The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 492 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.