Robert Pinsky

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Stephen Corey (review date Spring 1985)

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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, terror softens to profound sadness, as in "The Questions": with a sympathy reminiscent of Philip Levine's in The Names of the Lost, Pinsky returns to the stream of adults who moved through his childhood in his father's office: "I want for them not to have died in awful pain, friendless. / Though many of the living are starving, I still pray for these, / Dead, mostly anonymous (but Mr. Monk, Mrs. Rose Vogel) / And barely remembered: that they had a little extra, something / For pleasure, a good meal, a book…."

And for Pinsky, there are even times when splendor wins out—really wins, except for that tinge of sadness whose emergence from all things is the only certainty we have. In the long title poem, Pinsky offers a believable hope and innocence almost extinct in serious American poetry of this century. Across some two hundred lines, he confronts and defeats constant threats of sentimentality as he explores the minutiae of autobiography, searching for what can only be called a theory of desire. Early in "History of My Heart," Pinsky says that "happiness needs a setting," and nearly all of the poem is devoted to providing this—from his mother's early stories of life before his birth, on up through his own memories of infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

The poem culminates with a dozen lines of assertion, just the kind of proselytizing that poets often try to shun. But on the strength and beauty of what he has already said, and of these closing lines themselves, Pinsky carries his poem beyond fashion and proscription. With a dazzling mixture of images and dictions, he recalls his teenage days as a saxophonist, thinking how sometimes "I felt / My heart following after a...

(This entire section contains 738 words.)

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capacious form, / Sexual and abstract, in the thunk, thrum, / Thrum, come-wallow and then a little screen / Of quicker notes goosing to a fifth higher, winging / To clang-whomp of a major seventh: listen tome / Listen to me, the heart says in reprise until sometimes / In the course of giving itself it flows out of itself / All the way across the air, in a music piercing / As the kids at the beach calling from the water Look, / Look at me, to their mothers, but out of itself, into / The listener the way feeling pretty or full of erotic revery / Makes the one who feels seem beautiful to the beholder / Witnessing the idea of the giving of desire—nothing more wanted / Than the little singing notes of wanting—the heart / Yearning further into giving itself into the air, breath / Strained into song emptying the golden bell it comes from, / The pure source poured altogether out and away."


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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."

Roger Mitchell (review date January 1986)

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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 to be Pinsky. The older poet in "Three on Luck" says, "'Don't squander the success of your first book; / Now that you have a little reputation, / Be patient until you've written one as good.'" By contrast, "The Unseen" ends with a passage of old-fashioned rhetoric which does what I imagine rhetoric has always done, i.e., compress thought and feeling in an expansion of syntax and locution:

                                     … we have        No shape, we are poured out like water, but still        We try to take in what won't be turned from in despair:        As if, just as we turned toward the fumbled drama        Of the religious art shop window to accuse you [God]        Yet again, you were to slit open your red heart        To show us at last the secret of your day and also,        Because it also is yours, of your night.

I swore I would not use Pinsky's excellent book of criticism, The Situation of Poetry, in reviewing his poetry, but the first thing I want to say about it is said there too well: "There is a temptation to see much of modern poetry's history as a series of strategies for retaining or recovering the elevation of Victorian diction." Pinsky's strategy for doing this seems to be his own. He mixes rhetoric with a quiet, uninflected, undramatic language, one that I associate with Ashbery, as though ordinary language and experience had to be present in the poem in all their ordinariness to make the poem legitimate. Pinsky is not photographing mental experience, as Ashbery often seems to be, but rendering carefully conceived poems, indeed statements on life, in a surreptitious manner.

This is not to say that he lacks ambition for his poems. The person who titles his books An Explanation of America, Sadness and Happiness, and History of My Heart is aiming high. The poems often have a similar grandiosity, a need to summarize and signify experience, which makes the interest in Victorian diction understandable. The deflated, almost boring, contemporary speech with which it is mixed anchors the poem and keeps it from drifting too far out to sea. In "The Street," for example, we have patches of prose like this:

       Once a stranger drove off in a car        With somebody's wife,        And he ran after them in his undershirt        And threw his shoe at the car.

"The Street" begins, however, with a self-conscious, elaborated image written in an elevated diction:

       Streaked and fretted with effort, the thick        Vine of the world, red nervelets        Coiled at its tips.        All roads lead from it.

The verbless first sentence is almost stagey, but it indicates Pinsky's grand design. As the poem says at the end, in another flourish of rhetoric:

       Nothing was too ugly or petty or terrible        To be weighed in the immense        Silver scales of the dead: the looming        Balances set right onto the live, dangerous        Gray bark of the street.

Pinsky's aim in this book, as I've indicated, is not slight. He wishes to find and, if not find, to give point to the pointless sprawl of existence. The book opens with "The Figured Wheel," a poem that rolls all of creation up, as it were, into one ball, where everything is "figured and prefigured in the nothing-transfiguring wheel." "The Living" tries the impossible, namely, to find "glory" in the randomness of existence: "… the most miserable // Find in the mere daylight and air / A miraculous daily bread." If that seems too wilful or banal, the poem ends with a more measured, but no less comprehensive, statement in its final image: "this impenetrable haze, this prolonged / But not infinite surfeit of glory."

I like the boldness of the best of these poems, as well as the attempt to praise. The restraint in the praise seems justified, too, considering the atrocities we commit daily. Today, poets are apt to look for what matters in what comes their way. Poems of overt will and design are viewed sceptically. Pinsky may have found a way to hold these incompatible things together, just as he holds "the boredom and the glory" together.

Principal Works

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

Anthony Libby (review date Spring 1989)

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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 wouldn't even be taken seriously in any other country.

      Carolyn Forché, American Poetry Review Interview, (November/December 1988)

If poets are really the unacknowledged legislators of the world, they have a lot to answer for. In America we would rather believe, with Auden, that poetry makes nothing happen. Even when we write about politics and poetry, and write out of evident anguish and conviction, we tend to create analyses of negation. Both of these books [Poetry and the World and Praises and Dispraises, Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century by Terrence Des Pres], which approach the problem of politics and poetry from opposed angles, mix deep intelligence about art and history with a pervasive resistance to ideological thinking, a desire for escape from the burdens of history into the haven of poetry. Neither focuses very much on what we usually think of when we think of political poetry—that is, poetry designed, if not to legislate, to make something happen: for instance the antiwar or ecological poetry of the American sixties and seventies. But the reason for this swerving from the troubling questions may not be self-censorship, even unconscious. In Des Pres's case it may be the despair created by the inevitable darkness of the modern radical vision; in Pinsky's, traditionalist longings perhaps caused by the present failure of liberalism….

Pinsky's book is far more miscellaneous and uneven than Praise, essentially consisting of brief reviews, memoirs, and a few extended theoretical pieces. Like his influential The Situation of Poetry, which, in the poetry wars of the sixties and seventies, attacked deep image romanticism and campaigned for discursive poetry and "reason" (defined in Enlightenment terms), this is a neo-Wintersian work. There is still the habitual deference to the old curmudgeon Yvor Winters, the emphasis on the morality of forms, the religious longing under the insistent rationalism. There is also an oddly ahistorical tendency to look to seventeenth- or eighteenth-century poems for comparison with works of modern social commentary, and a faintly elitist or traditionalist tendency to define poetry as an activity of "the court." Pinsky speaks for the fathers. But his tone in this collection is softer, more open and engaged than in his earlier book. Somehow Grandpa Dave is a more benevolent presiding spirit than Father Yvor.

Most of the reviews here are a sharp pleasure to read. It is great fun to watch Pinsky being judgmental but strenuously fair to Philip Larkin while Larkin is being judgmental and atrociously unfair to practically everyone, especially blacks and Jews. And Pinsky consistently demonstrates a remarkable ability to define the movements and strategies of particular poems—especially in his Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore pieces. But the most interesting sections of the book are first the most abstract, then the most personal—the excursions into theory, then the memoirs. These occasional pieces are by no means a systematic attempt to deal with the relation of politics and poetry, but partly because they are casual and frank, they reveal much that is distressing about American approaches to the problem.

Pinsky seems to live in a slightly safer world than Des Pres does, one more protected by the traditional absolutes. But his thinking about poetry's place in that world comes to a similar end, if anything even more removed from the optimistic imagination of activism. Part of the reason for this removal is brilliantly analyzed by Pinsky's "Responsibilities of the Poet." The difficulty he delineates there convincingly explains the contemporary American problem with political poetry as an aspect of a broader problem, the necessity of transformation. "Before an artist can see a subject—foreign policy, or any other subject—the artist must transform it: answer the received cultural imagination of the subject with something utterly different." So the failure of political poetry (or "poetry of witness"—Pinsky quotes Forché's term) is not a failure of will or conviction but of the capacity for transformation, especially for poets conditioned by a country where politics usually consists of the suppression of ideological thought. Here Pinsky makes an interesting leap: because traditional ideas of "the poetic" can blunt the power of poetry to comprehend the world, the real responsibility of the poet is especially to the "unpoetic," for reasons of craft as well as social morality. "In the most uncompromising sense, this means that whatever important experience seems least poetic to me is likely to be my job."

Having come this far, Pinsky then abruptly swerves away from the political. He ends the lecture with an analysis of the transformations necessary in poems about, respectively, God and love. These are social subjects, yes, but they are also the subjects that most routinely allow escape from political concerns. Here and in later essays we keep expecting Pinsky's clear analytic eye actually to confront contemporary poetry of engagement. Yes, all poetry is political, but what about political poetry? The closest we get, among the poems of this century, is a discussion of William Carlos Williams's "To Elsie," which is undeniably social commentary, but understandable more in religious terms—a fall from grace—than directly social ones. Uncharacteristically elitist for Williams, it seems full of horror at the mob, at what Pinsky calls "the terror of the darkness of American freedom." Like The Waste Land it describes social collapse in terms of bad sex among the peasants. And it presents us, again, with the familiar excremental vision: "as if the earth under our feet / were / an excrement of some sky / and we degraded prisoners / destined / to hunger until we eat filth." Des Pres might assent.

This highly intelligent poet's analysis of poetry in the world continues to go indicatively askew as Pinsky writes about American backgrounds, and his own. Partly the problem is excessive formalism. A discussion of the social implications of the opposition between high and low vocabularies simply goes too far, dragging down Pinsky's own usually clear style as it goes. More important, there emerge questionable assumptions about poetry and culture, the thrust of which is usually to suggest that poetry exists in some absolute realm beyond cultural conditioning. Pinsky claims that art is by definition liberating, for instance, and that "the appetite for poetry" achieves the status of the other "human appetites; the desire for cuisine, beyond nutrition; for eroticism, beyond sexuality." Well, maybe, but this and other vaguely absolutist statements about the nature of things militate against the historical/political understanding of how cultures change.

This problem emerges most clearly in the autobiographical essays that end this collection, because they are both more open and more careless than the critical theorizing. The scope of those essays makes it clear what "the world" finally comes down to, in Pinsky's typically American experience. This sense of the world is conditioned by the sense of the past, the collective past, but also the memory of childhood. This world consists most strongly of family, small hometown, religion, and European roots, all lovingly rendered with a sort of glow that suggests a civics class definition of the American tradition. This close to the heart, politics is not allowed.

As he makes himself vulnerable to such a description, Pinsky also shows some understanding of the limits of this conception of things. In fact this is more or less the subject of a piece about a trip to Poland during the 1981 Solidarity struggles. It's here that Pinsky presents himself as the stereotypically American "hick," who "underestimated history," the innocent who amuses the Poles burdened by the shit of politics by explaining that in America anti-Semitism is insignificant. They don't believe his protestations of American innocence. Neither do I, not because of anti-Semitism, especially, but because of history, because of what is omitted from Pinsky's essays on America and his past, which end not in a meditation about justice or injustice, but about the religion of his father.

Even as Pinsky admits he exaggerated America's "pure freedom from bloody European mania" he conversely demonstrates his will to believe in it, in what Forché calls "the lie of our own moral superiority." Exploring the territory of our confusion about politics, he becomes an example of that confusion. This is the inevitable problem of someone writing, as Des Pres put it, "at the center of empire, a malady now widespread in American letters." But the malady is compounded by the tendency to perceive empire through the reducing mirror of childhood, as a series of small towns steeped in innocence and opportunity.

Pinsky's good cheer is finally more apolitical than Des Pres's modern gloom. Again nostalgia replaces history. Perhaps our truest political text is still Fitzgerald's novel about the will to restore the past, and the deaths that result when a powerful and loving man falls into nostalgia for the world. So we beat on.

John L. Brown (review date Autumn 1989)

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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 to Poland on a cultural mission for the State Department; a section, "Poetry and the World," with essays such as "Poetry and Pleasure" and "The Responsibilities of the Poet" as well as brief pieces on Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, George Oppen, Seamus Heaney, and Philip Larkin; a treatment of "American Poetry and American Life" composed of two parts, "Freneau, Whitman, and Williams" and "American Poetry and American Life." In his foreword he claims that these various elements all concern "the relation of poetry to its great, shadowy social context, the world." They are also linked by a common tone, a tone of relaxed, unpretentious conversation comprehensible to the common reader.

Pinsky's criticism is far removed from that of his deconstructionist academic colleagues. He proclaims his respect for literary tradition. He did a doctoral dissertation on W. S. Landor and has translated Horace. He has none of the urge to destroy the past which fired the avant-garde movements of this century. He writes: "We must feel ready to answer, as if asked by the dead if we have handed on what they gave us or asked by the unborn what we have for them. This is one answer, the great conservative answer, to the question of what responsibility the poet bears in society." It is clear why certain fellow critics regard Pinsky as "deliberately old fashioned." In "American Poetry and American Life" he extols P. Freneau and gives an extended analysis of "The Indian Burial Ground," although Freneau is usually dismissed as a versifier whose passionate devotion to Jeffersonsian democracy far outweighed his literary gifts. Whitman, of course, is praised for having successfully confronted "the gulf between ideals of liberty, art, democracy and the actual confusion, provinciality and economic struggles of American citizens and slaves." Pinsky observes that at the present time "the Whitmanian vision" has been most vividly expressed "by makers of movies and television and of American songs." He hails W. C. Williams for his success in relating American poetry to American life.

The second part of this section comments on Frank O'Hara, James Wright, Wallace Stevens, Jean Toomer, and Anne Winters as practitioners of what Pinsky styles "formal heteroglossia," a procedure which is "a special American version of the old contest between established rhetoric on one side and the fresh growths of culture and personal experience on the other." Such critical passages may seem pedestrian, however, in comparison with the freshness and zest of boyhood memories of family and friends in Long Branch, with characters as picturesque as Pinsky's grandfather "with his big hands and his ape face," a successful bootlegger and a professional boxer; Izzy Ash, the owner of the town's largest junkyard, who gave him good counsel about graduate studies; and Norman Mailer's aunt, who ran a dress shop called "Estelle's."

Paul Breslin (review date August 1990)

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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 justly praised. (The other, a short study of Walter Savage Landor [Landor's Poetry], is less celebrated but well worth reading.) Poetry and the World, as its capacious title suggests, is less formal than its predecessors, ranging from critical essays through reflections on the "responsibilities of the poet" to autobiographical pieces such as "Salt Water." Nonetheless, Pinsky tells us in his "Foreword," the "parts have been selected and recast, and most of them were written, with the idea in mind of poetry's relation to its great, shadowy social context: 'the world.'" McClatchy's title is less free-wheeling: only contemporary American poetry will be addressed, and although McClatchy has written on many contemporary poets, he has selected those who, despite their diversity, "seem to [his] mind to form a group" in offering "a difficult and exemplary challenge to the middlebrow expectations brought to poetry over the past thirty years by critics and poets alike." One meaning of White Paper, McClatchy reminds us, "is 'position paper'"; he has chosen essays that take a "consistent and at times combative" stance against what he regards as "middlebrow" taste.

In "Responsibilities of the Poet," Pinsky suggests that poets respond to a difficult but productive tension between tradition and what he calls, following Carolyn Forché, the need to "witness." Tradition holds us responsible for "the keeping of an art that we did not invent, but were given, so that others who come after us can have it if they want it"; it asks, on behalf of the dead, "if we have handed on what they gave us," and on behalf of the unborn "what we have for them." But the responsibility of bearing witness requires that we "notice" and "include the evidence," and our capacity to do so "can be confused and blunted by the other, conserving responsibility of mediation between the dead and the unborn." Bearing witness troubles the received art into changing and renewing itself: "only the challenge of what may seem unpoetic, that which has not already been made poetic by the tradition, can keep the art truly pure and alive." Pinsky has a keen sense of the relationships of poems to other poems, but he insists on the need for an encounter between poetry and that which is not itself, a "world" that is not always already text….

The passage that leapt out at me most in Poetry and the World, perhaps because I was reading it in conjunction with White Paper (and certainly because I have been working on West Indian poetry lately), occurs in "American Poetry and American Life," which, along with its companion piece on Freneau, Whitman, and Williams, is my favorite among the critical essays in Pinsky's volume. It concerns the implications of cultural pluralism for poetic style and poetic value—the issue that McClatchy raises and then neglects. Pinsky, winding up a discussion of Jean Toomer's "Georgia Dusk" in which he notes the "multiple fracturing and reblending of linguistic elements—Arabic and Latin, African and English, juju-man and king, swamp and caravan, pine and guitar, strummings and vespers of the cane," observes that

This American version of 'The Solitary Reaper' … expresses its action partly through a kind of formal inclusion of many actual and potential voices. The somewhat cumbersome technical term might be formal heteroglossia. Each moment of idiom and rhythm asks what tongue should speak next—what language, what person, in what cadence? (From this perspective, the Black poets of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are not fringe elements in the record of our poetry, but characteristic, even quintessential, insofar as the clash between means and experience may require an American to forge imaginatively his own place in what he sees.)

The description of Toomer's poem as an "American version of 'The Solitary Reaper'" presupposes an audience familiar with Wordsworth, but also with Afro-American poetry, and with the history of cultural and linguistic mingling (and conflict) that makes the "formal heteroglossia" of "Georgia Dusk" possible. Pinsky argues that the heterogeneity of American life requires "a formal resourcefulness in defining one's behavior on shifting ground." It must be said that while Pinsky offers a fine commentary on the shifting voices in Anne Winters's "Night Wash," and remarks on the linguistic juxtapositions in Philip Levine, James McMichael, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop (along with Freneau, Whitman, and Williams), Toomer is the only Black poet discussed in the entire book. If the Black poets are "characteristic, even quintessential" in the development of an American poetics, one would expect to read more about them. (Please note that it's not some demand on my part for an Equal Opportunity criticism, but Pinsky's own argument that raises this expectation.) No dates are given for the essays in Poetry and the World, but I suspect that the reflections on American "heteroglossia" are among the most recent, and that Pinsky will explore their implications further.

Pinsky also has thought about the strained relations between the American audience and the poet, who has never quite been able to compete with the novelist, let alone the film-maker, for the representative role that Whitman sought to fill. Accordingly, some American poems indulge in imagining an audience that could never be addressed on any conceivable occasion—as when Frank O'Hara, in "Ave Maria," tries to convince the "Mothers of America" that it's just as well if their pubescent sons are seduced at the movies by some O'Hara-like stranger, or Williams, in "Tract," harangues his "townspeople" on "how to perform a funeral." In such poems,

the point is less the advice than the preposterous quality of the advice, the vacuum that flexes when the poem assumes not only a relation with a communal audience, but the perhaps equally unlikely existence of that audience—as if 'my townspeople' or 'Mothers of America' had an objective existence as a group, like a feudal manor or the Kiwanis International. Both poems are slight within their authors' canons because of this similar, perhaps too self-permissive comedy, the license of a voice that does not matter too much, addressing a phantom gathering.

The problem, as Pinsky frames it in "The Responsibilities of the Poet," is to feel "responsible" in "the root sense" of the word, answerable: "we want our answers to be craved," and "An artist needs not so much an audience, as to feel a need to answer, a promise to respond." This way of putting the matter is suggestive but somewhat evasive too: if one has no audience, one's answers are not "craved," and the need to answer is its own reward.

In "Freneau, Whitman, Williams," Pinsky asks: "What is, or what would be, a democratic poetry? What is the relation of an art reborn in European courts to vernacular culture?" For Williams, Whitman's "charge to bring together poetry and democracy" means "to bring together the heritage of royal courts and the reality of American manners…." Both Whitman and Williams took a "double view," in which "the poet celebrating the idea of democracy and liberty" is also "the poet angry and despairing at the place, in the actual United States, of democracy, liberty and poetry…." And "under that dual feeling is an irritable, restlessly energetic passion to sort out the provinciality, rawness, and vulgarity that are the opposite of poetry from the defiant provinciality, the vital rawness and the saving vulgarity that are the sources of an American art." Pinsky stops short of asking outright whether the aristocratic history of poetry is a source of positive value, part of what we must pass on to the unborn, or merely a vestigial survival, like the appendix in the digestive system, that can be removed without harm to the body. If I'm not mistaken, Pinsky thinks that the aristocratic origins of poetry are what place it in its antithetical relation to American provinciality, rawness, and vulgarity. If so, the critical power of poetry derives partly from those origins, from the conviction that standards of urbanity, polish, and refinement ought not to be levelled entirely. At the same time, if poetry is to become democratic, it must find "saving" graces even where the aristocratic ones are lacking.

Philip Freneau, the first poet to confront this problem, combined "loyalties to the metric of Alexander Pope and to the ideals of the French Revolution," so that his poem "To Sir Toby" inveighs against slavery in balanced syntax and heroic couplets, and succeeds only in spoiling the aristocratic grace of the form by the bluntness of its outrage. Both Pope and Freneau use catalogues containing one "ironically out-of-place element," but whereas in Pope, the incongruity "is like a knowing social joke between reader and writer … there is no place in Freneau's poem for the implied social understanding between him and his reader." Though "skillful in execution and truly admirable in feeling," the poem "falls short because it fails to imagine a society—which is to say, an American society—in which the poem itself can take place." In contrast, Williams's "To Elsie" begins by "fitting Elsie into her historical and geographical process," but then "strains to fit itself, 'the imagination,' into the context of her life." "American poetry," Pinsky argues, "includes American life by striving to discover poetry's place in American life."

These essays seem to me the best of those that treat poetry in its political relation to "the world." The others, with one powerful exception, concern "the social world in its alternate glamour and squalor," which poetry falls in and out of love with, torn between fascination and withdrawal to "a distinct world which is other, a spiritual world." The fascination, when it is that, has to do with "the linked pleasures of art and sexual attraction," the "sensuousness" of giving "elegance and significance to the sounds that breath makes vibrating in the mouth and throat," and the desire, whether by writing a poem or by telling a joke, "to give the gift of pleasure and interest." Sometimes, as in "Poetry and Pleasure," worldliness is presented in its relation to poetry; elsewhere, as in "Salt Water," the focus is autobiographical. I don't know whether it's a sour streak in my own temperament or something in the manner of these essays themselves, but I take less pleasure and interest in these pieces than in the wonderful "Some Passages of Isaiah," which is antithetical to them. Isaiah is the poet as prophet, not as courtier; he knows, at the moment of his call to prophecy, that he must address a people who will neither understand nor believe him; indeed, that his prophecy must cause them "to see and to hear in the wrong way" until they deserve the destruction God plans for them. Only at the end of secular time can the world and the prophet's word be reconciled. That, no doubt, is a conception of the poet's task both too bleak and too grandiose for the late twentieth century. But Pinsky, having praised Campion's "Now Winter Nights Enlarge" because it "celebrates with the utmost relish the scenes and diversions [of the court] which it puts in their proper place," nonetheless risks a trivialization of the social by thinking of it as essentially an affair of manners, of pleasing and being pleased. Not that one wishes always to dwell on atrocity stories, but the social world, whether in life or in poetry, includes the battlefield and the prison as well as the court, and Pinsky's account of it, except in his discussion of "witness" in "Responsibilities of the Poet," tends to forget its harshness. Even Pinsky's two essays about a visit to Poland during the heady first triumphs of Solidarity don't quite encompass this larger sense of "world," since the Poles he meets are almost all fellow poets, whose conversation about politics tends to emphasize its implications for the writer.

My main reservation, then, about Pinsky's book—smaller than the one about McClatchy's—concerns its incomplete break with a 'pure' conception of poetry. For all his emphasis on relations between poetry and "the world," he usually presents the world as already transformed into the language of a poem; his account of the transformation itself is often sketchy, even perfunctory. The typography of the cover might be taken as an allegory: "Poetry" is blazoned in large red letters, and beneath it, in slightly smaller type, "The World." The two terms are separated by a thin line, broken to accommodate—in much smaller and razor-thin lettering—the humble connective, "and." On one side of that line are the essays of anecdote and autobiography, offering a concrete but local knowledge; on the other are the attentive, often brilliant analyses of how cultural history registers in the diction, syntax, and tone of poems. But the discussion of culture-in-poetry seems sealed off, to some degree, from any contact with other disciplines, such as history and anthropology, that also concern "the world" and its representation in language. For his discussion of Freneau, Pinsky does cite some historical work on the early National Period, and one misses a similar specificity of context elsewhere. It's perhaps churlish to complain, since within their own chosen limits Pinsky's essays on poetry are arguably the best now being written. Yet I can't help feeling that some interdisciplinary fresh air would invigorate them for a more tenacious engagement with "the world." Such books, for instance, as James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture or The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, have obvious bearing on his argument. Clifford's discussion of "To Elsie" as a poem about the disappearance of "pure products" in the "cultural connections and dissolutions" of modernity supplements and enriches Pinsky's; the Hobsbawm and Ranger volume, with its inquiry into the way the destruction of traditional societies paradoxically results in the fabrication of "largely factitious" continuities, retroactive fantasies of traditions that never were, could usefully complicate his reflections on tradition and witness, or on the relations between democracy and the literary past.

In a talk given at the Modern Language Association and printed in the summer 1981 issue of Critical Inquiry, Pinsky remarked on the current gulf between poet and academic critic. Poets, especially those sequestered in M.F.A. programs, tend to combine facility in contemporary techniques of composition with "a fatal ignorance of the past." On the other side of the pale is "the occasional graduate student in English who read Derrida when a sophomore, and who writes with a fist of ham and an ear of zinc, talking about 'poetics' in a way that every poet I know greets with an incredulous smirk." Many of those graduate students, without improving their prose, have gone on to win fame and tenure. But after looking into theory over the past few years, I am convinced that what Marianne Moore famously said of poetry may be said of it as well: "Reading it … with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine." Like it or not, among the mountebanks and poseurs are a number of people engaged in serious thought about the relationship between literature and "the world."

I would like to see a conversation opened between our best poet-critics, such as Pinsky—or McClatchy, whose book is also quite distinguished, whatever one's misgivings about its donnée—and the literary and cultural theorists. (One might guess, from Pinsky's remarks about "heteroglossia," that he is aware of Bakhtin, but if so, he doesn't admit to it; McClatchy refers in passing to Barthes without any apparent inkling of the trouble that an engagement with Barthes would make for his assumptions about self, voice, and allusion.) The dialogue I hope for might challenge the theorists to become less tone-deaf, whether to their own prose or the language of the texts they study, and the poet-critics to become less impressionistic, less inclined to rest on pronouncements of taste or suggestive but undeveloped sketches of an argument. But I'm not holding my breath. In the meanwhile, McClatchy's book has a great deal to offer anyone interested in contemporary poetry, and Pinsky's, though it promises more "world" than it delivers, is essential.

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

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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 of public lectures on the origins of an American poetry. But underneath the variety of his subjects, Pinsky's preoccupation throughout the book was to clarify, if not to explain, poetry's function as "a bridge between the worldly and the spiritual." By maintaining a "decorum, a limiting boundary" between its voluptuous surfaces and the rigor of its ideas, between the dragging anchor of memory and its flights of imagination, poetry enacts the tension that any reader feels, caught between the communal world of his living and the isolate self of his life. The poets whom Pinsky most admires draw both into their work. "The qualities of physical grace, lively social texture, and inward revelation" that he finds in Whitman and Williams mark the strongest American poetry. They are, not coincidentally, qualities Pinsky strives for in his own poems, and wants us to admire there.

The larger question these matters of style address is one Pinsky also touches on, though never plumbs. How does, how should, a poem situate itself in relation to American life, to the heterogeneity of a democratic society? Has poetry any place in a culture that, decade by decade, pushes it further to the side? If it does, and if our poets are to be mythographers rather than merely reporters, how are they to capture and to inspirit the terms of our shape-shifting national life, its abundance of compassion and cruelty, its exhilarating and disturbing freedoms?

Pinsky looks to the style of American poems less to analyze than to praise their fluidity of idiom and tone, their rhetorical restlessness and dramatic resources, their capacity to include so many actual and imagined voices. Pinsky's view is not unlike Tocqueville's when he first arrived in New York. Sailing into the city by way of the East River, he was "surprised to perceive along the shore, at some distance from the city, a number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were of ancient architecture." The next morning, when he went ashore to inspect them, he discovered their walls were of whitewashed brick, their columns of painted wood. Our grandest gestures seem put up overnight, improvised, makeshift, fool-the-eye.

Pinsky's relish for these gestures is apparent in several poems in his new book [The Want Bone], poems about language itself. In one, called "Window," our link to the past is defined by language: "We took their language in our mouth and chewed." It fed us, nourished us; and while it formed us—into the Irish or Chinese or Spanish or Yiddish of our words—we helped to remake its own "bright confusion." In another poem, "The Refinery" (a new name for the old melting pot), the gods return to drink at that bright confusion, which the poet imagines processed in the great glittering refinery of language:

       The muttering gods        Greedily penetrate those bright pavilions—        Libation of Benzene, Naphthalene, Asphalt,        Gasoline, Tar: syllables        Fractioned and cracked from unarticulated        Crude, the smeared keep of life that fed        On itself in pitchy darkness when the gods        Were new—inedible, volatile        And sublimated afresh to sting        Our tongues who use it, refined from oil of stone.

It was Tocqueville who predicted a hybrid American poetry. On his travels around the fledgling nation he found no worthy art, but expected great things. Americans had "the freedom and the knowledge acquired by their forefathers and the passions which are their own." There was, he discovered, no pioneer's but without its copy of Shakespeare. (Tocqueville himself first read Henry V in a log cabin.) But Americans had not yet learned—they would not learn until Whitman—how to write of their own passions. As for an eventual American style, he predicted it would be

fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold … with more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste.

He also predicted that the subject of an American poetry would be not history (Americans have none), not nature (only a mirror that we hold up to ourselves), but the self. Americans, wrote Tocqueville, are "excited in reality only by a survey of themselves," and "each man instantly sees all his fellows when he surveys himself." "I have only to look at myself," he said on their behalf, fifteen years before the publication of Leaves of Grass, in order to "enlarge and to throw light on some of the obscurer recesses of the human heart," in order to touch what he called "the hidden nerve."

Each poet will have his own phrase for "the hidden nerve." At the start of his career, Pinsky's was "the dark wind." In "Poems About People," the very first poem in his first book, he tells us of his concern for "the dark wind crossing / The wide spaces between us." If we take that wind as an early image for what he refers to, in Poetry and the World, as "the bridge between the worldly and the spiritual," then it must be said that his early work lingered on the worldly side of things. Even so, I wince when, in his essays, he confesses his desire to be "interesting," to please the reader of his poems. Those are worthy goals in themselves, but they so underestimate Pinsky's own ambition—at least as it has emerged over the course of his four collections.

For a poet who has cultivated a somewhat broad discursive manner in stately pentameters, the sort of style that can too easily substitute the communal "we" for the solitary "I," that is shy of metaphor and more eager to summarize than dramatize, Pinsky has at the same time never lost sight of the dark forces between, behind, and beyond us. The best sections of his splendid long poem from 1979, An Explanation of America, still his most capacious and aspiring work, remain those haunted by the violence of American history. But his first two collections, however intelligently they played over the contours of the shared or public life, kept their distance from "the hidden nerve."

History of My Heart, which appeared in 1984, was Pinsky's breakthrough, and my guess is that it will come to be seen as one of the best books of the past decade. The change was not radical, but it was decisive. He did not altogether abandon the imperatives of making sense of things, or his controlled tone and subdued metrics. But he pitched his voice higher. He let images do the work of argument; and an appositional momentum of phrases gave the new poems a hurtling, sometimes unnerving brilliance. Even more important, the poet's imaginative sympathies broadened. He might still use poetry as (in Emerson's phrase) "a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it," but he book his stand on the contradictions and desires of the self.

His new collection, The Want Bone, includes many poems as good as, or better than, anything in History of My Heart, but the impact of the whole book is not so forceful. The previous book casts its long shadow over the later one: what Pinsky has in part done now is to separate a single theme from the earlier book and to concentrate his considerable powers on it. The title calls it want. Desire, sexual appetite, romantic love, religious longing, nostalgia, imaginative poverty: it takes many forms.

At the center of this book is a peculiar fable in prose called "Jesus and Isolt," which fancies Jesus returned to earth in the shape of a heraldic beast, the ciclogriff who rests his head on Isolt's lap as she tells him stories of Tristan. Pinsky has brought together the two most potent myths of Western civilization—the ecstatic, doomed romantic lovers, and the merciless master of suppression; Tintagel and Gethsemane; id and superego—in order to explore the terms of desire. The initial poem in the book, "From the Childhood of Jesus," is a similar fable about the Law and about the Spirit that both giveth life and killeth. The young Jesus—magical, resentful, bored—fashions clay into images of sparrows. When scolded about profaning the Sabbath, he cripples another boy and makes the clay birds come to life. Like his latter-day disciples, "The twelve new sparrows flew aimlessly through the night, / Not blinking or resting, as if never to alight."

Both of these fables should alert the reader to Pinsky's strong interest in narrative—not just as a means to tell a story, but as a method to devise parables about the emotional life. What is less convincing is the new voice. It has always seemed to me that Pinsky has had prose models in his mind's ear. For his first two books, the models were essayists of the seventeenth and early nineteenth century—Bacon, say, or Hazlitt, authors with subtlety and gusto. Now his voice has some of the fireside abstraction of the old storytellers, but even more of the cadences and tropes of the Bible.

He seems drawn to the stern tone, and at times he indulges in deliberate parody: "You shall tell him of the slaying / Of the firstborn of man and of beast / In Egypt when my father came out of Egypt," and so on. At its cleverest, the biblical accent allows him to make poignant or witty qualifications in the talmudic manner. More often, at least to my ear, it sounds merely eccentric. His deeper purpose may be to explore the possibilities of a Jewish-American poetry: How would it be inflected? Do its fictive energies derive from the plaint of exile, the platting of interpretation? Certainly the lore of assimilation fascinates him, and in a poem like "The Night Game," in which he dreams up a Jewish left-hander ("Even more gifted / Than Whitey Ford") who refuses to pitch on Yom Kippur, he wittily adds the Sandy Koufax story to the tribal legends.

The best poems in the book, though, are more personal. They do not wrestle with religious angels or intellectual demons, the myths imposed on us by tradition. Instead, they address the self, those autobiographical myths we make out of memories. Presiding over these poems is Shiva, lord of creation and destruction. "Shiva and Parvati Hiding in the Rain" is not a characteristic poem, but it announces—as "The Figured Wheel" announced in History of My Heart—the relentless round of desire that the poet will track:

       The rosecolored mother-father        Flushed, full, penetrated and        Also penetrated, entering        And entering, endowing        And also devouring, necklace        Of skulls and also ecstasy        Of hiding in raindrops …

The book's title poem is another urgent litany of desires, this time evoked by the dried jaw of a shark, which in life had ruthlessly gorged on anything and in death—its "welded-open shape kept mouthing O"—has become an emblem of human appetites no less engulfing:

       But O I love you it sings, my little my country        My food my parent my child I want you my own        My flower my fin my life my lightness my O.

Several of the book's longer poems stay close to this want bone, this Adam's rib or skull or hard-on. These poems offer vivid accounts of desire by overlapping memories in the particular way Pinsky has made his own, a virtuosic montage. "The Hearts," for instance, studies the "legendary muscle that wants and grieves … the pump of thrills / And troubles" by splicing together a heroin addict and Enobarbus, the Buddha and a doo-wop group called Lee Andrews and The Hearts, the Banaras marketplace and the second Temple. Nothing is contrived or forced; instead, each image excites and extends, and all are masterfully controlled by Pinsky even as he writes of abandon. Our desires may be fictions, as empty as a song lyric, yet we believe:

       As the record ends, a coda in retard:        The Hearts in a shifting velvety ah, and ah        Prolonged again, and again as Lee Andrews        Reaches ah high for I have to gain Faith, HopeAnd Charity, God only knows the girlWho will love me—Oh! if we only couldStart over again! Then The Hearts chant the chords        Again a final time, ah and the record turns        Through all the music, and on into silence again.

The most ordinary object of desire has a complex history behind it. In a wonderful set piece called "Shirt," Pinsky broods over his purchase of a shirt. The technical terms for shirt-making in their turn evoke Korean sweatshops, the Triangle Factory fire, Scottish mills, and a black South Carolina shirt "inspector" named Irma, along with planters and pickers and sorters, weavers, carders and loaders. By the end of the poem, the plain sportshirt has become a mythological shirt of flame, a history laid on the poet's back.

History suffuses the book's final poem, too. "Pleasure Bay" is set in the poet's native Long Branch, New Jersey. Pinsky has written about Long Branch—his Paterson—all through his career, and this new poem looks back to a series of poems grouped under the title "The Street of Furthest Memory" in his first book. "Pleasure Bay" is both a real place (where "In 1927 the Chief of Police / And Mrs. W. killed themselves together, / Sitting in a roadster") and an Arcadian scene for reverie and instruction:

       The river pulling and coursing between the piers.        Never the same phrase twice, the catbird filling        The humid August evening near the inlet        With borrowed music that he melds and changes.        Dragonflies and sandflies, frogs in the rushes, two bodies        Not moving in the open car among the pines,        A sliver of story.

Pinsky's catbird, like Keats's nightingale, here pours forth his soul above the world's weariness and fever; he is a figure of art's own transforming power. The tenor at Price's Hotel, the old German piano teacher, the night the theater on the water burned down—local ghosts and legends all wear the patina of memory now. At last the reader is brought into the poem, imagined as a ghost as well. Or it may be the poet himself. In any case, the you now is the new life. Having died, "you hover near the ceiling above your body / And watch the mourners awhile." Soon after you float off to the river, then to the far side of the river, and choose from the bodies sleeping there one to whom you make love:

       You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs        Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you        And you make love until your soul brims up        And burns free out of you and shifts and spills        Down over into that other body, and you        Forget the life you had and begin again        On the same crossing—maybe as a child who passes        Through the same place. But never the same way twice.        Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows,        The new cafe, with a terrace and a landing,        Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was—        Here's where you might have slipped across the water        When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.

In a passage like this, Pinsky cashes in the debts to Eastern philosophy and Whitman that he had been accumulating throughout The Want Bone. The final desire, underlying and shaping all others, is this soul-hunger for life itself. Here is the book's hidden nerve, throbbing, thrilling. Pinsky touches it, touches us, with a delicacy and an accuracy too rare in contemporary poetry. He may not ultimately want to follow every lead he has opened up in this book, but I admire the way he continues to experiment. He will undoubtedly be writing, as he has written here, poems as spirited and weighty, eloquent and startling, as any poet of his generation can summon.

Alfred Corn (review date October 1990)

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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 shorter poems in that book, though, a new approach became evident. Realism gave way to a fabular imagination, to organization by montage and association rather than by narrative or logical exposition. This is the method of almost every poem in The Want Bone as well. Realistic detail, even snippets of history appear in the poems, but only as fleeting moments in larger meditations, where they take their place among other details from quite different contexts. Unity isn't achieved through clenched teeth but makes itself felt in recurring key words, themes and contexts. As with cinematic montage, or painterly collage, we're asked to discover the synaptic connection between disparate psychological states and material phenomena. The resulting room for speculation gives the poems an oracular feel; there's nothing pat about them. The actual substantive content is made up of wildly different realia, everything from pop culture to Arthurian legend, industrial history, cabbages, kings, whatever has caught the omnivorous attention of this wide-ranging poet. In a recently published essay in David Rosenberg's Testimony (a collection of meditations on the Holocaust), Pinsky says, "The idea of civilization, at each level of intensity, is the capacity to incorporate historical forces into personal gestures." Gestures here are understood to include not only salty shrugs and winces, I think, but also those choices where a whole identity is defined. Growing up in an ethnically mixed shore town in New Jersey, Pinsky was led at an early age to reflect on the forces behind differences in speech and customs, to see how various "walks of life" were at once arbitrary and historically determined. Pinsky's Jewish identity would also have been attached at some early stage to a sense of historical injustice and tragedy, so that the habit of annotating cultural difference could never simply be a pleasant pastime.

One more effort at giving this new book a context and then a look at actual poems. The Want Bone focuses on specifically religious themes drawn from several traditions. The least convincing of these are the treatments of Christianity, for example in the poem called "From the Childhood of Jesus" and the long prose romance (for lack of a better word) titled "Jesus and Isolt." The first poem is based on the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, which even in the original form is a bit hard to take—unless one is schooled at deciphering Gnostic spiritual metaphors. As for the prose poem, Pinsky has concocted a wildly inventive blend of Christian iconography and medieval romance, sending out centrifugal thrusts of meaning in several directions; but it is long, and it is prose. Pinsky seems more confident when he composes "Memoir," a moving account of an upbringing in Orthodox Judaism (which he, not brought up that way, is nevertheless able convincingly to imagine.) Actually, Pinsky seems most at home in the Hindu tradition, which was first hinted at in a poem called "The Figured Wheel" in his previous book. It is a view of existence intently focused on multiplicity and transformation, of destruction and recreation, yesterday's ashes become new growth on the apple tree. Hence the ecstatic and frightening "Shiva and Parvati Hiding in the Rain," or the darkly imagined "The Ghost Hammer." Several of the poems stir the various traditions together, not so as to reach a syncretic amalgam but to show how they are also grist in the vast mill of mutability, spiritual conventions braided together and unraveled again through time.

Pinsky has a wonderful ear for poetic line. More than anything else that would seem to be his teacher Yvor Winters's legacy to him. Reading poems like "What Why When How Who," I found myself almost ignoring the content, so subtly overriding was the music of the lines. To pick one at random: "Improvisation framelessly from tires." Notice how the number of syllables decreases in successive words, ending with the monosyllables of the concluding iamb of the pentameter; the play of consonants m, r, and f, the long a's balanced by a concluding long i. This instance is by no means a rare exception. Over and again I stopped to admire the perfect tooling of lines and stanzas, a constantly varying sonic texture, usually iambic with the variety of living speech—proof (if we need it) that "free verse" need not occasion slack or arbitrary composition.

The title of the book and the poem with that title point to the most persistent theme: human wishes and the obstacles to them. Pinsky returns to this theme in a thousand variations it would be lame to summarize. I prefer in any case to recommend the book than put it in a nutshell. And, apart from the poems already praised, here are a few favorites: "Lament for the Makers," "Icicles," "Pilgrimage," "Shirt," "The Night Game," "The Refinery," "At Pleasure Bay," and "Immortal Longings," with its beautiful conclusion:

       Under him, a thirsty brilliance.        Pulsing or steady,        The fixed lights of the city        And the flood of carlights coursing        Through the grid: Delivery,        Arrival, Departure. Whim. Entering        And entered. Touching        And touched: down        The lit boulevards, over the bridges        And the river like an arm of night.        Book, cigarette. Bathroom.        Thirst. Some of us are asleep.        We tilt roaring        Over the glittering        Zodiac of intentions.

Don Bogen (review date 17 December 1990)

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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 than a shark's jaw?

       The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,        A scalded, toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.        The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving        And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.

This is not only strong but very smart poetry. The music in the quatrain shows Pinsky's command of formal technique: a fluent iambic pentameter with alternate unstressed and stressed line endings; a pattern of half-rhymes interrupted perfectly by the final "O"; and well-placed internal echoes stressing important words like "harp" and "arcs," "open" and "O," and the repeated term "shape." The image itself both alludes to and goes beyond its famous predecessors. This is no Romantic aeolian harp set into natural music by a breeze. It's not the charmed lyre of Orpheus or the harp of instant, inexhaustible beauty that Jack got when he climbed up the beanstalk. The want bone is more blunt than these. It sings because even in death it can't stop desiring.

The Want Bone presents an extreme vision—but then Pinsky's work has never been known for its caution. From the beginning of his career he has taken on large subjects. His incisive book of criticism, The Situation of Poetry (1977), is, among other things, an argument for a kind of poetry that moves beyond the image-oriented personal lyric with the logic and discursive range of the essay. He obviously delights in the liberation of tone and subject this implies. His first volume of poetry, Sadness and Happiness (1975), included witty verse essays on tennis strategy and psychiatrists, and the title of his second, An Explanation of America (1979), showed both the breadth and the chutzpah of his enterprise. Though Pinsky's claims are brash, as he examines everything from the Brownies to Deep Throat, there is an underlying geniality in these two books that continues in the long title poem of his third collection, History of My Heart (1984). The writing is fluid and measured, much of it in loose blank verse, and the poet renders his own experience—as a child in the decaying beach town of Long Branch, New Jersey; as a teenage sax player and quasi delinquent; as a parent in the Boston suburbs—with grace, human sympathy and a keen eye for detail. Though the poems are never merely narrations of the past—even "History of My Heart" becomes a discourse on power and gift giving—Pinsky's memories provide a familiar, comforting base for his analysis.

There is little of Long Branch in the new book. With the want bone, Pinsky has hit on a powerful and disturbing image for his concerns of recent years. This desiccated mouth is both rapacious and life giving, a source of beauty and a death mask. The picture of the world Pinsky develops in The Want Bone turns on these merged dualities, in which creation and destruction are part of the same process. It is a cyclic vision, but broader and bleaker than most. If many poets like to remind us that daffodils come back after the winter, Pinsky is concerned with more fundamental losses and gains, with the "necklace / Of skulls and also ecstasy" underlying our condition ("Shiva and Parvati Hiding in the Rain"). The Judeo-Christian idea of time as a linear process capped by deliverance is too rosy and too otherworldly. Pinsky's apocalypse is followed not by redemption but dispersal:

       But after the flood the bland Immortals will come        As holy tourists to our sunken world,        To slide like sunbeams down shimmering layers of blue:        Artemis, Gog, Priapus, Jehovah and Baal,        With faces calmer than when we gave them names,        Walking our underwater streets where bones        And houses bloom fantastic spurts of coral,        Until they find our books. The pages softened        To a dense immobile pulp between the covers        Will rise at their touch in swelling plumes like smoke,        With a faint black gas of ink among the swirls,        And the golden beings shaping their mouths like bells        Will impel their breath against the weight of ocean        To sing us into the cold regard of water.                                 ("The Uncreation")

So much for Saint Peter at the Holy Gate and sonnets that will make their subject live forever. The consistent, faintly humorous tone and sustained development of the scene here are typical of Pinsky's achievement. This poet not only has imagination, he knows how to run with the ball.

With the exception of the title poem and the exquisitely rendered "Icicles," the strongest pieces in The Want Bone are the longer ones. Several of these are in blank verse, with the poet weaving complex, varied sentences over twenty or thirty three-line stanzas. Pinsky first began to make use of this particular balance of syntactic variety and stanzaic regularity in a few poems from History of My Heart, but the new work is less anchored to one scene, hence more open and exploratory. "Voyage to the Moon," for instance, starts and ends inside a child's fantasy based on playing cards but passes along the way through Isaiah, piecework sewing, ecodisaster and the demise of a dictator. What's impressive here is not only the breadth of material but Pinsky's ability to engage it all without losing sight of his central concerns. There are, of course, repeating motifs, and the diverse images are not random. But the structure rarely feels manipulative or forced. As he shifts gears in these poems, Pinsky keeps turning up scenes that are both surprising and apt—you never know where the poem will go, but each new move seems like the right one at the time. His adroit sense of pace within the accumulating swirl of meaning keeps the longer poems from chaos on the one hand or corpulence on the other.

While the pulse of iambic pentameter and the repeating three-line stanza provide a framework for the poet's wild imaginings in pieces like "Voyage to the Moon" or "The Uncreation," other poems dispense with this scaffolding. Pinsky's free verse can be hampered at times by a tendency to rely on clipped phrases: "Visions of Daniel" and parts of "Hut" have a truncated feel to them, like sketches that haven't been fleshed out yet. But when he loosens his grip to allow longer and more varied units, he can do amazing things. There's a jumpy intricacy to the music here that blank verse could never achieve. In "The Refinery" the bizarre extended metaphor of human speech as refined crude oil culminates in a swamp of polysyllabic names, awkward line-breaks and alliteration as dense and grotesque as the image itself:

       Libation of Benzene, Napthalene, Asphalt,        Gasoline, Tar: syllables        Fractioned and cracked from unarticulated        Crude, the smeared keep of life that fed        On itself in pitchy darkness when the gods        Were new—inedible, volatile        And sublimated afresh to sting        Our tongues who use it, refined from oil of stone.

The Want Bone has a definite cosmological flavor. There are gods everywhere—Judeo-Christian, Greek, Norse, Hindu—and they take an active role in human affairs, drinking up our language, thumbing through our soggy books, sending down rules and visions. With their temper tantrums, hot lovemaking and group expeditions, they function partially as a kind of fun-house mirror of our own dreams and failings. Thus Jehovah seems petty in his obsession with proper procedures, his son can be naïve and petulant, and Shiva and Parvati are too wrapped up in themselves to pay much attention to anyone else. But Pinsky is not interested in humanizing the gods—they may be quirky but they're still supernatural. His perspective is apocalyptic, and he achieves it largely through tone. Over the years he has developed a distinct poetic voice—distanced yet personal, reasonable yet imaginative, and always curious—that allows him to blend fabulous evocation with down-to-earth analysis. His version of Genesis, for example, places the myth in the context of basic human economics:

       In the beginning God drenched        The Emptiness with images: the potter        Crosslegged at his wheel in Benares market        Making mud cups, another cup each second        Tapering up between his fingers, one more        To sell the tea-seller at a penny a dozen,        And tea a penny a cup. The customers smash        The empties, and waves of traffic grind the shards        To mud for new cups, in turn; and I keep one here        Next to me                                 ("The Hearts")

Pinsky has always been concerned with origins—of identity, a role in a family, a sense of place. In The Want Bone his inquiry goes further to look at the source and value of art—not just at his own but at everything we make. While the catalogues, perorations and sheer abundance of sensory detail in his work show that he is anything but ascetic, The Want Bone reflects a certain unease with the relentlessness of the creative impulse. This comes out in what is clearly the strangest piece in the book, the allegorical narrative "Jesus and Isolt." Pinsky's prose fable is not entirely successful—its tone waffles between the realistic and the fantastic, and the ending seems a bit pat—but he certainly has a new angle on Tristram. Here the heroic lover and poet is a "bull-necked and scar-covered killer and harper," his craft the obsessive transformation of slaughter into chivalric ballads. It's not the aesthetic distortion that disturbs here as much as the vision of the poet as an automaton who will keep on doing this even in hell. Tristram's harp, it turns out, is another want bone.

With that stream of mud cups and the poetry flowing from the killer's harp, Pinsky has homed in on the basic tension that animates his work. One of our most energetic poets, he wants to get everything into his art: fifties pop groups, Buddha, heroin, barnacles clinging to a pier (this all in one poem). Yet he is also far more aware than most of the final insignificance of human endeavor. In his struggle to reconcile the void and the abundance of this world, he has produced a book that is both unrelenting and rich.

James McCorkle (review date Winter 1992)

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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 question—can there be poetry after Auschwitz—has further mediated the reception of contemporary poetry, if not the very moment of poesis. Equally prevalent is the argument, generous in some ways, that all poetry is political. Carolyn Forché, in her essay, "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire," writes:

In those days I kept my work as a poet and journalist separate, of two distinct mentalités, but I could not keep El Salvador from my poems because it had become so much a part of my life. I was cautioned to avoid mixing art and politics, that one damages the other, and it was some time before I realized that "political poetry" often means the poetry of protest, accused of polemical didacticism, and not the poetry which implicitly celebrates politically acceptable values. [American Poetry Review 10, No. 4 (1981)]

Forché recognizes this deep-seated impulse to separate and maintain only what is acceptable or decorous as poetry, which in turn maintains the values acceptable to the society as a whole. She also points to the implicit politics of acceptable poetry. Restricting poetry to the decorous—or claiming the opposite, that all poetry is political—denies poetry any efficacy. It certainly limits the poem's imagination by limiting the poem to the rhetoric of decorum or the period's style. In fact, such limitations shift poetry's prospects from the realm of authenticity to that of style. Forché's statement points to the silencing of the poet, a censure of what the writer has noticed within experience or what the writer has experienced within the space of writing.

The poet's work, as Adrienne Rich has often stated, is the critique and revisioning of representation [see her On Lies, Secrets, and Silences: Selected Prose 1966–1978, 1979]. The space of writing is a shared, social space, yet it does not deny the individual act of creating that space. Such an act is profoundly difficult and one that requires an ethical responsibility or responsiveness, if it is to be authentic in its space and its outward regard. To not view poetry as an ethical process, is to initiate a disturbing leveling that extinguishes the very possibility of a responsive writing. The poem is always in the realm of betweenness or dialogue, neither wholly internal nor external; its space is autonomous yet can only be existent as a shared space. By its presence, this festive or autonomous time and space is a critique of the accumulations of history that have opposed and appropriated the imagination.

Wallace Stevens often articulates both the recourse to an autonomous space and a poetics of resistance. His vocabulary in the essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" [from The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, 1951] is one of opposition that asks of the artist responsibility and claims that art is of necessity the imagination's resistance to the world and its impoverishing realities:

It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us live our lives.

This violence from within is not identical to "a violence without"—the external violence, that of reality, is "without." External and empty, the world shapes us if it is not confronted. Furthermore, the imagination is a collaborator, its creation is the history we are caught in.

Robert Pinsky has understood both Forché's and Stevens's positions and offers important elaborations upon them both in his poems and essays. For Pinsky, the tension between public and private is re-visioned by the poet as necessitating transformation. He argues [in Poetry and the World] that one of the poet's responsibilities "is to mediate between the dead and the unborn: we must feel ready to answer, as if asked by the dead if we have handed on what they gave us, or asked by the unborn what we have for them"; furthermore, we, as poets, "must answer for what we see." Pinsky, I sense, implicitly rebukes the rhetorical posturing of Adorno or Auden's oft-quoted and misconstrued phrase "poetry makes nothing happen" that has led to critical disclaimers about poetry which is political, social, or historical. Pinsky argues that the poet is the place of transmission and therefore transformation.

Although this description of the poet's responsibility is conservative by Pinsky's own admission, it is moreover one of conservation—or resourcefulness, in that old sources are maintained and new ones uncovered or pointed to. Turning to the poems in his collection The Want Bone, we find that Pinsky offers a vision of the demands of the imagination when bound or pressed by power, that is, pushed to the extreme, hence a vatic imagination:

       For three weeks after this night vision        I Daniel, he wrote, ate no pleasant        Bread nor wine, my comeliness        Turned to corruption, I retained        No strength, my own countenance        Changed in me. But I kept the        Matter in my heart, I was mute        And set my face toward the earth.        And afterward I rose up        And did the king's business.        Appalled initiate. Intimate of power.        Scorner of golden images, governor.        In the drinking places they said        He had wished himself unborn,        That he had no navel.        So tawny Belteshazzar or Daniel        With his unclean smell of lion        And his night visions,        Who took the thoughts of the King        Into his mind O Jews, prospered        In the reign of Nebuchadnezzar        And of his son Belshazzar        And in the reign of Darius        And in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.

In these concluding stanzas of "Visions of Daniel," Pinsky critiques Daniel's political cohabitation, while also understanding that it was necessary for his survival. The poem, furthermore, describes Daniel's ability to reverse the relation of power: his knowledge gives him power the king lacks. He is both prophet and interpreter; hence he occupies a privileged position since only he could unfold the secrets of Nebuchadnezzar's dream or the meaningless writing that appeared on Belshazzar's walls. Moreover, Daniel is challenged to interpret—that is to see clearly what is secret—"a vision / Of the world's entire future / Couched in images." Disliked by the Jews and subjected to the gossip of the pious, Daniel was no collaborator although he was an "appointed officer / Of the crown." Instead, Daniel becomes an emblem of survival through the intercession of the imagination. Daniel's survival, in fact, allows for the survival and emancipation of the Jews under Cyrus.

Pinsky has selected Daniel as the emblem of the vatic poet in that this position and the story of Daniel reveal the complex relationship of power and the imagination. The imagination literally preserves Daniel's youth while the kings age. Daniel is a subject of generations of kings, yet he is able to subject them to terror. Daniel, through his casting of images, compels Nebuchadnezzar "on all fours, driven / To eat grass like the oxen. / His body wet by the dews of heaven, / Hair matted like feathers, fingers / Hooked like the claw of the raven." Pinsky does not suggest that Daniel merely interprets the king's dreams; instead, Daniel's casting of images transforms the king and renders him senseless. Daniel is the traditional bard, for his words become curses that are made literal or made flesh. The catalog and the fortuitous rhymes emphasizes this transformation initiated by language. Daniel serves not only as the prophet of history but also as the maker of history, albeit as an intermediary: "God has weighed you and found you / Wanting, you power will be given / To the Medes and the Persians." History then is seen as a series of transformations—makings and unmakings—produced by a single agency. Pinsky does not intend to critique such a proposition nor does he necessarily accept it. His interest is in the position of the individual voice who witnesses, enacts, and records such conditions.

Pinsky's terse lines of this poem, unlike the long essaying lines of An Explanation of America, register immediacy and urgency that is requisite for the challenge God presents to Daniel. As an emblem of the poet, Daniel offers a complex and problematic figure. Daniel, as poet, is presented with the vision of the "world's entire future / Couched in images." a vision of incalculable burdens, a vision that is to remain unuttered, secret but exposed to Daniel. He sees the images or rebuses but is told, "Go thy way O Daniel, for the words / Are closed up and sealed till the end." Revelation also inscribes exclusion and limitation. Daniel will not be allowed the sealed words; hence he can only be mute. Furthermore, Daniel is given a vision of prefiguration; what Daniel thus sees is the literal figuring of the division of Jew and Christian. Inscribed in that figure "Who stood upon the waters" is the cataclysmic history of the Jews. And not only is Daniel forbidden the words, he is also condemned. Pinsky has created a terrifying drama of one ensnared in the webs of historical knowledge masked as prophecy. Daniel's challenge—for it is a challenge to survive the vision and to emerge human again—is that of twentieth-century poets who have been given profoundly disturbing images of their histories, which in turn become our histories. The vision ultimately assures Daniel of his task, his ironic task, of doing "the king's business." Pinsky understands the terror inscribed in both history and imagination as a form of power that interlocks the processes of making and unmaking.

"Visions of Daniel" is a public poem for it is a reenactment of Daniel's visions or the re-presenting of a literary and mythic figure. It assumes the very position of the narrative of Daniel without any reflexive commentary or distancing. History hammers out images of its processes and the poet must confront those images. How does Daniel respond to Pinsky's argument in the essay "Responsibilities of the Poet" that

there is a dialectic between the poet and culture: the culture presents us with poetry, and with implicit definitions of what materials and means are poetic. The answer we must promise to give is "no." Real works revise the received idea of what poetry is; by mysterious cultural means the revisions are assimilated and then presented as the next definition to be resisted, violated and renewed. What poets must answer for is the unpoetic. [Poetry and the World]

Pinsky's argument recalls Stevens's position that the poem's imagination must have a violence within that resists the violence without in order for the imagination to protect itself. The imagination must defamiliarize; otherwise it meshes with the reality it has made for itself and hence fails to notice.

The truth Pinsky reveals is the complicity of the violence within and the violence without. What Pinsky teaches us in his essays and poems is that we must constantly critique or resist in order to renew. The closing stanza of "The Ghost Hammer," the penultimate poem of The Want Bone, reveals our complicity:

       Mattock of want, sickle of Kali, bare hand        Of hunger—you too have lifted it and let it fall,        You have committed images, the tool        Is warm from your hand.

Daniel has "committed images" as have we—no one can avoid judgment. Pinsky shows such complicity more intimately in "Shirt." The attention to the details of the making of the shirt—"The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams, / The nearly invisible stitches along the collar"—at first links the observer to the object and his appreciation of its construction.

The poem quickly acknowledges the Korean and Malaysian workers in sweatshops and the history of the notorious 1911 first in the Triangle Shirt Factory; it shifts then to the Scottish workers controlled by mill owners who, "inspired by the hoax of Ossian," invented clan tartans. The interwined genealogies of oppression and production are relentless:

       The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter        Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton        As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:        George Herbert, your descendant is a Black        Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma        And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit        And feel and clean smell have satisfied        Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality        Down to the buttons of simulated bone

The poem is startlingly explicit about the relationship between the consumer and the worker. The shirt serves as an emblematic article of transaction and as an artifact of our obliviousness of the history of the toil that describes how and who made an object. Pinsky notices the history within the intimate and the daily, which becomes the necessary record of the poet. Pinsky's careful attentiveness—we can see his hand moving across the cloth—recalls Elizabeth Bishop's intimate eye and hand tracing over maps, fish, the clutter of filling stations.

In the daily events, historical forces of transformation reveal themselves. In the stunning poem, "From the Childhood of Jesus," the miraculous occurs when "[o]ne Saturday morning," after Jesus modeled "twelve sparrows out of river clay" and "set the birds he had made, // Evenly as the hours," he

       … clapped his hands and shouted to the birds        To go away. They raised their beaks at his words        And breathed and stirred their feathers and flew away.        The people were frightened.

The power that allows such a transformation, however, was rooted in anger. Both Joseph's rebuke, "Child, you have offended the Word," and the tattletale, who reports the transgressions to Joseph, "Come see how your child has profaned the Sabbath, // Making images at the river on the Day of Rest," invoke the law and the word against which is set playfulness. Whether out of further play or play as magic or anger, the response to these rebukes is the transformation of clay into flesh by the invocation of words. Here, the words uttered by Jesus have power, while those claiming the word as law are rendered powerless.

The poem, however, depicts the world as possibility through transforming play as a doomed world: the clay-to-flesh sparrows only frighten; the child who disrupts the world created by play is himself destroyed by Jesus' proclamation:

       "Unrighteous, impious, ignorant, what did the water        Do to harm you? Now you are going to wither        The way a tree does, you shall bear no fruit        And no leaves, you shall wither down to the root."

If images can be made into flesh, then the powers of transformation can also destroy, curse, or unmake creation's flesh. From this curse, Jesus' anger turns to prophecy that defines ultimate judgment, of which the transformation of a child into a withered trunk is only a prefiguration. History is seen as a perpetual conflict, where "an endless night // Endlessly [is] fleeing a Torah written in flame." Although language is the agency of transformation, it marks limits and absolute ends and thus is complicitous with unmaking. What is created remains marginal or lost when the imagination turns to wrath:

       And high in the dark, where unknown even to Jesus        The twelve new sparrows flew aimlessly through the night,        Not blinking or resting, as if never to alight.

The poem suggests that we are defined by violent collisions and all-consuming desires, as the bleached shark's jaw of the title poem signs: "My food my parent my child I want you my own / My flower my fin my life my lightness my O." The whole cosmos is swept into the gaping "O" of the shark's jaw, into its one annihilating letter.

Robert Pinsky (essay date Summer 1994)

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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; the flickering eyes of the aroused mummy; the elegant neck-bite that changes the virginal heroine forever; Jekyll or the werewolf helplessly becoming stronger, hairier, more animal; the hunger of George Romero's living dead, relentless and contagious. The body may be snatched or bitten, invaded or inverted or duplicated, obscenely revived or horribly distorted, but above all it changes. The human takes on qualities of the animal or of inert matter. In this sense of the word, horror at the least has one of its earliest manifestations in Canto XXV.

The body does change in Ovid and Lucan—as Dante acknowledges here in his audacious challenge to the two Latin poets, his models here. But it could be argued that in the Metamorphoses, mutation is presented as a fact rather than a moral process: it is magical and objective rather than psychological. Dante implies something like this when he says that Ovid "never transformed two individual / Front-to-front natures so each form as they met / Was ready to exchange their substance." That is, Dante suggests that his image of transformation will present not only the external account of an emotional or erotic change, as when a man becomes a snake or a woman becomes a fountain: he will give an account of moral interpenetration, and of psychological complicity. The idea of contrapasso, in which the suffering in Hell extends or reproduces the sin, does seem to give this mutual transformation a dimension absent from Dante's pre-Christian models, as he claims.

The living dead of the Inferno—denied eternal life, yet full of a vigorous otherlife—anticipate the Romantic creation of horror as a literary and cinematic form, the nineteenth-century vampires and monsters conceived by Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others. Dante's attentive descriptions—in XXV, the way the lizard's hind legs twist together to form a penis, while from the man's penis a pair of feet grow; or the way the man's pierced navel emits a stream of smoke; or the description of the reptile's snout receding to form a human face—bring dark colors to Ovidian immediacy.

But this fleshly imagery writhes from the crannies of an exacting architecture. These thieves who ignored the boundary of thine and mine in life now merge as shades, their shells of personal identity made horribly permeable. Amid this blending "like melting wax," the eye of the poet identifies and delineates, carefully distinguishing such details as the uncanny yawn of the victim gazing down at the reptile who has stung him. And a tough scholastic vocabulary of precise abstractions resists all the merging and shape-shifting: "With both not what they were, / Yet neither"—a phrase, on the other hand, possibly borrowed from Ovid's account of Hermaphroditus in Book IV of Metamorphoses.

Canto XXV opens with one character gesturing obscenely at God with both hands, then proceeds from a snake-ridden centaur through a series of spectacular transformation scenes, each with a sexual energy counterweighted by a nausea or confusion of the rational intelligence: the witnessing intelligence that partly carries the day and partly, in the blur of the canto's closing lines, acknowledges its bewilderment, infected by the shifting forms in this region of Hell.

Dante originated terza rima (interlocking rhymes in the pattern aba bcb cdc ded, etc.) for his Commedia. The form, conclusive yet propulsive, gives the poem a muscular quality, moving through narrative, dialogue, cosmology, meditation, and scholastic musing with tremendous conviction, carrying the reader along as the sentences cross rhymes and tercets.

Rather than abandoning the form or trying to reproduce it, this translation tries to achieve a reasonable English equivalent, by running the sentence freely across the ends of lines and tercets and by defining rhyme in such a way as to let English approximate the richness in like sounds of Italian. That is, I have defined rhyme by like terminal consonants, no matter how much the vowel may vary. Thus, in the opening lines of this canto, there are such triads as both / forth / mouth and neck / snake / alack. The goal is to create an audible terza rima, within the idiom of English sentences that can be read with pleasure.

Canto XXV: Among the Thieves        The thief held up his hands when he was through,            And "God," he cried, making the fig with both—            "Take these: I aim them squarely up at you!"        The serpents were my friends from that time forth,            For then one coiled itself about his neck            As if to say, "That's all then, from your mouth,"        And another went around his arms to snake            Them tight and cinch itself in front, so tied            They couldn't budge enough to gesture. Alack,        Pistoia, Pistoial—Why haven't you decreed            Your own incineration, so that you dwell            On earth no more, since you surpass your seed        In evil-doing? In all the circles of Hell            I saw no spirit so arrogant to God,            Not even him who fell from the Theban wall.        Speaking no more then, Vanni Fucci fled,            And next I saw a centaur full of rage:            "Where is he? Where is the bitter one?" he cried        As he charged up. I think more snakes than lodge            In Maremma's swamp were riding on his croup,            Swarming along his back up to the edge        Of our human form. He bore behind his nape,            Along the shoulders, a dragon with wings spread wide:            If any blocked the path, it burnt them up.        "This centaur's name is Cacus," my master said,            "Who underneath the stones of Aventine            Many a time has made a lake of blood.        He doesn't walk the same road as his clan            Because by theft and fraud he tried to get            The splendid herd that lay near him—a sin        That ended his crooked habits: he died for it.            When Hercules' club rained onto his head            Some hundred blows, he lived to feel ten hit."        While he was saying this, the centaur sped            Beyond us, and three new spirits appeared below;            They went unnoticed by me or by my guide        Until they shouted to us, "Who are you?"            At which we ceased our talk and turned to them.            I did not know them, but as people do        When chance disposes, one had some cause to name            Another—"Where have we left Cianfa?" he said.            To be sure my leader heard, I signaled him        To stay alert, with a finger that I laid            From chin to nose. Reader, if you are slow            To credit what I tell you next, it should        Be little wonder, for I who saw it know            That I myself can hardly acknowledge it:            While I was staring at the sinners below        A serpent darted forward that had six feet,            And facing one of the three it fastened on him            All over—with the middle feet it got        A grip upon the belly, with each forelimb            It clasped an arm; its fangs gripped both his cheeks;            It spread its hind feet out to do the same        To both his thighs, extending its tail to flex            Between them upwards through to the loins behind.            No ivy growing in a tree's bark sticks        As firmly as the horrid beast entwined            Its limbs around the other. Then, as if made            Out of hot wax, they clung and made a bond        And mixed their colors; and neither could be construed            As what it was at first—so, as the track            Of flame moves over paper, there is a shade        That moves before it that is not yet black,            And the white dies away. The other two            Were looking on, and cried, "Ah me, now look        At how you change, Agnello!—already you            Are neither two nor one." Now the two heads            Had become one; we watched the two shapes grow        Into one face, where both were lost. The sides            Grew two arms, fused from lengths that had been four;            Thighs, legs, chest, belly merged; and in their steads        Grew members that were never seen before.            All of the former features were blotted out.            A perverse shape, with both not what they were,        Yet neither—such, its pace deliberate,            It moved away. The way a lizard can dash            Under the dog day's scourge, darting out        Between the hedges so that it seems a flash            Of lightning if it spurts across the road,            So did a fiery little serpent rush        Toward the bellies of the two who stayed;            Peppercorn black and livid, it struck out,            Transfixing one in the place where we are fed        When life begins—then fell before his feet,            Outstretched. The pierced one gazed at it and stood            Not speaking, only yawning as if a fit        Of sleep or fever had taken him. He eyed            The serpent, the serpent him. From this one's wound            And that one's mouth smoke violently flowed,        And their smoke met. Let Lucan now attend            In silence, who has told the wretched fates            Of Nasidius and Sabellus—till he has learned        What I will let fly next. And Ovid, who writes            Of Cadmus and Arethusa, let him be still—            For though he in his poet-craft transmutes        One to a serpent, and makes the other spill            Transformed into a fountain, I envy him not:            He never transformed two individual        Front-to-front natures so both forms as they met            Were ready to exchange their substance. The twain            Reacted mutually: the reptile split        Its tail to make a fork; the wounded one            Conjoined his feet. The legs and thighs were pressed            So tight no mark of juncture could be seen;        The split tail took the shape the other lost,            Its skin grew softer, and the other's hard.            I saw the arms draw inward to be encased        Inside the armpits; the animal's feet appeared            To lengthen as the other's arms grew less.            The hind paws, twisting together like a cord,        Became the member man conceals. From his,            The wretch had grown two feet. While the smoke veils            Each one with colors that are new, and grows        Hair here and strips it there, the one shape falls            And one comes upright. But neither turned aside            The unholy lights that stared above the muzzles        That each was changing: the one who newly stood            Drew his in toward his temples, and from the spare            Matter from that, ears issued from the head,        Behind smooth cheeks; what didn't course to an ear            But was retained became the face's nose,            And fleshed the lips to the thickness they should bear.        He that lay prone propelled his nose and face            Forward, and shrunk his ears back into the head            As a snail does its horns. The tongue that was        Whole and prepared for speech was split instead—            And in the other the forked tongue formed one piece:            And the smoke ceased. The soul that had been made        A beast fled down the valley with a hiss;            The other, speaking now, spat after it,            Turned his new shoulders on it to address        The third, and said: "I'll have Buoso trot            On all fours down this road, as I have done!"            And so I saw that seventh deadweight transmute        And mutate—and may its strangeness excuse my pen,            If it has tangled things. And though my eyes            Were somewhat in confusion at the scene,        My mind somewhat bewildered, yet none of these            Could flee to hide himself so secretly            That I could not distinguish well the face        Of Puccio Sciancato, who of the three            Companions that we first took notice of,            Alone was not transformed; the other was he        Whose death, Gaville, you have good cause to grieve.

John Ahern (review date 1 January 1995)

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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 please." Neither Emerson nor his young admirer Walt Whitman gave us a rowdy American "Comedy." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation appeared in 1865, a decade after Leaves of Grass. As a professor of Romance languages and the author of Evangeline, Longfellow seemed an ideal translator, but as one critic quipped, he had translated the Comedy into the English dictionary, not the English language. His inert rendering never engaged the living American language. Since then, on both sides of the Atlantic, more than a hundred Englishings of the Comedy have appeared, but none has achieved rowdiness or vulgar eloquence.

Dante wrote his epic not in Latin but in ordinary language (Italian) in which, he archly observed, "even little women communicate." The offended cultural elite griped that illiterates croaked out the Comedy on the crossroads and sang it in taverns. When blacksmiths and donkey drivers sang it at work, they butchered it. After tradesmen requested public explanation of the hard parts, the city of Florence hired Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave up the task at Canto 19 under attack from alarmed literati. Great poems should not be opened up to the masses, they said.

An entire society speaks in the Comedy, in endless regional, city and class accents: haughty Ghibelline warlords from Florence, suave Bolognese pimps, testy Roman popes, mild abducted nuns, oversexed Lombard noblewomen—each with an utterly personal voice. Dante's people stutter, sob, moan, whine, whisper, cajole, screech, ramble and mumble. They talk baby talk, gibberish and Old Provençal. They also execute breath-taking rhetorical performances. The total effect is symphonic. A translator's impossible task is to reinvent all those unique voices. Some translations sound like Mahler transcribed for the piano—not a note is lost, but if you don't know the original, the transcription leaves you clueless. Some American long poems offer an analogous polyphony: Leaves of Grass, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, Ezra Pound's Cantos, William Carlos Williams's Paterson.

Robert Pinsky brings superb credentials to The Inferno of Dante, his new translation of the first part of the "Comedy." A premier citizen of "American Poetry and American Life" (to borrow one of his titles), he has participated in and chronicled "American poetry's argument with itself." His America is a "many-voiced place" where "dreamy aspiration and saving vulgarity mix," as he observed in Poetry and the World (1988). He also collaborated in translating Czeslaw Milosz's notebooks. His skill and power as a poet inform every line of this splendid translation. He shapes sinewy lines whose edges you can actually hear. This is true verse, not the typographical arrangement of poetic prose. Rejecting both blank verse and a clanging triple rhyme that would have reproduced the scheme of the original, he translates into an effective half-strength terza rima. Unlike some translators, he does not match every Italian line with a line in English. Without missing a jot or a title, he makes cantos as much as 20 lines shorter than the originals and so attains a truly Dantean velocity. Epic similes come out clean, not clunky. The following passage from Canto 3 gives his basic music and thrust:

           Teeth chattering in their skulls,        They called curses on the seed, the place, the hour        Of their own begetting and their birth. With wails        And tears they gathered on the evil shore          That waits for all who don't fear God. There demon          Charon beckons them, with his eyes of fire;        Crowded in a herd, they obey if he should summon,          And he strikes at any laggards with his oar.          As leaves in quick succession sail down in autumn        Until the bough beholds its entire store          Fallen to the earth, so Adam's evil seed          Swoop from the bank when each is called, as sure        As a trained falcon, to cross to the other side          Of the dark water; and before one throng can land           On the far shore, on this side new souls crowd.

Mr. Pinsky opts for savvy paraphrase, not obtuse literalness, occasionally sneaking in a quick footnote. Even so, at times Dante's concision is lost. For example, "I believed that he believed that I believed" comes out as "I believe my guide believed that in my belief…." At times, one wishes his version a bit rowdier. But if "Ovid … let him be still" seems too polite, "Shut up, Ovid!" as a possible alternative is undoubtedly too rowdy.

Very rarely, he undertranslates. At hell's bottom on a glassy lake of ice a traitor whose head is frozen looking downward into the ice asks Dante (literally translated), "Why do you reflect [or mirror] yourself so much in us?" The literal meaning is clear: unable to look at each other, the two must scrutinize each other's reflection. But the rude query also obliquely conveys unwelcome self-knowledge. Starting at the traitors' reflections, Dante sees a mirror image of himself. Since he kicks one traitor (accidentally?) in the face and double-crosses another, he is, in fact, a traitor. Mr. Pinsky's free but accurate rendering—"Why stare at us so long?"—loses the crucial idea that the traitors' lake is a reflection of Dante himself.

But given the distinction of Mr. Pinsky's achievement, this is nit-picking. From the beginning his translation propels us through a gripping narrative whose drama is always in sharp focus and whose characters speak in distinctive voices. There is far less padding and translationese than in most competitors. If he does not quite attain Dante's full symphonic range, no one has come closer.

Substantial, useful notes by Nicole Pinsky, a daughter of Mr. Pinsky, provide some of "the literary and historical information Dante's original audience might have had" but are not intended as an interpretive guide. She draws on commentaries in English translations of Dante from Longfellow to Allen Mandelbaum but not—surprisingly—the many excellent 20th-century commentaries in Italian. At times, one wishes for greater detail. It is good to be told that Galeotto is the name of the messenger between Lancelot and Guinevere and that the French version of his name became a synonym for "pander," but we also need to know that "Galeotto" is the actual title of the book that Paolo and Francesca were reading before committing adultery.

Readers seeking interpretive guidance will welcome the excellent introduction and micro-commentaries to a half-dozen or so cantos by a leading Dante scholar, John Freccero; they distill a lifetime of scholarship and reflection on Dante. Robert Pinsky himself provides another half-dozen interpretive notes, including a bravura excursus on the horror of human-to-animal and animal-to-human metamorphoses for Canto 25. The artist Michael Mazur provides extensive black-and-white illustrations as well as observations about maps of Dante's hell and his own aerial view of hell in a note to Canto 11.

Edward Hirsch (review date 23 January 1995)

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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 that he charms his way into the netherworld to reclaim his lost bride; a man of murderous physical prowess (Heracles) sets off for Hades to retrieve a hellhound with three heads and a snake's tail in order to fulfill the last of twelve labors. In Book XI of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus sails his ship into a country where the sun never shines, and there, pouring libations to the dead, he summons a swarm of ghosts, among them an unburied friend, his aged mother, and the seer Tiresias. This is echoed in Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid, when Aeneas persuades the Sibyl of Cumae to guide him into Hades, so he can speak with his dead father about the future. As Homer's scene informed Virgil's, so Virgil's account served as a prototype for Dante's Inferno—the most entrancing, detailed, and audacious treatment of a human being's journey into Hell ever written.

The Divine Comedy consists of a hundred cantos, divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It is at once a metaphysical adventure story (a pilgrim goes forth to discover the fate of souls after death), a personal odyssey understood in allegorical terms ("Midway on our life's journey," the poem famously begins, "I found myself / In dark woods"), an encyclopedic guide to the schematics of the otherworld (from the doomed in Hell, through the atoning sinners in Purgatory, to the blessed souls in Heaven), and a quest beyond the grave for a visionary beauty (Beatrice, who is at different times compared to divine grace in the Church, to the Virgin Mary, and even to Christ himself). The poem is a kind of Augustinian confession: a search for the Absolute written under the sign of eternity, a conversion narrative about losing one's way and turning toward God's light. The Inferno is the first installment of the pilgrim's three-part spiritual journey, but it seems to have held a nearly exclusive claim on the majority of modern readers. James Merrill has pointed out that "to most twentieth-century readers the Inferno is Dante." Apparently, the siren song of damnation calls to us in ways that atonement and salvation do not—perhaps because we recognize ourselves in the lost, unhappy sinners who emanate from the shadows.

In guiding us through a permanently apocalyptic landscape, Dante was also representing his idea of life on earth. In the Foreword to Robert Pinsky's splendid new translation, The Inferno of Dante, John Freccero, the dean of American Dante scholars, notes, "Hell is the state of the soul after death, but it is also the state of the world as seen by an exile whose experience has taught him no longer to trust the world's values." Dante was exiled in perpetuity from his beloved city of Florence on false political charges in 1302, and by the time he wrote the Inferno—the poem is set in 1300 but was composed sometimes between 1307 and 1314—he had come to view his birthplace with the skeptical, unforgiving eye of a disabused lover. Here is the opening salvo of Canto XXVI:

       Rejoice, O Florence, since you are so great,        Beating your wings on land and on the sea,        That in Hell too your name is spread about!        I found among those there for their thievery        Five of your citizens …

So the Inferno is, among other things, a fantastic dream of retribution, "a pawnshop in which all the countries and cities known to Dante were left unredeemed" (Osip Mandelstam), and a treatise on the corrupt and degraded state of society. We don't share Dante's medieval cosmology or politics, but twentieth-century readers have had no trouble recognizing his portrait of Hell as a stand-in for a secular human city.

The Inferno of Dante is an informative bilingual edition, with the Italian printed en face. It has Freccero's excellent Foreword; useful notes; a detailed plan of Dante's journey through Hell; and thirty-five black-and-white monotypes by the artist Michael Mazur. These are beautifully eerie and restrained—a visual backdrop to the dark night of the soul that constitutes Dante's voyage. Most important, Robert Pinsky's verse translation is fast-paced, idiomatic, and accurate. It moves with the concentrated gait of a lyric poem—the Inferno is, after all, an account of two poets, Dante and his guide, Virgil, walking through the nine descending circles of Hell—and the grand sweep of a nineteenth-century novel: Hell is filled with Dostoyevskian sufferers, disenfranchised crowds, Sadean torments. The primary strength of this translation is the way it maintains the original's episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character. It is no small achievement to reproduce Dante's rhyme scheme and at the same time sound fresh and natural in English, and Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante's vernacular music where many others have failed. This translator is first and foremost a poet.

Dante wrote the Commedia in Italian, which in his day was still a nebulous national language, rather than in the customary literary language of Latin, in order to be accessible to a wider audience. He compares himself to David, the "humble psalmist," and, in a sense, his poem sets itself up as a colloquial rival to Scripture. It claims enormous truths for itself in a fresh style. The language is by turns stately, demotic, and mercurial. It can be scholastically dense or intimately conversational. Neologisms, regional dialects, and Latin borrowings abound. Didactic stretches accelerate into passages of dizzying verbal majesty as souls become corporeal and words metamorphose into things. There is no replicating this linguistic richness in another language. As the Italian axiom has it, "Traduttore traditore" ("The translator is a traitor"), and in truth the back stacks of our libraries are littered with treacheries, but Pinsky takes his place in a line of estimable poetic predecessors—among them Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867) and Laurence Binyon (1933)—who have not only wrestled with Dante's content but also found adventurous formal equivalents for his style and music.

Dante's use of terza rima, a marvellous instrument that he devised specifically for the Commedia, is the greatest obstacle to translating the poem into English. He composed his poem in interlocking three-line stanzas called terzine, or tercets, which rhyme in the pattern aba, bcb, cdc, etc. Rhyming the first and third lines gives each tercet a sense of temporary closure; rhyming the second line with the first and last lines of the next stanza generates a strong feeling of propulsion. The effect is both open-ended and conclusive, like moving through a series of interpenetrating rooms (indeed, the Italian word stanza means "room") or going down a set of winding stairs: you are always travelling forward while looking backward. The movement is reinforced by Dante's skillful use of the hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) line common to Italian poetry. Its rhythm incarnates the spiralling action of the form; in fact, many scholars have pointed to the spiral as the closest geometric equivalent to terza rima. (One has even compared it to the helixes of DNA.) The momentum of each canto—an urgency slowed by retrospection—mirrors the larger voyage of the pilgrim through the poem.

It has been estimated that translating the entire Divine Comedy into terza rima requires more than forty-five hundred triple rhymes in English. This is a staggering number; whereas Italian is abundantly rich in rhyme, English is relatively poor. English rhymes are also more emphatic than Italian ones, more ringing and noticeable. No wonder that Byron labelled Dante "the most untranslatable of poets." Previous translations have often buckled under the nearly intolerable weight of trying to reproduce Dante's form in credible English. Even such ambitious formal versions of the Inferno as those by Dorothy Sayers (1949) and John Ciardi (1954)—who uses a "dummy," or defective, terza rima, leaving out the linking middle rhyme—contort English syntax and strain English diction in order to match the Italian rhyme scheme. It's easy for the imitator of terza rima to feel, in the English poet C. H. Sisson's phrase, "like a clown following a ballet dancer," and in recent decades the most accurate translations have tended to shun rhyme altogether.

The student of the Inferno can turn with confidence to the prose version of the Dante scholar Charles Singleton (1970), the most comprehensive annotated edition in our language, and to the blankverse versions of Mark Musa (1971), Sisson himself (1980), Allen Mandelbaum (1980), and Tom Phillips (1985), whose jaunty carriage makes his blank verse especially pleasurable. These versions gesture toward the poem's form—its body—without trying to approximate its true shape. Even Longfellow, whose translation is a magnificent work in its own right, eschews rhyme in favor of a Miltonic blank verse. Every translator knows that terza rima isn't extraneous to Dante's work (T. S. Eliot once said that "Dante thought in terza rima"), but that doesn't make it any less difficult to transport. As if to make the point, Shelley's "Triumph of Life," the finest English poem ever written in the form, was unfinished at his death.

There have been at least fifty renderings of the Inferno into English in our century, but Pinsky's is the first rhyming translation unmarred by antiquarianism. He consistently employs slant or half rhymes (pain/sin/down; night/thought/it) as well as full rhymes (dwell/Hell/well), in order to re-create Dante's form while remaining true to his meaning. Consonantal rhyming, based on similar rather than identical internal vowel sounds, allows for a more flexible, more complex, and even dissonant sense of rhythm and harmony. This tactic is crucial when it comes to rhyming disyllabic words, since triple half rhymes (quiet/spirit/merit) don't stop with the dull thud that triple full rhymes do (quailing/railing/wailing) at the ends of English lines. It is precisely these disyllabic, or "feminine," rhymes that have undone so many previous translators. Pinsky's use of Dickinson's or Yeats's method of slant rhyme—to name only two of the poets who fully mastered its effects—supplied him with, in his words, "an audible scaffold of English terza rima, a scaffold that does not distort the English sentence, or draw excessively on the reaches of the English lexicon."

Pinsky also makes accommodations and compromises. He readily admits that he doesn't follow the original line by line, or even stanza by stanza, and that at times he fore-shortens cantos in order to mimic Dante's epigrammatic compression. Occasionally, Pinsky, too, wrenches rhymes into place; it's hard to imagine anyone actually saying "Although their burden held them in retard" (XXIII) or "Which wins all battles if it does not despond" (XXIV). While Pinsky uses enjambment—the carrying of phrases across lines—as one of his most successful strategies, he moves sentences across both lines and stanzas more aggressively than Dante, and so runs the risk of emphasizing the poem's forward momentum at the expense of its retrospective vistas. Yet this tactic also enables him to capture the poem's swirling downward rhythm—what Dante calls "the hurricane of Hell in perpetual motion."

Dante's verse has a depth and gravity—at times whirling and tumultuous, at times stately and processional—that Pinsky captures exceedingly well. Here is how he translates the traditional epic invocation that begins Canto II:

        Day was departing, and the darkening air         Called all earth's creatures to their evening quiet         While I alone was preparing as though for war         To struggle with my journey and with the spirit         Of pity, which flawless memory will redraw:         O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit         Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw—         Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature.

These well-modulated lines evoke Dante's dark misgivings at the beginning of his project, his sense of foreboding as he battles exhaustion and despair. The pilgrim is about to descend into the underworld—"I am no Aeneas or Paul," he will soon declare—and wonders whether he is capable of sustaining a journey beyond death. He knows he will struggle with misplaced sympathy for the damned. And he questions whether he is worthy enough to write the epic (a contemporary Bible? a new Aeneid?) that we are about to read. Thus the triple invocation to the Muses, to the presiding spirit of art, and to the interior god of memory.

To appreciate the cadenced grandeur and Virgilian echoes of Pinsky's flexible iambic pentameter, one has only to compare it to a stilted rendering such as that by Dorothy Sayers: "Day was departing and the dusk drew on, / Loosing from labour every living thing / Save me, in all the world; I—I alone—/ Must gird me to the wars—rough travelling." Sayers is actually a stricter translator than Pinsky. She follows Dante's lines and line endings more closely than he does, but one practically has to translate her translation ("I—I alone—/ Must gird me to the wars"?) in order to figure out what the poet is saying. She distorts the syntax to maintain the rhymes, in the process making Dante sound like a weak Victorian poet.

A prose crib such as Charles Singleton's, which is nothing if not literal, seems to stand at the opposite extreme from Sayers' high-sounding verse. Here is his rendering of the same passage:

Day was departing, and the dark air was taking the creatures on earth from their labors; and I alone was making ready to sustain the strife, both of the journey and of the pity, which unerring memory shall retrace. O Muses, O high genius, help me now! O memory that wrote down what I saw, here shall your worthiness appear!

This is preferable to Sayers, because, if nothing else, it's more accurate, and yet poetic models have to come from somewhere, even if they are outmoded or absorbed and expressed unconsciously. Singleton's intentionally flat version starts off agreeably enough, but soon he, too, imitates an archaic diction—"and I alone was making ready to sustain the strife"—that is alien to contemporary speech. And the phrase "both of the journey and of the pity," while it is an exact translation from the Italian, doesn't say much in English. What does it mean to "sustain the strife … of the pity"? The translator who is too much a literalist—even such a great Dantista as Singleton—runs the risk of transposing the words but sacrificing their meaning.

Pinsky steers a sure course between the Scylla and Charybdis of dogged literalism and high-flown lyricism, and as a result the contemporary reader experiences the startling seriousness of a pilgrimage that begins in dark woods, falters in the vestibule of Hell, and then proceeds according to an exact route from Limbo and the upper regions toward the center point of the earth. Dante takes pains to describe the journey with geometric and astrological precision, and Mazur has provided an "aerial view" with a schematic overlay at the beginning of Canto XI.

The protagonist of Dante's poem is bewildered by both what he sees and what he doesn't see in the shadowy nether regions, and he repeatedly turns to Virgil for explanations. Here, in Pinsky's strong mimetic rendering, is his initial encounter with the abyss:

       The sighs, groans and laments at first were so loud,        Resounding through starless air, I began to weep:        Strange languages, horrible screams, words imbued        With rage or despair, cries as of troubled sleep        Or of a tortured shrillness—they rose in a coil        Of tumult, along with noises like the slap        Of beating hands, all fused in a ceaseless flail        That churns and frenzies that dark and timeless air        Like sand in a whirlwind. And I, my head in a swirl        Of error, cried: "Master, what is this I hear?"

In a spirited tale of mentorship, Virgil glosses the sights and sounds of Hell, and leads Dante through its physical and spiritual geography. The pilgrim is overwhelmed by the number of wretched souls passing before his eyes. One inevitably thinks of The Waste Land at the lines "I would not have thought / Death had undone so many," and, in fact, Eliot's work captures better than most the Dantesque world of living ghosts—the terrifying isolation of souls unmoored from community, alienated even from themselves. At every stage, Dante encounters individuals who want to tell him their heartbreaking stories: Francesca of Rimini, Ulysses, Count Ugolino, and a host of others. This is a key social aspect of the poem, which makes it feel both contemporary and historically rich.

In Dante's underworld, every figure stands for his own transgression. Dante borrowed from Aquinas the Aristotelian term contrapasso, or law of retribution, to designate a system in which the punishment distills and matches the crime. 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. In an insightful note Pinsky suggests that Dante's portrayal of the living dead anticipates the Romantic creation of horror as a literary—and, later, cinematic—genre. The uncanny metamorphosis of human beings continues to intensify throughout the poem, since the farther down Dante and Virgil go the more heinous are the crimes they encounter, until finally, in the darkness of point zero, they crawl across the body of Lucifer himself.

At the conclusion of the poem, the pilgrim (and, by extension, the reader) feels a liberating sense of release at escaping Hell and glimpsing the heavens again:

       To get back up to the shining world from there        My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel;        And following its path, we took no care        To rest, but climbed: he first, then I—so far,        Through a round aperture I saw appear        Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,        Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.

In recent times, it has been argued, by Erich Auerbach, among others, that Dante's characters are so sympathetically drawn and so realistically portrayed that they subvert the rigid categories in which the allegorist has ensnared them. Dante's medieval typology (the progression from Sins of Incontinence to Sins of Fraud) doesn't mean much to us anymore. It is not the "allegory of theologians" but the flawed humanity of Dante's characters that excites and touches readers. In Auerbach's words, "the beyond becomes a stage for human beings and human passions." This is a tempting argument. It's not particularly troubling to think of schismatics being divided from themselves, but it's another matter to encounter the Provençal poet Bertran de Born, who was beheaded, and whose trunk is forever carrying around his severed head, "gripping its hair like a lantern, letting it swing." And while it's one thing to learn of political treachery that sends traitors to Antenora, in the ninth circle, it's quite another to witness Ugolino, who died of starvation, gnawing his enemy's skull and reliving the story of his gruesome last days. The suffering of individuals writhing in the torture cell of eternity calls out to us from beyond the grave.

Yet in any full reading of the Inferno, it is crucial to distinguish between two Dantes: the pilgrim passing through the divisions and subdivisions of Hell, and the poet "remembering" the journey and writing an epic poem about it. Readers identify with the pilgrim, whose heart goes out to "the disconsolate and mutilated shades," but that pilgrim can be readily distinguished from the author, who is unwavering in his judgments. For example, as Freccero notes, the pilgrim Dante seems truly anguished to discover his mentor Brunetto Latini among the sodomites in the seventh circle, but it must be remembered that the poet Dante placed him there. God didn't write the Inferno, or decide that there would be no reprieves in the City of Woes, or inscribe over the portals the infamous words "ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE." Freccero puts the matter succinctly: "In spite of Dante's reputation as the greatest of Christian poets, there is no sign of Christian forgiveness in the Inferno. The dominant theme is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the severity of the ancient law of retribution." Readers will always find that the humane perspective of the pilgrim clashes with the viewpoint of the icy administrator of justice, but that's precisely the point. The tension between the temporal and the transcendental orders—between guilty individuals crying out and an anonymous system of justice relentlessly dispensing with them—is what gives the poem so much of its terrifying force, and the poet his complex, judicial grandeur.

Pinsky's translation is well suited to our time. He has created an idiom that brilliantly suggests the work of both a medieval allegorist and a proto-modern thinker, and, above all, of a writer—one who dramatizes the desperate vulnerability of human beings caught up in an implacable world. At our own apocalyptic moment in history, the reader can scarcely forget that the Inferno is a book in which the earth opens and the historical world is suspended outside time. The progress of the soul through the underworld is a theme that cannot date, but it does seem to have special relevance to the modern dilemma. Perhaps that's why the Inferno, as opposed to the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, has inspired so many devastating modern works, which burn with a true infernal flame—from Gogol's Dead Souls and Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Eliot's Waste Land, Camus's The Fall, and Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Dante seems to have anticipated the nervous, unholy epoch in which we find ourselves. Purgatory and Paradise belong to the ages, but Hell is recognizably ours.

Diane Jean Schemo (essay date 31 January 1995)

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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 times by scholars and writers, and yet remained elusive, unmastered, poetry's Everest of the underworld.

Some, like Dorothy L. Sayers in the late 1940's, had gone for a strict line-by-line translation of the Divine Comedy, and ended up with a work that sounded stilted to the English ear, lacking the momentum of the Italian original. The poet Allen Mandelbaum, whose paperback version is widely used in university courses, worked 20 years to preserve the line-by-line sequence and diction of Dante, but did not attempt to match rhymes. Charles S. Singleton's 1970 edition—considered perhaps the most scholarly, with separate volumes for notes—eschewed the poetic form altogether for a painstakingly literal prose translation.

"It just gripped me, like a child with a new video game," said Mr. Pinsky, an American poet whose published work until The Inferno of Dante included four books of poetry and three about poetry. "I literally couldn't stop working on it."

Since its release several weeks ago, Mr. Pinsky's translation has been hailed for rendering the tricky terza rima, the interlocking triple rhyme scheme that Dante invented for the Divine Comedy, into idiomatic English that preserves both the rowdiness and the dignity of the original. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, John Ahern, a professor of Italian letters at Vassar College and a specialist on Dante, called Mr. Pinsky's translation "splendid," and said, "His skill and power as a poet inform every line." The poet Edward Hirsch, in The New Yorker, said, "Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante's vernacular music where many others have failed."

Mr. Pinsky, who teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University, began working on the Inferno for a reading of the 34 cantos at the 92d Street Y in Manhattan by 19 of the country's most prominent poets, each of whom was asked to translate a canto or two.

"No one has ever licked it," said James V. Mirollo, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, "and so many famous poets have tried." He added that a perfect translation of the Inferno, which he does not believe Mr. Pinsky has achieved, would represent a substantial earthly prize for its author in the form of academic royalties. "To come up with a successful paperback version," he said, "would guarantee you a comfortable income for the rest of your life."

Mr. Pinsky aimed for near rhymes, or slant rhymes, to reflect the tension of the terza rima's structure—a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, etc.—which, like the pilgrim of the poem, looks back and around as it moves ever forward. Direct rhymes, Mr. Pinsky said, would have sounded too harsh and clanging; he opted for more subtle rhymes, like … died / … vowed / … lewd and … rolls / … antiquity / … coils.

Comparing his verses with those by some of his friends, poets like Robert Hass and Seamus Heaney, Mr. Pinsky grew intrigued by the results. The Inferno has a way of doing that, of luring artists in, hypnotizing them. T. S. Eliot learned Italian to read Dante, and the Four Quartets, which quote liberally from the Inferno, have been called the Italian classic's closest equivalent in English. Michelangelo, according to his biographers, listened to the Inferno as he painted "The Last Judgment."

And so, Mr. Pinsky said, it was probably inevitable that 1 of the 19 poets at the 92d Street Y would get hooked. Michael Mazur, a friend and artist who had once lived in Florence and visited Dante's haunts, had been hungering to illustrate the Inferno. He created austere, dreamlike monotypes to go with each of the cantos. By the time Hell Night, as one article described the nightlong reading session at the 92d Street Y, rolled around in May 1993, Mr. Pinsky had completed his first draft of all 34 cantos. For the moment, he has no plans to continue on to Purgatory or Paradise.

"I wanted to make it as accurate as I could, but after working on a very little bit of it, I got a strong notion that I could make it sound like a poem in English," he said in a recent interview, stirring a mint tea at a Greenwich Village cafe. Like many other poets who have translated verse—and as Mr. Pinsky told the skeptics at his weekly poker game—his expertise was not so much in a foreign language as in English. He said he relied heavily on the translations of the Inferno by Singleton and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

As he toiled, Mr. Pinsky was not consumed by the hidden meanings bubbling beneath Dante's vision of hell. He was far more preoccupied with questions of rhyme and meter, and with discovering the closest English word for the Italian "zavorro," which Mr. Pinsky translated as "deadweight," in Canto 25.

"To write triple rhyme in English is not easy," the poet said. "English has an immense vocabulary, larger than Italian. And one of the classic mistakes you can make is to draw on that huge wealth of synonyms to supply rhymes. If you do that, you have an extremely unnatural, unidiomatic language; you end up with phrases that no one would ever say."

Dante, who died in exile from his beloved Florence, was not entirely concerned with the matter of divine retribution either. In part, he enjoyed the disingenuous game of consigning his rivals and erstwhile friends to hell, even as he portrayed the poem's kindly pilgrim pitying the sinners he discovered there. Dante was also upsetting the intellectual conventions of his day from the bottom up, using common Italian. But mostly, Mr. Pinsky believes, Dante was creating a work of art.

"He was an artist, not a theologian," Mr. Pinsky said, adding that he believed Dante used his categories of sin as a scaffold "that would support detailed, powerful, very articulated accounts of souls contorting themselves."

It is only now, after Mr. Pinsky has gained some distance with the project's completion, that he wonders about the conflicting currents of "attraction-repulsion" that drew him, son of a modern Orthodox Jewish home, to take on the quintessential Christian poem of Western civilization. The attraction he said, was obvious, an alluring cultural "cookie jar" of "Bach, Mozart, Christmas trees and church architecture, the language in my mouth—Jackie Robinson and Italian girls."

The 54-year-old poet also remembered adoring Ivanhoe as a boy, until the Jew Isaac of York appears. Mimicking the character—"craven, ugly, at best helpless"—Mr. Pinsky suddenly leered up at a grotesque angle in the half-light of late afternoon, his fingers turned into claws stabbing the air over a plate of biscotti. A moment later, his hands dropped, as if lifeless, to the marble table. "I felt wounded and angry—hurt," he recalled.

In the Inferno, Mr. Pinsky mused, he perhaps sought an early work questioning the underpinnings of Christian civilization. "We have bad popes piled up," he said. "It's part of a drama of saying, 'What does all this Christian belief in classical mythology, in Virgil, the Church Fathers, Aristotle—what does it mean for people's actual behavior?'"

And he sees a certain poetic truth to the Augustinian notion of sin as killing part of a person's soul, which Dante dramatized to its literal extreme. Thus, those seduced by the idea of romantic love wander through eternity in a tempest; the wrathful tear at one another, and magicians and clairvoyants who would see the future march forever looking backward.

But if to each his own Inferno, so also with translations. Professor Mirollo, who is among 50 or so people at Columbia teaching Dante's epic in the university's mandatory course on Western civilization, said he prefers Mr. Mandelbaum's line-by-line version, which he found more faithful to the original and more colloquial than the Pinsky volume. Mr. Mandelbaum's translation corresponds line for line to verses as Dante wrote them, making it easier for students to grasp the relation between the Italian and English; Mr. Pinsky's compresses lines with translations of whole sentences, so the cantos have fewer lines in English than in Italian.

"I think the slant rhymes in some cases are so slant or slight, that you don't get the benefit of the rhyming," Professor Mirollo said, adding that in his opinion "this is not the translation of choice for all eternity."

Not that Mr. Pinsky ever expected to write the translation for all eternity. He walked toward his hotel at Washington Square, where he would have a few hours' rest before reading at Poets House in SoHo that night. He seemed overwhelmed by the sudden attention his Inferno has drawn, but shook his head quickly and smiled when asked if he was. "Not overwhelmed," he said. "Just whelmed."

Larry Kart (review date 12 February 1995)

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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, especially in the sphere of rhythm. It's a paradoxical blend of virtues, arising, I think, because the impulses that drive their work are more public than private. And because they need to speak to, argue with and convince an actual or imagined "us," their verse tends to become elaborate only when what they have to say demands that.

Now Pinsky has given us a translation of Dante's Inferno—a poem that, whatever else it might be, is also a starling act of public speech. But Pinsky's Inferno [The Inferno of Dante] is not a success—an opinion that needs to be amplified, given the acclaim with which this translation has been greeted.

Making Dante "sound like a poem in English" is Pinsky's stated and worthy goal—as it was of British poet C.H. Sisson, whose translation of the entire Divine Comedy is arguably the best verse Dante in English. Here, in Pinsky's and Sisson's versions, is the conclusion of Canto V of the Inferno—the passage in which Francesca of Rimini tells Dante how she and her brother-in-law Paolo were led to commit adultery as they read about Lancelot and Guinevere. (Galeotto, or Galahalt, was Lancelot and Guinevere's go-between.):


       "'… One day, for pleasure,        We read of Lancelot, by love constrained:        Alone, suspecting nothing, at our leisure.        Sometimes at what we read our glances joined,        Looking from the book each to the other's eyes,        And then the color in our faces drained.        But one particular moment alone it was        Defeated us: the longed for smile, it said,Was kissed by that most noble lover, at this        This one, who now will never leave my side,        Kissed my mouth, trembling. A Galeotto, that book!        And so was he who wrote it; that day we read        No further.' All the while the one shade spoke,        The other at her side was weeping; my pity        Overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack:        Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body."


       "'One day when we were reading for distraction,        How Lancelot was overcome by love—        We were alone, without any suspicion;        Several times, what we were reading forced        Our eyes to meet, and then we changed color:        But one page only was more than we could bear.        When we read how that smile, so much desired,        Was kissed by such a lover, in the book,        He, who will never be divided from me,        Kissed my mouth, he was trembling as he did so;        The book, the writer played the part of Galahalt:        That day we got no further with our reading.'        While one of the spirits was speaking in this manner,        The other shed such tears that, out of pity,        I felt myself diminish, as if I were dying        And fell down, as a dead body falls."

It may not be clear right away, because of his use of "slant rhymes" (eyes/was/this, book/spoke/slack), but Pinsky has tried to approximate Dante's self-invented terza rima (the rhyming pattern aba, bcb, cdc, etc.). Now terza rima is not impossible in English, even though Italian is rich in rhymes and English is relatively poor. At least one major poet (Shelley) wrote major poems ("Mont Blanc" and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty") in terza rima-inspired but even more elaborate patterns. But terza rima, for Dante, is a sinuous verbal lope that furthers the flow of his verse, while Pinsky's approximate terza rima seems to inhibit the flow of his. Certainly the implacable forward drive of Pinsky's "What Why When How Who" (from The Want Bone) is nowhere apparent in his version of Canto V—and why should we settle for anything less?

To be fair, a second comparison. Here is the beginning of Pinsky's version of Canto VIII:

       "Continuing, I tell how for some time        Before we reached the tower's base        Our eyes were following two points of flame        Visible at the top; and answering these        Another returned the signal, so far away        The eye could barely catch it. I turned to face        My sea of knowledge and said, 'O Master, say:        What does this beacon mean? And the other fire—        What answer does it signal? And who are they        Who set it there?' He said: 'It should be clear:        Over these fetid waves, you can perceive        What is expected—if this atmosphere        Of marsh fumes doesn't hide it.' Bow never drove        Arrow through air so quickly as then came        Skimming across the water a little skiff        Guided by a single boatman at the helm:        'Now, evil soul,' he cried out, you are caught!'"

And here is Sisson's version of that passage:

       "To go on with my story, long before        We actually reached the foot of the high tower.        Our eyes were drawn toward the top of it        By two little flames which suddenly appeared there,        And by another which answered from far away,        So far indeed that the eye could hardly see it.        I turned toward the ocean of intelligence,        And said: 'What does that say? And what reply        Comes from that other fire? And who are signalling?'        He answered me: 'Already on the filthy water        Can be seen what it is they are waiting for,        If the mist from the swamp does not conceal it from you.'        No bowstring ever sent an arrow off        To run through air with such precipitation        As the little boat which at that moment I saw        Advancing over the water in our direction,        Under the guidance of a crew of one        Who shouted out: 'Now you are for it wretched spirit!'"

Robert Pinsky, one feels sure, will write more remarkable verse of his own, while the praise given to his Inferno will be considered an anomaly in the history of taste. Whatever, don't deny yourself the experience of C.H. Sisson's Dante.


Pinsky, Robert (Vol. 9)