Robert Pinsky

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Pinsky, Robert 1940–

Pinsky is an American poet and critic whose long poem, An Explanation of America, is an ambitious search for the meaning hidden in personal and national myths. Denis Donoghue sums up Pinsky's theory of poetry: "'Authentic clarity' is his criterion, and 'discursive statement' the most reliable way of satisfying it." Pinsky himself says, "A strong ambition in my poems has been to resist the general prejudice against abstract statement; the poems try to get at the profoundly emotional, obsessive side of such supposedly ordinary activities as playing tennis or watching passers-by from a parked car." (See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32.)

Charles Molesworth

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Robert Pinsky is a balanced critic, and furthermore he knows that merely avoiding the dangers of partisanship or scrupulosity can produce a limply, or even glibly, enervated criticism. Bored good will cannot provide a very satisfactory antidote for the failures of extremism.

One way Pinsky avoids extreme partisanship, intentionally or not, is by dealing with themes, motives, and styles [in The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions], rather than by discussing single poets in the overall reaches of their careers. Supplementing this approach, however, Pinsky has his favorites…. On the other hand, he manages not to be blinded by his scruples, since he uses the Romantic poets and their traditions as enlivening originators of "problems." He argues, for instance, that an "uneasy relation with one's own medium has led Romantic and post-Romantic poets to devise remarkable ways of writing, which might make language seem less abstract and less discursive. The poem has pursued the condition of a thing." The danger here, obviously, is that if poems are seen as attempts to solve perennial problems of epistemology or semantics, then how can a plodding contemporary poem truly differ from a great Romantic one? Or will we be forced to argue that a poem that unsuccessfully addresses a large problem is better than one that exclaims a smaller wonder with perfect elegance? Or if pursuit of "thinghood" is the desideratum, doesn't concrete poetry represent an acme? In the face of these questions Pinsky is the heir of I. A. Richards, say, and the whole tradition of literary criticism that prizes the polysemous, the multiple senses of wit and tone that tight structure and textured language set into motion. "My proposition," he says, "is that the difference between the dross and the vulgarization on the one hand, and genuine work on the other, is a sense of cost, misgiving, difficulty." The key word here, I think, is "misgiving," and Pinsky values few poets who don't exhibit at least some measure of self-deprecating irony.

To embody his disposition for the tentative, Pinsky has organized his book without regard to a central thesis, without the rubrics of schools or movements, and without a consistently structured literary-historical framework. (pp. 931-32)

If the book has one theme or motif or "problem" that centers Pinsky's attention, it is what he explores under the heading of the nominalist-realist dispute…. With this central philosophical issue as his over-riding concern, Pinsky declines any further theoretical commitment. He will often formulate his critical vocabulary as he goes along…. [Pinsky] is especially adept at the tacit dimension of language, the overtones and undercurrents set up by a poet-reader contract that rests on a complexly unstated convention of historical and emotional awareness.

His greatest critical advantage, however, stems from his ability to be precise about distinctions between aesthetic attributes that too often are allowed to blur, to the detriment of our comprehension and proper evaluation. (pp. 932-33)

Disposed as he is to value traditional modes...

(This entire section contains 1134 words.)

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of discourse, or at least shared philosophical perplexities, and the concomitant need to avoid stating too little or presuming too much, he often finds himself torn between the elliptical and the flat-footed statement. (p. 934)

Another major thrust of Pinsky's critical sensibility, besides his belief that "we learn many of our attitudes toward language and reality from the past," is his bias in favor of "sanity." This bias would correct the excesses of a "daffy or sinister absurdity" too easily arrived at, too readily promulgated. Beneath this bias is what Pinsky calls the "sensible, conservative idea of 'objectivity,'" and it leads him to this formulation:

A "sane" work of art … is one which accomplishes its meaning consciously. Otherwise the meaning is the reader's creation, the art a symptom; sanity in writing is the tonal adjustment that changes confession into character-making. Authentic clarity is the style's proof that the fiction is true: not a patient's tortured, oblique version of a dream, but the authoritative dream itself, naked and magisterial.

"Tonal adjustment" by itself might produce mere equivocation or ambiguity for ambiguity's sake, and proof that "the fiction is true" is often found more in shared cultural and mythical frameworks than in any "naked" claim. And without a coherent, shared set of values, without in some sense a centering authority, can we ever hope for more than "the patient's tortured, oblique version" of individual truth? And can making a secular religion out of the tradition of the high Romantic style be a lasting solution to this problem, one that tacitly underlies all the other problems of poetry? Pinsky is not offering himself as a priest in such a religion, but the larger questions remain, raised by the seriousness of his approach. One might applaud Pinsky's ideal, but also see that achieving it is difficult, and demonstrating its validity and dispersing its strengths more arduous still.

Pinsky, no doubt, is aware of the dangers of his own non-theoretical, diffident "anti"-method, and is probably also aware that it rests on many cultural assumptions. (The passage on sanity, for example, clearly owes something to the heritage of Freudianism in our culture, and might easily be mistaken for an instance of "the triumph of the therapeutic.") But his book is valuable because of its generosity, its willingness to be an exercise in taste, but not only that, for it is also an essay in historical understanding and semantic clarity…. [He] is "in touch" in the best sense with the interesting work of "younger" poets. As a critic, Pinsky resembles a blend of Thomas Edwards and Geoffrey Hartman, and one could speculate that his tutelary spirits, at war with one another or at least in an uneasy truce, are William Empson and Yvor Winters. His mind is discursive, but his ear is allusive. And it is praiseworthy that he mistrusts "the kind of bland philosophizing about death and so forth which blights the practice of literary criticism" (especially if I hear his tone right, and stress "bland"). He can also be deft and comic…. (pp. 935-36)

Pinsky did not set out to write a definitive book, for he values the continuing development of the contemporary situation, as well as its rootedness in the past. What he has given us, instead of the account of a soul among masterpieces, is a balanced testing by a mind attentive to both the jewels and the lingua franca of our shared, yet distinctive, speakings. Given the pluralistic state of our poetry (and the jumbled social values it builds on), Pinsky's approach remains appropriate. He has avoided the trap of bored good will, but he has also foregone the strengths of enthusiasm. (p. 936)

Charles Molesworth, "Book Reviews: 'The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1977, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 931-36.

Denis Donoghue

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The mind at work in "The Situation of Poetry" is lively, fresh and critical without being obsessed by the rigor of criticism…. Immensely well-read in contemporary poetry, Pinsky moves among those poems on the assumption that traditional themes are still valid. He believes, and is pleased to show, that contemporary poetry exhibits more continuity than change…. According to his sense of life and literature, the important things do not change, presumably because he identifies the important things as those that do not change. (pp. 6, 14)

So for Pinsky the basic procedures of poetry are still in office: description, meditation, statement, predication, the logic of consequence. Circumstances remain pretty much the same, and perhaps "the range of emotional responses to the subject have not varied much, either—though the stylistic responses have varied, enormously." I am not convinced by the logic of that sentence, incidentally, but Pinsky does not argue things at length.

Deliberately old-fashioned in his criticism, Pinsky writes like an unregenerate theologian insisting upon the validity of Natural Law. The source of his Natural Law is not the axiom of Being but the human predicament which he announces, several times, as that of conscious life in an unconscious world, of men and women confronting a mute universe. The attitudes to this predicament are likely to be few and continuous. But we are compelled to ask Pinsky: are we merely deluded, then, in finding some poems radically different, formally discontinuous?

On a statistical count, Pinsky is clearly right to maintain that contemporary poetry shows more continuity than change…. Why not settle for the probability of continuity while secretly fearing or longing for change, a formula as ecumenical as anything I can devise?…

Generally, his comments are brief, vivid, distinct without claiming finality, and his taste is excellent. (p. 14)

Denis Donoghue, "The Mind of a Critic: 'The Situation of Poetry'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 20, 1977, pp. 6, 14.

Blake Morrison

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[An Explanation of America] is not quite so presumptuous as it sounds. If an explanation of America is to be had from it at all, it's not one that can be quickly grasped. This is just as well: when Pinsky does allow himself some fairly explicit analysis of contemporary America—on Vietnam: 'I think it made our country older, forever'—he can sound bland and complacent. For the most part, though, the poem is about the difficulty of explaining America: knowing that the notions of 'country' and 'place' are problematic ones …, Pinsky instead turns his attention on 'a place where you and I have never been / And need to imagine', using dreams, images and historical comparisons as a way towards reaching provisional and personal conclusions about what America means. Long ambitious poems of this order often dissolve into fragments, but Pinsky's is held together firstly by the presence of a 'you', the poet's daughter, to whom the poem is addressed (Yeats's 'A Prayer for My Daughter' seems to have been in mind as a model), and secondly through the constancy of the poet's unemphatic but distinctive voice. (p. 473)

Blake Morrison, "On Display," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2532, September 28, 1979, pp. 472-73.∗

John Fuller

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[Robert Pinsky's] An Explanation of America is perhaps rather less interesting than his earlier work: the air of infinitely calm and insidious rumination riding upon effortlessly digested commonplaces now has an occasionally ponderous air, lapsing too easily into boring prosiness…. Pinsky shows off his essayist side in this long poem …, his skill with the ordinary or with niceties of personal relationships in abeyance for a while. His virtues include the ability to construct a large-scale edifice of meaning and feeling without the need to cast quasi-heroic attitudes. It is this modesty of procedure which allows him, in the centre of the poem, to weigh Brutus, with Horace, political action and retirement, and he does so with a real sense of open options and meditative ease. (p. 66)

John Fuller, "2: The Americans," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4008, January 18, 1980, pp. 65-6.∗

Michael Hamburger

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Not the least remarkable thing about Robert Pinsky's remarkable [An Explanation of America] is that it seems to defy not only all the dominant trends in contemporary poetry but all the dominant notions—both American and non-American—of what is to be expected of an American poet. The very title looks and sounds like a provocative anachronism, reminiscent as it is of Pope's An Essay on Man. As for "explanation," the long-established dogma is that poetry does not and must not explain anything, that its business is to enact, to show—"no ideas but in things"—to move, in more than one sense of the word, "not to mean but be"; and wherever twentieth-century American poetry serves as a model to non-Americans, as it does in many parts of the world, what is imitated or emulated is its vitalism, its immediacy, its instantaneousness….

[Robert Pinsky] is well aware of all this, and of the great risk he has taken. In a comment printed on the blurb of his first collection, Sadness and Happiness, he wrote of his "strong ambition … to resist the general prejudice against abstract statement … I would like to write a poetry which could contain every kind of thing, while keeping all the excitement of poetry." His new long poem—long not so much in the number of words or lines it comprises as in the time span it covers and the time needed to take it in—does "contain every kind of thing"; but those in whom the prejudice is powerful may well find it lacking in "the excitement of poetry."… Pinsky has chosen a basically iambic, but colloquial, unrhetorical, flexible blank verse pentameter less close to Pope than to the Wordsworth of the Excursion and Prelude; a kind of verse that even admirers of early Wordsworth found lacking in excitement, dynamism and immediacy…. (p. 86)

To do what he needed to do, Robert Pinsky had to take the risk of seeming to defy and to provoke current prejudices and conventions; but his real quarrel, like every true poet's, was one with himself…. [In An Explanation of America a father watches] his daughter ride "a horse called Yankee" around the ring. All the details … are quite ordinary and specific—quite as vivid, too, as anyone could expect to find in poems of merely momentary and individual experience—but somehow the incident grows into an allegory, gathering significance from the framework of the entire poem and its search for the meaning of America.

Because this meaning, as it emerges from the poem as a whole, is also contrary to dominant notions and prejudices—for instance, the notion that Americans are not interested in the past, that "history is bunk" and that anything beyond one's immediate awareness is "irrelevant"—Pinsky's seemingly anachronistic meter serves his difficult and subtle purpose by slowing down the movement of his poem, slowing down our response to any part of it, and preventing us from jumping to premature conclusions. (pp. 86-7)

Since Pinsky's search is one for a more than personal truth, and he is wary of a facile self-assertiveness, his poem's message is rarely clinched, for all the seemingly "abstract" statement. So the "explanation" of the title, too, is charged with ambiguity and tension…. Throughout the poem there is a fine balance between explanation and enactment, generalities and particulars of the most homely, everyday sort. The poet even includes a justification for his hope—amounting to a faith without which this poem could never have been written—that his daughter will be able to make sense of a poem that ranges from the Brownies to one of Horace's Epistles, translated, adapted and explained in relation to the poem's search for the meaning of America!… It is by an accumulation of what prejudice would regard as disparate material—familiar or farfetched, with an obvious or oblique bearing on America's past, present and future—that something like an explanation is arrived at; but the America of this poem remains

So large, and strangely broken, and unforeseen….

[Many] years were spent on the poem's composition. Those years were well spent. But for an extraordinary patience and discrimination, Robert Pinsky could never have brought off a poem that holds so much in delicate equipoise. (p. 87)

Michael Hamburger, "Ideas in Things, Things in Ideas," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 230, No. 3, January 26, 1980, pp. 86-7.

James Finn Cotter

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In its philosophical approach, classical learning, and orderly structure, [An Explanation of America] resembles the work of William Cullen Bryant more than that of Hart Crane, but it is not old fashioned. It is as American as Bryant's and Crane's long poems, as embedded in the past, and as identified with the woods and prairies. Does America have an explanation? More basically, Pinsky says, we need to ask: Is there a country to explain? Yes, but not out there: in our own imaginations and dreams, in the unconscious Self made conscious by poetry which gives to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. In fact, Pinsky finds the paradigm for his poem in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale which he calls "A Romance of implausible rebirths." The definition applies to America where the old world serves as womb for the new: Greece and Rome, England, Spain, and Russia serve their ingredients into Pinsky's pot. He is too modest to pretend his poem to be an epic; instead, he writes it as a letter to his daughter who by happy chance plays a part in a school revival of The Winter's Tale. Images reappear repeatedly in the mirror, past into present, public to private, concrete to universal…. He directs his explanation through local history and landscapes, generations on the land and in cities, in their waking and dreaming life. (pp. 144-45)

We must be "naked, free, and final" to frame words "as if speaking from the past/Into the void or mystery of the future." Pinsky come close to fulfilling the ideal himself when, at the close, the poem itself recedes into the past, having offered for our quiet reading a work very much like the country it explains, "not a mystic home/But something—if it must be imaginary—/Chosen from life, and useful." Something we look for in all the poetry we read. (p. 145)

James Finn Cotter, "Poetry, Ego and Self," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1980 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 131-45.∗

David Kalstone

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It may be, as William Carlos Williams observed, that "the pure products of America go crazy." But Robert Pinsky in his ambitious and immensely likable long poem, "An Explanation of America," sets out to counter that impression by imagining a being capable of living sanely among American dreams of speed and space…. The tone of the poem, blank verse throughout, is inquiring and grave, though what one remembers are the opportunities it gives the father to play through a repertory of American fantasies from "Deep Throat" through dreams of plenty or solitude…. Mr. Pinsky's is a salutary tightrope act. Teaching his child to live among the detritus and accidental grandeurs of American life, he is himself at times seduced by the betrayed lyric visions behind the chaos….

Mr. Pinsky's boldest stroke is to place among his exhibits his own fine translation of the whole of Horace's famous epistle which asks "Who is 'the good man'?" It sits well in a poem concerned with how to live under an empire….

Horace was the poet of transitions, never dividing common from heroic, a master of alternatives because he was a master of all levels of style and speech. This is Mr. Pinsky's strategy in "An Explanation of America" and it most often works. He will follow out one of the national myths expansively, admiringly, adopting its diction, but pursuing it as well to its bitter consequences…. We are all deadened by … pointless violence, and that is Mr. Pinsky's ultimate concern: the tincture, the erosion of American expectation and response….

Still, the poem touches its highest point in reminding his daughter not only of possibilities but of something as potent as Wallace Stevens's vocabulary of poverty and change…. This is the poet at his elegiac best, in a poem which—a rare thing—seems to combine intimacy and authority. (p. 15)

David Kalstone, "A Repertory of American Fantasies," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1980, pp. 15, 43.∗

Stephen Yenser

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[In An Explanation of America Pinsky] organizes rigorously: a brief prefatory lyric and a concluding dedicatory elegy frame the title poem, fifty-five pages long, which divides into three parts ("Its Many Fragments," "Its Great Emptiness," "Its Everlasting Possibility"), each of which has four titled sections. The twelve sections give him an "epic" arrangement and might make us think of Milton, although Pinsky, unfashionably and polemically, sees America not as a paradise lost but as the old New World.

He means his title's audacity to give way to exactness…. Moreover, explanations can be "True or false." He never quite points out that "explanation" means "to open out, to spread out flat," but he might have. To put it one way, Pinsky levels with us. His vocabulary is large and varied but never arcane. His figures illustrate or carry forth arguments rather than lay claim to a unique sensibility. His carefully composed sentences never stray very far from the syntax of good conversation, and they need to be reread not for comprehension but for admiration of their lucidity. This heightened plain style seems as "Garrulous, prosy" in its way as his daughter's style in her essays, which he proudly characterizes in his first section…. To put all this another way consonant with the word "explanation," he unfolds and spreads out his own clearly delineated map of the country's diverse, contradictory qualities. He does so leisurely and efficiently, smoothing away wrinkles here and there even as he introduces some new wrinkle, itself to be ironed out later. (pp. 115-16)

He gives one the impression that he has any amount of territory in which to expatiate, amplify, and invent. As he makes clear later, however, he also welcomes boundaries, and his carefully measured blank verse in [some of his lines] tells us that as well. He has something in common with the carefree Brownie Leader in the … lively description of his daughter's square dance lesson: she smiles and skips through the dance, and he varies his pentameter, especially by means of that terminal anapest, until it lilts. But he must also recognize himself in another Leader, "her face exalted / By something like a passion after order."

This square dance introduces a pervasive, unobtrusive analogy. The two Leaders embody conflicting impulses within the country as well as within the verse; and if, with its "homestitched formations," the dance resembles the United States, it also resembles the poem, the unity of which depends partly on "Varying repetitions" like those in the music—as the reticulation of "idea," "children," and "explaining" in the opening lines suggests…. His manner often reminds me of those phrases in Chopin, as described by Proust, so free and flexible, which wander far from their points of departure and indulge apparently whimsical digressions only to come back to their appointed places with all the more precision. This sort of development occurs often within individual sections…. [In "Serpent Knowledge" Pinsky starts] with one detail in a zoology lesson, [and moves] across the country and back, and back and forth through centuries, and by the time he reprises the original idea, the snake with the inwardly expanding horizon has become both Leviathan and any individual citizen. Even while worrying that he cannot use certain words, including "Vietnam," because they threaten to "swallow and enclose the poem," he has made the poem a kind of serpent that can swallow anything.

In a sense it even swallows itself. "Serpent Knowledge" has its tail in its mouth…. [In "Braveries" he] tells the story of the child being born during the siege of Saguntum who looked out at the horror awaiting him and retreated to the womb to die. This legend provokes reflections on the Zero Population Growth movement, whose aim contravenes the typical American "Denial of limit" and yet expands the country's potential precisely by embracing limitation. Trying to explain his sense of this country's bounded limitlessness, he resorts to the image of a girl learning to ride, whose circular progress around the ring makes "The goods of all the world seem possible" to her adoring father. These passages lead into this section's climax, with its characteristically casual puns on "born" and "goods"—and its characteristically optimistic attitude…. It is as though he were suggesting that countries die (as Alcemon said of people) because they cannot join their ends and their beginnings and that it need not be so here. As at other points in the poem, one begins to wonder whether his explanation has not surrendered to his rhetoric. It is one thing for "Braveries" to "be born backward" and another thing for America. Echoing Gatsby's conclusion in order to correct it, these lines must nonetheless remind us of the relevance of Fitzgerald's skepticism.

But Pinsky has been there before us, and his optimism rarely narrows into naive patriotism. For one thing, just as its parts compel us to examine it as a whole—for the poem coheres in much the way that each section does, so that to pull out one strand of associations is eventually to unravel this entire "cloth / Cut shimmering from conventions of the dead"—so this explanation of America keeps turning into an explanation of the world at large…. Moreover, Pinsky's version of the American dream is shrewdly self-conscious, especially in his conclusion, where he takes the risk of letting his view of the country's future fade into the outcome of The Winter's Tale, in a college production of which his daughter played Mammilius…. [He] adopts this happy ending in the face of the realization that it "affronts belief." He even sketches the alternative conclusion, one prompted by fear rather than hope and presided over by the mountains, with their "cold and motionless remove." The more he ponders that grimmer possibility, however, the more he must acknowledge the instinct that romance formulates, the instinct that will reproduce "New Hope," if need be, even "on some stage/As bare and rarefied as the coldest mountain."… [In] the end he pays homage, not just to this country, but to the human spirit, the ineradicable "passion to make new beginnings." It is this admirable poem's final paradox that its eminently lucid "explanation" leads to an affirmation of "an authority transcending power / Or even belief." (pp. 116-19)

Stephen Yenser, "Recent Poetry: Five Poets," in The Yale Review (© 1980 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 70, No. 1, Autumn, 1980, pp. 105-28.∗

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