Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 434 words.)