Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014
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 “history” that brought them to where they are today. From the “angle of [the celebrities’] furniture” and “every nuance of their doors” to the “shapes of their eyebrows and shirts,” each feature has a reason for being the way it is. Note that the poet says some reason, suggesting an uncertainty as to what it really is.
Line 13 continues the idea of each thing having its own “history / Or purpose” and then describes those purposes as “arcane,” or mysterious, “as the remote Jewishness of those far Dukes,” leading the poem back to the subject of lines 4–8. Perhaps the twists and turns of the poem so far are summed up best in the phrase “great half-crazy tune,” which also lends itself well to the irony that infuses the entire work, including the title. The song of reasons—logic, rationale, explanation, and so forth—is characterized as half-crazy—illogical, nonsensical, and just plain silly. The obvious contradiction here is a strong hint that beginning this poem with the word “Because” was only playful deception because real reasons are hard to come by. One other point to note about line 14 is the use of the word “tune” again, tying Pinsky’s “song” to the “little tune” of “Come Back to Sorrento.” While the latter is described as “little,” the poet calls his own “great.”
The next shift in the poem is to Pinsky’s daughter who “has learned to read” and especially enjoys the newspaper’s “The Question Man” column, a person-in-the-street type of article in which normal, everyday people reveal personal favorites or experiences. Typical inane questions concern one’s “Most Romantic Moment,” “Family Hero,” and “Worst Vacation,” but Pinsky also tosses in a topic that most current newspaper editors would likely find offensive or, at least, politically incorrect. Asking for one’s “Favorite Ethnic Group” may not be realistic today, but the subject does connect to the earlier dubious blending of Jewish dukes descended “from the family of the Virgin Mary.” Pinsky’s daughter also enjoys the photographs of the column’s people “next to their answers,” and line 19 ends by emphasizing her pleasure in the simple, routine article: “She likes it.”
These two lines present a possible reason that the little girl finds “The Question Man” column so attractive. There is something comforting about finding “exact forms” in an “ordinary” morning, something “indomitable,” or unconquerable, about the charm of expected, routine events, even if it is something as common as “the names and occupa- tions” of the people featured in the newspaper. This is another irony in the poem, considering that its motley selection of topics and the blending of them into a stream of quirky connections represent anything but “exact forms.”
These lines reinforce the idea of the goodness of simple routine, as Pinsky compares his daughter’s fascination with an uncomplicated news article to a “bedtime story in reverse.” Most children’s stories involve fanciful and fabulous accounts of unusual characters and places, but his daughter is content with the “unfabulous” Question Man, as well as the unfabulous “day that she enters out into,” happy to greet it in her routine manner, “businesslike as a dog / That trots down the street.”
The final lines of the poem string together images that glide from one to another like phantasmagoric scenes in a dream. A dog trots down the street, the street becomes “sunny pavement, plane trees . . . a flow of cars” that become “throaty music,” returning the poem to the song allusion that began it. All these images, as the last line claims, are “Like the animal shapes that sing at the gates of sleep”—shapes that come and go, fade in and fade out, with no reason that is readily evident.