Readers unfamiliar with Robert Pinsky’s poetry may find his “Song of Reasons” a bit daunting because of its rambling prose, mixture of subjects, and historical allusions to remote people, places, and events. Yet this poem is very typical of Pinsky’s style and themes and, more importantly, very typical of what has made him one of the most renowned poets of latter twentieth- and early twenty-first-century American poetry—among scholars and fellow poets, at least. That said, his work should still be considered accessible to anyone interested in pursuing it, and this poem is a good place to start. One first needs to understand that what it is about is more abstract than concrete and that the clue to its overall theme is in the title.
The poem is essentially about looking for the reasons that things are the way they are. Whether it is why an old song makes listeners both sad and happy, why an ancient Jewish noble family was allowed privileges by Christians at Notre Dame, or why Pinsky’s own daughter finds such comfort in reading the daily newspaper’s “Question Man” column, each of these seemingly unconnected events must have a reason for occurring, but perhaps not one that can be pinned down. The challenge in reading “Song of Reasons” is to determine if the poet’s “song” really offers any “reasons,” and, if so, what they are. This is a clever, somber, and provocative work all at once, with its odd parts held together by the development of one thing leading into another, making an apparent disjointed poem cohe- sive after all. “Song of Reasons” is included in Pinsky’s The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966–1996, published in 1996.
The first word of “Song of Reasons” is a direct tie-in with the title. Opening with the word “Because” implies that the poem may be full of answers and explanations as to why things are as they are, but one does not have to read very far to find that this is not the case. Instead, the first word gets attached to a sudden shift of key in an old Italian repertoire favorite, popular among opera singers. When the pitch in the “little tune” becomes higher, Pinsky claims that “everyone feels / A sad smile beginning,” but who “everyone” is and what role nostalgia plays at the outset of the poem is not clear.
The second half of line 3 begins a new sentence, but it starts with the word “Also,” linking it to what has already been said. Apparently, the human reaction evoked by “Come Back to Sorrento” is a “customary” one, but the reason for it is “forgotten” just like the reason that “the Dukes of Levis-Mirepoix,” an old French noble family, are allowed to ride horses into “the Cathedral of Notre Dame.” Even though he has just claimed the reason is forgotten, Pinsky still offers a possible explanation for the noblemen’s privilege: their ancestors “killed heretics in Languedoc”—an area of southern France known for its revelry in good food and wine as much as for being the birthplace of troubadour romantic poetry. Getting rid of sinners apparently earned the dukes favor with the Church.
Line 7 throws a new twist into the already odd depiction of the dukes, for now “they are somehow Jewish,” which would seem to negate their privileges at Notre Dame, but to offset that, they “claim / Collateral descent from the family of the Virgin Mary.” In other words, they explain their Jewish link to Christianity by saying they share a common ancestor but are descended from a different line.
Line 9 begins with the word “And,” and line 10 ends with the word “too,” both implying a connection to what has been said previously. Here, the shift is from the Dukes of Levis-Mirepoix to “the people in magazines and on television” who also have “some reason” for being who they are and looking how they look. Pinsky offers specific examples of how even the most intricate details have a...
(The entire section is 1,300 words.)