and so on). Insofar as poets have been concerned with the moral they have tended to be concerned with the speaking of, and discerning of, truth; that poetry has not been preoccupied with the moral as it is transformed into and by gesture owes in part to poetry's treatment of the issue of time.

This has always been poetry's special province, a charged and resonant object. But the terms in which time is regarded have been absolute: death, age, the loss of love. Sequential time, that enacts itself in gesture (as opposed to ritual) has no place in the world of extremes and archetypes. It as remained, though, to be reclaimed for poetry by forms more imperfect and more expansive than the lyric, forms more interested in vicissitude and ramifications.

Certainly it is Pinsky's implicit subject. Time is what lies beyond history, surrounds it—"At Pleasure Bay" makes of time an envelope, an enclosure; time, like the poem, becomes that medium in which we are suspended, curiously free of gravity (this is different from lyric suspension, in that lyric time disdains or opposes history). In "At Pleasure Bay," the reiterated phrase, reintroduced at intervals in its multiple variations, that phrase is "never the same," while not exactly the same stands, in the poem, for that which recurs as sound and as gesture; it stands for recurrence even as it asserts the absence of perfect duplication. And time becomes like the physical universe, unknowable, infinite, shapely.

And for Dobyns, time is all gravity, irrevocable as Milton's fall but in slow motion, with error terrifyingly diffused. In Dobyns's time, nothing can be sustained, nothing is safe: the painful duration of a Dobyns poem is a protest against the fact of time even as, in its unfolding content, the poem embodies time's effects. Dobyns shares with the lyric a sense of the inescapable terminus; unlike the lyric, his poems simulate human guile and human labor, the endlessly poignant human attempt to avoid the end.

Ultimately, no attempt to distinguish narrative from lyric can depend simply on the presence of sequential action. Set aside the obvious objections to the inherently sequential language itself, whether written or spoken, which, in following sentence one with sentence two invokes or simulates chronology, so that even stationary outcry unfolds dramatically. Consider simply, visible or gestural action, of which there are, I think, two major types. When Apollo pursues Daphne and Daphne turns into a laurel tree something occurs that, despite its narrative structure, seems unmistakably the terrain of lyric: the story of Daphne enacts two states, linked by a hiatus of pursuit; it moves through time not as evolutionary unfolding but toward transformation, toward a condition independent of time, one thing or one state having become another. Said another way: when Daphne attains her true or ideal form, that transformation terminates action, time freezes into what the great lyric makes emblematic or paradigmatic and the lesser lyric makes merely pat. But emblem and paradigm are not the only forms by which the true, or eternal, or soulful can enter poetry. My use of the term narrative means to identify a type of art (or habit of mind) that seeks to locate in the endless unfolding of time not a still point but an underlying pattern or implication; it resists constriction and facile equations; it finds in shift and movement what lyric uses stopped time to manifest. Plainly, pattern cannot be inferred from two states or gestures; if pattern sketches in the paradigmatic, it doesn't do so by resisting mutation. It is precisely this relentless mobility that occurs in the work of both Dobyns and Pinsky, in the proliferating oatmeal shapes of "Oatmeal Deluxe" and in Pinsky's unstoppable river: an unfolding, a pattern, as opposed to the iconic stasis of which the laurel tree makes an example.

The glory of the lyric is that it does what life cannot do: this also means that it is less flexibly responsive to life, more defined by the poet's obsessions and associations. Over centuries, this can mean stagnation within the form, as the inventions of genius come to be stabilized, incorporated as norms. Neither Pinsky nor Dobyns has the look, on the page, of the cutting edge, the experimental: no showy contempt for grammar, no murky lacunae, no cult of illogic. And yet it seems to me that in the richest way, this is what they are: they enlarge the definition of the art.


Pinsky, Robert


Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 19)