Robert Pinsky Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 94) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Landor's Poetry (essays) 1968
Sadness and Happiness (poetry) 1975
The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions (essays) 1976
An Explanation of America (poetry) 1979
History of My Heart (poetry) 1984
Poetry and the World (poetry and essays) 1988
The Want Bone (poetry) 1990
The Inferno of Dante [translator] (poetry) 1994

Stephen Corey (review date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of History of My Heart, in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 213-14.

[Corey is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review, a portion of which appeared in CLC-38, he praises Pinsky for the depth of his insights and for not succumbing to sentimentality as he offers hopeful "assertions" about the human condition.]

The rhythms of Robert Pinsky's work are characterized by a graceful sheen and ease that some readers have taken as an indication of a moral naïveté or indifference or even flippancy; he has been thought too decorous, too much the aesthete, for our difficult age. But his caring and wisdom run deep, and the quiet tones of his poems only lay a delicate skin over the abyss he has seen too well. Apparently, he finds the lullings and liftings of music to be among the only stays sufficiently strong for our bleak confusions: "The world, random, / Is so real, it is as if our own / Good or bad luck were here only / As a kind of filler, holding together / Just that much of the adjacent / Splendor and terror."

One way to bend the luck, to try to steer the random for a moment, is by making memory work hard enough—driving it down to the specific places and names in our histories. Sometimes the drive leads to terror, as in "The Unseen" [from History of My Heart], a poem about visiting the "monument" of a concentration camp. While there, Pinsky recalls that he has daydreamed about achieving a Lear-like vengeance upon the Nazis by roaming the camps invisibly: "At first I savor my mastery / Slowly by creating small phantom diversions, / Then kill kill kill kill, a detailed and strangely / Passionless inward movie."

Other times,...

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Roger Mitchell (review date January 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of History of My Heart, in Poetry, Vol. CXLVII, No. 4, January, 1986, pp. 236-38.

[Mitchell is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review, he praises Pinsky's poetic ambitions and the combination of "boldness" and "restraint" in the poems in History of My Heart.]

Three short poems in History of My Heart, called "Three on Luck," are written so convincingly in the rhythms and phrases of contemporary speech that, next to the others in the book, they sound like poems in dialect. Beside them the rest seem formal and ornate. They are also the only poems in the book spoken by someone other than Pinsky, or the person we take...

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Anthony Libby (review date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rat-Rhymers, Shit-Burners, Transformation, and Grandpa Dave," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 140-45.

[Libby is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from a review in which he examines Pinsky's Poetry and the World and Terrence Des Pres's Praises and Dispraises, Politics and Poetry, the 20th Century (1988), he discusses the ways in which Pinsky addresses political matters in the reviews and essays collected in the volume.]

There is evidence of a measure of [American poetic] self-censorship in the cyclical uproar about the question of the relationship between poetry and politics, which...

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John L. Brown (review date Autumn 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Poetry and the World, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn, 1989, pp. 751-52.

[In the following favorable review of Poetry and the World, Brown summarizes Pinsky's main critical points and contends that the book's most interesting pieces are the ones which relate memories of Pinsky's childhood and family.]

[Poetry and the World is a] mixed salad indeed, but one which is deftly tossed and agreeably seasoned. Robert Pinsky flings into the bowl the most varied ingredients: recollections of his youth in Long Branch, New Jersey; a commentary on some passages of Isaiah memorized for his Bar Mitzvah; an account of his trip...

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Paul Breslin (review date August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry, Criticism, and the World," in Poetry, Vol. CLVI, No. 5, August, 1990, pp. 297-308.

[Breslin is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt from a review of Pinsky's Poetry and the World and J. D. McClatchy's White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry (1989), he describes the former as "essential," even though "it promises more 'world' than it delivers."]

In Poetry and the World and White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry, two well-known poets present selections of their essays. Robert Pinsky has already written two prose books, one of which, The Situation of Poetry, has been widely and...

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J. D. McClatchy (review date 24 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shapes of Desire," in The New Republic, Vol. 203, No. 13, September 24, 1990, pp. 46-8.

[McClatchy is an American poet, critic, and educator whose books of poetry include The Rest of the Way (1990). In the following review of The Want Bone, he concludes that Pinsky writes "poems as spirited and weighty, eloquent and startling, as any poet of his generation."]

Two years ago Robert Pinsky published a vigorous and engaging collection of essays called Poetry and the World. Harvested from a decade's work, it was a miscellaneous group: autobiographical sketches, meditations on the Bible and on political attitudes, reviews of recent books, a pair...

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Alfred Corn (review date October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Want Bone, in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 1, October, 1990, pp. 39-41.

[Corn is an American poet, critic, translator, and educator. In the following highly positive review of The Want Bone, he lauds Pinsky for his "wonderful ear for poetic line" and the ways in which he examines the theme of "human wishes and the obstacles to them."]

Readers of Robert Pinsky's first two books hailed him as a new W. C. Williams, gifted at transforming the dailiness of life into a significant poetry. Realism and narrative characterized those books and continued even into the third, at least in the long title poem, "The History of My Heart." With the...

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Don Bogen (review date 17 December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Running with the Ball," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 251, No. 21, December 17, 1990, pp. 780-82.

[In the following positive review of The Want Bone, Bogen hails Pinsky's ability to incorporate a multitude of images, motifs, and styles into his poetry without dissipating his main thematic concerns.]

With its blunt rhythm, clumsy double "n"s and "aw" sound followed by long "o," the title of Robert Pinsky's new book [The Want Bone] is a mouthful. Say it aloud and you can hear the echo of baby talk. Want-bone, want-bone—when the image is defined a few pages into the volume, the infantile overtones seem grimly appropriate. What could be more primal...

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James McCorkle (review date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Contemporary Poetics and History: Pinsky, Klepfisz, and Rothenberg," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 171-88.

[In the following excerpt from a review in which he examines Pinsky's The Want Bone, Irena Klepfisz's A Few Words in the Mother Tongue (1990), and Jerome Rothenberg's Khurbn, and Other Poems (1989), McCorkle discusses the ways in which Pinsky engages public and political issues in his poetry.]

Typical of discussions of poetry and politics, and the larger domain of history, is a sense of the necessity or decorum to maintain a division between poetry and the other two areas. The popularization of Adorno's...

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Robert Pinsky (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dante's Canto XXV: Among the Thieves, A Note and a Translation," in Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, Summer, 1994, pp. 18-25.

[In the following essay, Pinsky discusses the theme of horror in Canto XXV of The Inferno. Pinsky also presents his translation of the Canto, demonstrating how he handles Dante's terza rima rhyme scheme.]

The remarkable physical details of Inferno XXV suggest the idea that Dante invented horror.

The notion of horror as we know it from fiction or the movies involves detailed, uncanny transformation of the human body, with erotic and moral overtones: the overwhelmed stare of the zombie;...

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John Ahern (review date 1 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Inferno of Dante, in The New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1995, pp. 3, 21.

[Ahern is an American educator and noted Dante scholar. In the following favorable review of The Inferno of Dante, he discusses the difficulties of rendering into English Dante's "vulgar eloquence" and his polyphony of narrative voices.]

Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended Dante's Commedia as the textbook to teach the young the art of writing well: "Dante knew how to throw the weight of his body into each act…. I find him full of the nobil volgare eloquenza; that he knows 'God damn,' and can be rowdy if he please, and he does...

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Edward Hirsch (review date 23 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Fresh Hell," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 46, January 23, 1995, pp. 87-90.

[Hirsch is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review, he favorably assesses The Inferno of Dante, contending that Pinsky's translation is "fast-paced, idiomatic, and accurate."]

The journey into the underworld is one of the most obsessively recurring stories of the Western imagination. Something in us thrills to the metaphor of a hero descending into the bowels of the earth, into the region of demons and lost souls, and escaping to tell the tale. Greek mythology is filled with such fabulous descents: a Thracian minstrel (Orpheus) sings so poignantly...

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Diane Jean Schemo (essay date 31 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bringing Dante Into the Realm of Contemporary English," in The New York Times, January 31, 1995, pp. C13-C14.

[In the following essay, Schemo discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Pinsky's translation. She also reports on Pinsky's reaction to the attention The Inferno of Dante has received.]

It was not a late-born obsession with evil or the ways of damnation that drove Robert Pinsky to translate Dante's Inferno, the 14th-century poet's odyssey through hell. Rather, it was the challenge of tackling the first slice of the Divine Comedy, perhaps the greatest poem ever written. The Inferno had been rendered into English a hundred...

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Larry Kart (review date 12 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "When Pinsky Met Dante: A Modern Poet Enters the Inferno," in Chicago Tribune-Books, February 12, 1995, pp. 5, 8.

[In the following review of The Inferno of Dante, Kart compares Pinsky's translation with that of C. H. Sisson, finding Pinsky's inferior.]

Robert Pinsky (The Want Bone, History of My Heart, An Explanation of America, etc.) is a major American poet and a nearly unique one. Casting about through the literary past, the sole English-language poet who bears much resemblance to him is the too-little-known Elizabethan master Fulke Greville, whose verse, like Pinsky's, can be at once urgently plainspoken and remarkably virtuosic,...

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