Robert Pinsky Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 121)

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(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...

(The entire section is 28,920 words.)