Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

In an interview in 1997 at Northwestern University, Pinsky explained that “the only protection against copying the past is intimate knowledge of the past.” His America in “Serpent Knowledge” is young but not innocent; his America is inexperienced but not ignorant. Pinsky represents the United States as a dynamic jumble of mistakes in fact—the serpent in the textbook—and judgment—the Vietnam War—that are transformed into what people call history. Recollections of evil, ancient or modern, are part of that assimilation. Pinsky’s thematic development in “Serpent Knowledge” balances the frank, immediate, and animated with the contemplative, cautious, and philosophical dimensions. He is always cognizant of the snake being there. He is keeping an eye on it, as on Nicole, because that is an important human responsibility.

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Pinsky is not afraid of the truth, but it is also essential to “Serpent Knowledge” that he is not afraid of his poetic responsibility to speak of truth and of evil. The war in Vietnam is Pinsky’s personal choice of an evil, in fact and in imagination, so “threatening to gape and swallow and enclose the poem” that it could devour his work as descriptions of earlier conflicts have dominated history. Knowledge of evil, whether brought by a serpent or by a newspaper, is not intended to make people afraid, but to make them aware.

When all the complexities of modern life are played out against a rich and varied historical panorama, Pinsky expects that his daughter and the reader will grasp at once the universality of the human condition and the unique possibilities of each individual position in the world. If humans are forced to repeat history, Pinsky seems to be saying in the poem, let them at least do better. If Pinsky asks his daughter to take nothing for granted in history, the alternative lesson requires that she accept his tentative moral authority—his story—in order to shape her own future.

Several distinct universal themes merge and emerge in An Explanation of America and as part of the texture of “Serpent Knowledge.” These themes include evil, in all its forms, which may be beautiful as well as brutal; childhood, in Pinsky’s own recollection and that of the daughter to whom he directs his wisdom and common sense in the poem; and the enormous power of language to change, to comfort, to inspire, and to gratify. The “different lacks, and visions” that divide Pinsky from his daughter, and his daughters from each other, are “the words” by which they define and describe their own unique experiences. In that devotion to language Pinsky concentrates his energy as poet, as teacher, and as father. The medium of words, with its tradition grounded in oral poetry and storytelling, is a vital form of communication and of passing on memory from one generation to the next. The redemptive quality of human language is more important than almost any other human ability. However, people can never escape from the truth it tells about the human condition.

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