The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Pinsky’s “Serpent Knowledge” is a subsection of a book-length meditation, An Explanation of America, addressed to his daughter Nicole. In the larger, extended poem, Pinsky both describes and teaches about the past: his own personal past, the past of his generation, and the past particular to Americans in the mid-twentieth century. “Serpent Knowledge” is section 2 of “Part Three: Its Everlasting Possibility” and concentrates on gathering images, ideas, and events that define for Pinsky what evil means in the United States: random violence and war, with their resultant confusion, ambivalence, and distortion.

The poem opens with Pinsky’s observation of something his daughter has written in school about snakes. She has found a textbook somewhere that suggests snakes are born “already knowing/ Everything they will ever need to know,” and her father, the poet, simply does not believe it. Pinsky’s insistence that humans are “Not born already knowing all we need” reinforces the impossibility of knowing fully even oneself, much less the wider world containing evils of humanity’s own devising and of “some new stage of life.”

The poem engages the reader (and Pinsky’s daughter) in a kind of earnest, lucid conversation in which explanations from the past illuminate the meaning of the present. In the first and second stanzas Pinsky introduces a snake, loaded with biblical allusions and sinister aspects,...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The division of An Explanation of America into three parts, and those parts into subsections, permits the illusion of teaching from a text. This strategy, because it is universally familiar, comforts the reader through the appalling revelations that Pinsky makes about evil in the United States: its erotic urges, its political shrewdness, its spiritual malaise. Pinsky’s elegant conversational style in the long, discursive, blank-verse narrative of “Serpent Knowledge” contrasts dramatically with the subject matter he presents.

The poem seems to be loosely organized around graphic particulars of war and violence, but Pinsky’s rational, temperate, and civilized tone controls both the pace and presentation of these images to organize the poem structurally beyond vivid particulars. His use of the ordinary enhances the power of his moral authority. In much the same way, his choice of iambic blank verse cools, with its natural rhythm, the prose of conversation. A scene may be real or ideal, “the highway” concrete or abstract: Explicit images compress and illuminate the knowledge that Pinsky wishes to share with his daughter.

“Serpent Knowledge” exemplifies a structural device characteristic of Pinsky’s extended meditation: Opening with a dense pattern of recollection composed of vivid and often painful memories, the poem unfolds into complex analogies that produce observations of great insight. Pinsky uses the colon...

(The entire section is 477 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.