Robert Pinsky 1940–
American poet, nonfiction writer, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Pinsky's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 19, and 38.
Pinsky's poetry is noted for its combination of vivid imagery and clear, discursive language that explores such themes as truth, the history of nations and individuals, and the transcendent aspects of seemingly simple acts. Pinsky strives to create an organized view of the world, often confronting and trying to explain the past so as to bring order to the present. Recurring subjects in his work include the Holocaust, religion, and childhood. Pinsky's moral tone and mastery of poetic meter are often compared to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English poets, and the insights conveyed in his analytical works on poetry have caused critics to place him in the tradition of such other poet-critics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. Pinsky is also an accomplished translator, and his version of the first part of Dante Alighieri's Commedia (c. 1307–c. 1314), The Inferno of Dante (1994), has earned high praise and numerous awards.
Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, a once-famous ocean resort that was decaying by the time of Pinsky's birth. The ethnic makeup of Long Branch was Jewish and Italian, with the resort serving as a summer home for several Mafia families. Pinsky's grandfather had been a bootlegger during Prohibition and owned the local tavern; his father had an established optometric practice. The family, as a result, enjoyed a measure of local prestige and Pinsky was known to many in town; he had, he has said, a kind of "aristocratic upbringing." Although he was not an accomplished student in school, Pinsky attended Rutgers University, where he formed friendships with a group of budding young writers and poets who published work in the school's journal, The Anthologist. Shunning creative writing programs, these students considered their apprenticeships as artists to be outside the domain of school and teachers' judgements. After graduating from Rutgers, Pinsky entered Stanford University, where he studied with the noted poet, critic, and teacher Yvor Winters and earned a Ph.D in 1966. The publication of Sadness and Happiness (1975), Pinsky's first volume of poetry, was followed by The Situation of Poetry (1976), an exploration of poetic language in the works of several of Pinsky's contemporaries. Pinsky has also collaborated on translations of Czeslaw Milosz's poetry and on a computerized novel called Mindwheel (1985). He has held a variety of teaching posts, and has been the poetry editor of The New Republic since 1978.
Pinsky's two volumes of critical poetic theory—The Situation of Poetry and Poetry and the World (1988)—articulate his belief in linguistic clarity as the means to expanding the boundaries of poetic expression. Sadness and Happiness contains both long and short poems but is noted in particular for the seventeen-page "Essay on Psychiatrists." Offering a variety of literary and cultural references, the poem is said to typify Pinsky's use of discursive poetic forms. Similarly, in the book length poem An Explanation of America (1979), one of Pinsky's most ambitious and admired works, the poet teaches his daughter about the past so that she may shape her future. The title poem in History of My Heart (1984) is an autobiographical narrative on memory and desire which draws on many of Pinsky's childhood, adolescent, and adult experiences. In The Want Bone (1990) he employs a pastiche technique characterized by overt word play in order to symbolize and examine the lust for life and the desire for sensual experience. The volume includes mock Biblical stories on the childhood of Jesus and an extended prose section in which Jesus, in disguise, enters the story of Tristan and Isolde in order to learn about love. The Inferno of Dante is an English translation of the first part of Dante's three-part poetic work Commedia. The Inferno follows Dante and the Roman poet Virgil as they descend and explore the nine levels of Hell, where sinners eternally suffer torments that reflect their sins in life; for example, as Edward Hirsch noted, in Inferno "sin is literalized: those who succumbed to anger tear perpetually at one another's naked bodies; gluttons wallow in putrid soil and get chewed by Cerberus; murderers boil in a river of blood." To give the narrative a nearly physical sense of spiraling descent, Dante created the terza rima rhyme scheme. Terza rima is made up of tercets, three-line stanzas linked by the rhyming pattern a b a / b c b / d c d etc. Because terza rima is integral to the poetic character of Inferno, Pinsky's translation simulates the pattern by using "slant-rhymes," a scheme based on like-sounding consonants at the ends of lines in each tercet. Pinsky also attempts to preserve Dante's intended meanings by expanding on or compressing what a literal translation of the Italian would render.
Pinsky is often praised for his grasp of traditional metrical forms and his ability to evoke timeless meaning within the strictures of contemporary idioms. Critics applaud Pinsky's ability to imbue simple images—a Brownie troop square dance, cold weather, the music of Fats Waller—with underlying meaning to create order out of the accidental events people encounter in their lives. Critics admire Pinsky's ambitiousness, his juxtaposition of the personal with the universal, the present with the past, the simple with the complex. Critics note that his intellectual style presents challenges to readers, obliging them to unravel the complexity behind the clarity of language and imagery. Regarding his translation of Dante, while most critics applaud the readability of Pinsky's version and praise his evocation of Dante's "vulgar eloquence," a few commentators suggest that the phrasing in places remains stilted and that his slant-rhymes do not convey the "momentum" of the original terza rima. Nevertheless, most critics agree with Hirsch that The Inferno of Dante maintains "the original's episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character," and that "Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante's vernacular music where many others have failed."