“Shirt” is an example of Pinsky using historical occurrences and translating the effects of these occurrences into present-day situations. The first scenes are in sweatshops in Korea and Malaysia, where Pinsky portrays the everyday workers, gossiping over tea or talking politics.
Pinsky uses the language of the factory, mentioning the presser, the cutter, the wringer, the mangle, the needle, the union, the treadle, and the bobbin. What changes this rhythm of listing is a sole phrase: “The Code.” The reader’s attention is drawn back and is set up for the next scene: “The infamous blaze/ At the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in nineteen-eleven.” This allusion is to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, a sweatshop where, in 1911, a fire broke out and killed more than one hundred immigrant workers. The conditions of sweatshops were difficult to work in, with low wages, long hours, dangerous conditions, and, as Pinsky points out ironically, they were unsafe in the case of fire because the fire “Code” might be dismissed.
The next scene in the poem displays a vision of martyrs from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory falling to their death and is juxtaposed with a reference to Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge.” This image brings the reader back to the subject of the poem: the shirt. Pinsky makes a more complex list of designs and patterns and shirt-making history and of Scottish and Calico patterns. Then there is George Herbert, the seventeenth century British poet who becomes an ancestor to Irma, a woman in South Carolina who inspected Pinsky’s shirt. Thus, Pinsky returns to himself in the poem as a part of this history, a part of the effects of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and Herbert, a part of the loss and the gain over time.
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.