Sadness and Happiness

by Robert Pinsky

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The Poem

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“Sadness and Happiness,” the title poem of Robert Pinsky’s first collection, is divided into thirteen sections, each of which contains five unrhymed quatrains. The title of the poem is, simply, the subject of the poet’s meditation: He considers the sadness and happiness in his own life and in the lives of others.

The poem is written in the first person. Pinsky discusses his own life, the career choices he has made, and his family. The poet is not speaking through a persona; part of the poem’s success derives from Pinsky’s attempt to remove all masks and speak, with wit and candor, from his heart.

The first section is typical of the entire poem. In it, Pinsky addresses large philosophical themes, and he balances them with specific events or memories. He begins the poem by suggesting that, in memory, it often “becomes impossible/ to tell” sadness and happiness from each other. This is a theme to which he will return often in the poem. Sadness and happiness are “Crude, empty” terms, but he uses them because “they do/ organize life.” Others, including the “sad American/ house-hunting couples with kids,” may use closet space to organize their lives, but Pinsky prefers the abstractions of sadness and happiness for his purposes. Pinsky moves easily somehow from the notion of closet space to “post coitum triste,” or the sadness following intercourse. This discursiveness is typical of the poem; if the poem follows a pattern at all, it is the mazelike pattern of associative thought.

The second section follows the sexual meditation. Pinsky notes that the “‘pain’ and ‘bliss’ts;” of early courtly love sonnets were based in part on the speaker’s desire “to get more or better” sex, but Pinsky sees that “‘Bale’ and ‘bliss’ merge” even in sexual relations. Sadness and happiness cannot be separated, partially because the memories of sexual pleasures are joined by “absurd memories of failure.”

Passing through historical allusions to the “muttered babble” of “Korsh, Old Russia’s bedlam-sage,” and the musical references to the “sex-drowsy saxophones” of the blues, Pinsky arrives, in sections 5 and 6, at his relationship with his wife. The noises in the historical and musical asides give way to the sounds of a particular memory Pinsky has of his wife. While driving with her, everything he sees, apart from his wife, seems ambiguously “full of emotion, and yet empty—/all empty/ of sadness and happiness.” In Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pinsky meets the Salvation Army brass band, the “farting, evil-tempered traffic,” “young girls begging,” and “filth spinning in the wind.” Everything seems empty, except for his wife.

Memories of his wife slip into recollections of previous women with whom he was involved. He asks “’some lovely, glorious Nothing,’ Susan,/ Patricia, Celia” to forgive him for his “past failures”; he also wishes he had no past. He would like only his wife, without the other “foolish ghosts” of the past, to urge him “to become some redeeming/ Jewish-American Shakespeare.”

In section 8, he recalls his romantic, adolescent dreams, his fantasy of becoming “a vomit-stained/ ex-Jazz-Immortal, collapsed/ in a phlegmy Bowery doorway.” Instead, he has become a poet with a normal life, a wife and daughters. He then imagines himself as a type of prophet who would like to address the Central Square crowd, “the band,/ the kids, the old ladies awaiting/ buses, the glazed winos.” His imagined speech to them is a comic mixture of the hortatory tones of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; his harangue, however, just as it begins to gather steam, trails off. Instead of continuing his attack on the “city...

(This entire section contains 800 words.)

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of/ undone deathcrotches,” he attacks himself, reflecting on his perverse ability to enjoy “air pollution . . ./ even the troubles of friends.”

Pinsky stays with the Central Square environment in section 10 and wonders whether the “two bright-faced girls” should win his admiration as they cross the square with their “long legs flashing bravely above/ the grime.” He continues the meditation in section 11, concluding that “the senses/ are not visionary, they can tug/ downward.”

Recalling with pride a “sandlot home run” leads Pinsky to a recollection also of his errors, the “poor throws awry/ or the ball streaming through,/ between my poor foolish legs.” This recollection of the ballfield leads to the final thoughts in the poem, a meditation on the Spanish word polvo, or dust, which in the poem comes out of the “reddish gray/ powder of the ballfield” and leads to the dust that bodies turn into in death. Pinsky concludes with a complaint against the impermanence of life. For Pinsky, “It is intolerable/ to think of my daughters, too, dust” or of his wife changed into “el polvo.” He decides that humans are “desperate to devise anything” to “escape the clasped coffinworm/ truth” of art or nature.

Forms and Devices

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Pinsky attempts to name, or at least discuss, some organizing principle for the vagaries of life, and his formal choices reflect the difficulties of this task. It would seem at first glance that this poem, with its division into sections and quatrains, is very regular, or at least predictable in some way, but Pinsky works against the structure he imposes on the poem. The sections are not ironclad divisions; rather, they are permeable boundaries. Pinsky, in fact, ends only one section (the last, section 13) with a complete sentence, while all the others spill over into the section that follows. Stories or digressions do not end because a section ends, but continue and trail off, finally, in a subsequent section.

Images or memories also are not confined to one particular section of the poem. In sections 2 and 3, Pinsky speaks of Petrarchan love poems and chivalric trophies, and admits, in a distanced way, that he

    stoodposing amiss while the best prizesof life bounced off his vaguepate or streamed between his legs.

In section 12, the inflated Petrarchan image becomes appealingly pedestrian when the poet recalls his sandlot baseball days: the “agony of recalled errors . . ./poor throws awry/ or the ball streaming through,/ between my poor foolish legs.” Nothing remains fixed in the poem.

Even words will not hold steady. In the closing sections, Pinsky speaks of “el polvo,” which is the “reddish gray/ powder of the ballfield,” but also the dust on which a girl dances in the Cervantes poem and the dust that his daughters and his wife will become in death. It is difficult to organize or structure a philosophy when everything seems to be in flux, and nothing—not even the formal structuring device of quatrains and sections—can halt it.

The game that Pinsky’s wife uses to organize life, the “invented game,/ Sadness and Happiness,” also offers little consolation. Pinsky brings this point home by noting at the start of the poem that it is often “impossible/ to tell one from the other in memory,” and then reemphasizing the idea by a formal and unusual device: Pinsky will never allow the words happiness or sadness, or their synonyms, to stand alone in the poem. The two emotions are always joined somehow, usually within a line or two. When discussing “post coitum triste,” he says he is happy not to have experienced it often. He says that with no past, he would be happy “or else/ decently sad.” When he sees the “gray sad leaves” falling in autumn, he thinks they “can bring/ joy, or fail to.” And when crossing the bases after hitting a home run, he conflates the two again by recalling the “happiness/ impure and oddly memorable as the sad/ agony of recalled errors.”

The poem emphasizes the inability of humans to fix things in place by showing the slippage possible between concepts, simple words, images, structuring devices like sections and quatrains, or the present and the past.


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Dietz, Maggie, and Robert Pinsky, eds. An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Downing, Ben, and Daniel Kunitz. “The Art of Poetry: LXXVI.” Paris Review 144 (Fall, 1997): 180-213.

Pinsky, Robert. Democracy Culture and the Voice of Poetry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Pinsky, Robert. The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

Pinsky, Robert. Poetry and the World. New York: Ecco Press, 1988.