Robert Pinsky Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,"...

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