The Want Bone Summary
by Robert Pinsky

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Want Bone” begins with a paradoxical image: “The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth’s bell.” “Tongue” and “wave” are both words that imply fluidity and change, whereas the Earth suggests solidity. A tolling of bells often connotes death. Then there is “the dried mouthbone of a shark.” The mouth bone gapes but cannot close on anything.

The image of the gaping mouth, dead and dried, but still gaping, even as the tongues of the sea waves and the Earth toll death, suggests an image of the action of desire. Whatever the desire is, the poem acts as a meditation on wanting. Pinsky also employs the letter O as a poetic visual and audible device to give the impression of openness, a gaping hole or something empty to be filled.

The act of desire, when one wants something, cannot be expressed except by a reaching out for the desirable thing, a gaping toward the thing wanted. Because the dried mouth bone of a shark is in the sand on a beach under the hot sun, one may imagine the shark’s flesh that wrapped around the bones. If one imagines further back in time to the shark alive, one may imagine the shark’s desire to return to the water, to its home where it could continue living. This desire then may be a desire for life.

“The Want Bone” may be a monumental poem for Pinsky. It exemplifies the desire to create life, to give through poetry and emotion, voice and rhythm, the common experience of humanity, that of wanting and yearning to be alive.