The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Pinsky’s short lyric poem “A Woman” begins “Thirty years ago” when the speaker in the poem is a child. The scene is set, probably in the New Jersey town of Long Branch on the Atlantic coast, where Pinsky grew up. That oceanside community, with many gulls, pigeons, and chickens, succeeds in “forming a sharp memory” for the child, who walks along beside the “old, fearful” grandmother figure in the poem. Their walk together is a ramble through history, featuring characteristics of both the grandmother’s older world (“Panic of the chickens” awaiting slaughter) and the child’s modern world (“a milkshake”). “A Woman” also contains the accumulated suspicions and terrors of that older world in which the grandmother figure lived her childhood: “Everything that the woman says is a warning,// Or a superstition.”

The child feels the conflict of his clear-eyed observations and her ominous interpretations. He sees the natural world with its “measured rhythm” of wave motion and seasonal change, “booths and arcades/ Still shuttered in March.” For the grandmother this ordinary boardwalk landscape symbolizes “Tokens of risk or rash judgment—drowning,/ Sexual assault, fatal or crippling diseases.” She knows too much and cannot forget; he knows too little and cannot understand. The attempts that the grandmother makes to impart her own fears do not fall on deaf ears, but this child’s ears are filled with wonder,...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Woman” contains multiples of Pinsky’s favorite kind of loosely iambic pentameter line, in which a short phrase is followed by a colon that introduces an extended series of descriptive clauses full of observations and of images. In short, Pinsky writes a discursive poem with distinctly narrative features to organize and impel the action forward. “A Woman” opens in the past, “Thirty years ago,” but “gulls keen in the blue,” as indeed they do still. The past and the present exist side by side in the language and in its underlying meaning. “Pigeons mumble on the sidewalk” in precisely the way one might encounter them on a boardwalk in the 1940’s or in the present time. Word choice such as “mumble,” simple enough in its general definition, augments the activity of the pigeons so perfectly that Pinsky might have reinvented the word for his own use.

Observations are essential to Pinsky; “monotonous surf,” “gusting winds,” and “high bluffs” contribute to the colloquial, predictable language in the poem. Yet when his memory is most intense the images become entirely unexpected, such as “a house-cracking exhilaration of water.” Pinsky wants these images to seem both very ordinary and very special—a powerful reminder that daily pleasures can enrich poetry as well as lives.

Pinsky’s short lyrics often have a meditative force that is due partly to tone and partly to the arrangements of sounds and of...

(The entire section is 434 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.