Themes and Meanings

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

This typically modern, elliptical poem that in its discursiveness resists precise meaning addresses the oldest theme in literature, present as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000 b.c.e.): humans attempting to deal with their mortality. The poem, in parts, is a verse autobiography, but all the memories of the past lead to the final vision of the future, in which all Pinsky’s family—and the poet himself—will be dead. The poet speaks of “that romantic/ fantasy of my future bumhood” that he held in adolescence; in maturity, however, the only fantasy he has of his future is the prospect of an inevitable death.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Sadness and Happiness Study Guide

Subscribe Now

How does one counter one’s impermanence? Pinsky’s wife plays the “Sadness and Happiness” game with the children to help them organize and stabilize life, but Pinsky points out the dangers in that generous approach. People are, in Pinsky’s words, “desperate to devise anything . . .// to escape” life’s transitory nature. Yet Pinsky does not offer the reader much ease from the burden. William Shakespeare in his poems offered his loved ones permanence through art, suggesting, in Sonnet 18, that “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/ So long lives this [poem], and this gives life to thee.” Pinsky is not so glib or cocky. His art simply records the anguish and the muted pleasures of living in a world of impermanence. He offers his wife and children his sadness, but he cannot offer them immortality through art.

The poem attempts to ward off the powers of death—the change that “all/ changes breedeth”—by listing with wit all the minute particulars of a man’s life, from his baseball days and early failed romances to his dreams of grandeur in addressing and working a Central Square crowd. All the attention to the stuff of life, however, even the two girls’ “long legs flashing bravely above/ the grime,” brings Pinsky to a philosophical moment that seems akin to Platonism. He believes that

   it takes more than eyesto see well anything that is worthloving; that is the sad part, the sensesare not visionary, they can tugdownward, even in pure joy.

Yet Pinsky is wedded to the senses, even while he is perfectly aware of their limitations. The poem does not offer the reader a vision of a Platonic realm; it only critiques the world of the impure senses. Pinsky, in the end, is a poet who sees the world and its transience clearly, mourns appropriately, and continues to make song, attempting, with wit, to fashion sense out of a world that constantly eludes him.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial