Robert Pinsky Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 19)

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(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 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 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...

(The entire section is 4,393 words.)