Robert Pinsky Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 121) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7384 words.)

James Longenbach (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6313 words.)

Robert Pinsky (essay date March-April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5813 words.)

Katha Pollitt (review date 18 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 1332 words.)

Ralph Blumenthal (essay date 28 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

Elizabeth Mehren (essay date 10 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Louise Glück (essay date July-August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.

(The entire section is 68 words.)