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Robert Pinsky’s career-spanning Selected Poems highlights his movement from meditative formalist to Whitmanesque bard

David Kaufmann
June 15, 2011
Robert Pinsky.(Vernon Doucette)
Robert Pinsky.(Vernon Doucette)

Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems invites us to read his career in reverse, to start with his most recent books and move back through the decades to his first, Sadness and Happiness (1975). The book is therefore shaped more like a detective story than a traditional chronological narrative. The question is not where is the young poet is going, but rather, how did the older poet get to where he is. As Pinsky is one of the best American poets around, it is a question worth asking.

Pinsky made his name as a meditative poet, a man given to writing poems called “Sadness and Happiness” and “An Essay on Psychiatrists” as well as a book titled An Explanation of America. This earlier work is marked by a formalism that carries itself with an enviable ease—rhymes you don’t quite notice, meter that doesn’t intrude, a diction that is both precise and evocative without ever being demanding. His first two books display the most sinuous syntax. Pinsky can weave sentences over lines and lines of verse so that they twist and turn without ever losing the cadences of normal speech.

I bought An Explanation of America as a senior in college in 1979, the year it came out, and didn’t get it at all. It is not a young man’s book. (Pinsky was already 39 when it was published.) With its extended imitation of the great Roman poet Horace, it maintains an even-temperedness that doubles as a kind of Apollonian distance:

Of course, one’s aspirations must depend
Upon the opportunities: the justice
That happens to be available; one’s fortune.
I think that what the poet meant may be
Something like that; as for aspiration,
Maybe our aspirations for ourselves
Ought to be different from the hopes we have
(Though there are warnings against too much hope)
When thinking of our children.

The impersonal “one” shades into a barely personal “we.” Perhaps our hopes for our children should be different. Perhaps not. The poet’s job is to weigh the possibilities.

At this stage in his career, Pinsky loved semi-colons, those partial breaks between clauses that connect while still separating them. As his work went on, though, the long sentences became less measured. They turned into lists of things and thoughts that bumped up against each other. The semi-colons gave way to commas. The lines piled up as the objects piled on. Here is Pinsky’s terrifying poem of 1984, “The Figured Wheel,” which describes a literal juggernaut, a great destructive wheel that “mills everything alive and grinds/ The remains of the dead in the cemeteries, in unmarked graves and oceans.”

It is hung with devices
By dead masters who have survived by reducing themselves magically

To tiny organisms, to wisps of matter, crumbs of soil,
Bits of skin, microscopic flakes, which is why they are called “great,”
In their humility that goes on celebrating the turning
Of the wheel as it rolls unrelentingly over

A cow plodding through car-traffic on a street in Iaşi,
And over the haunts of Robert Pinsky’s mother and father
And wife and children and his sweet self
Which he hereby unwillingly and inexpertly gives up, because it is

There, figured and pre-figured in the nothing-transfiguring wheel.

The wheel is of course a metaphor—a figure—for time or death or sheer wanton destructiveness. In fact, as this force has neither presence nor reason, it can only be conceived by way of metaphor. But being able to see it in the mind’s eye (another metaphor) does not bring much consolation. The wheel that means fate is itself meaningless. It does not lead to any transcendence or to any real hope. There is still a saving touch of wit in the resignation we hear as Pinsky relinquishes that “sweet self.” By the same token, he has no choice.

The increasing urgency of Pinsky’s poetry—its more jaggedly syncopated rhythms and harsher diction—comes from this grim, pagan vision. My guess is that Pinsky’s fierce commitment to poetry derives in no small part from his sense that only metaphors and art itself can save us from nihilism. Our ability to decorate the devouring wheel—to imagine the juggernaut in the first place—makes us human and helps us survive. A philosophy major back in the day, Pinsky takes seriously Nietzsche’s claim that the world is only justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. We have art, the philosopher says, so that we do not perish from the truth.

More Context

In The Life of David, the first book in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series, Robert Pinsky examines the legacy of one of the Bible’s most compelling figures

Such a conviction could easily lead to the aesthete’s cynicism about the daily grind of politics. Pinsky, on the other hand, has remained that oddest of modern beasts, a public poet. During his tenure as poet laureate in the late ’90s, he was charming and uncompromising in his commitment to the democratic necessity of poetry. This was not just special pleading or wishful thinking. Pinsky has a capacious view of creativity that includes religion and politics and in fact extends to the whole clamor of human activity. For Pinsky, the ongoing cultural improvisation of mongrel America is a great existential accomplishment.

Then again, so is his shirt. In a landmark poem from the ’80s, titled “Shirt,” Pinsky focuses on the unexpected excellence and hidden cost of—of all things—a shirt. He thinks of all the people whose work has gone into this everyday commodity: “The loader,/ The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter/ Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton/ As slaves sweated in the field.” Among the descendants of those slaves is a “Black/Lady,” named Irma, who inspected the very shirt he is going to put on. But she is not only the grandchild or great-grandchild of slaves. According to Pinsky, she really is a lady in the old, feudal sense, the heir of the great 17th-century poet George Herbert. She has poetry in her blood or, more to the point, her powers of discrimination and judgment have the dignity of a poet’s.

Like Pinsky, Irma pays the closest attention to the most common of things. Irma, like Pinsky, probably has a sense of the history of slavery and exploitation—the poem includes a vignette of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—that lies behind this bit of tailored cloth. She definitely understands the craftsman’s skill that goes into it. Pinsky does as well. He revels in the language of shirts, the vocabulary of its details: “The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters/ Printed in black on neckband and tail.” There is something properly Whitmanesque going on here. “Shirt” resists Whitman’s sometimes-breezy bombast just as it resists the pull of his idealizations, but it still makes a brief for the everyday. The shirt is a small miracle of ingenuity and the product of hard toil and real suffering. It is complex in its associations and complicities. Most tellingly, though, it has a hard-won nobility.

If we read “Shirt” in light of the later poems, as the structure of this compilation asks us to do, we realize that there is more at stake than its generosity and considerable wit. In his book on democracy and poetry, Pinsky suggests that we are originally hurt into poetry by loss and consoled by the regularities and beauties of its sound. As he gets older, Pinsky has greater losses: friends, family, the lower-middle class Jewish world of his childhood. The most worrisome loss, though, is the failure of memory. This loss obviously affects us as individuals. More important, it affects us as citizens of a republic. In the spirit of deep satire he writes:

I have never heard America
Singing but I have heard of I
Hear America Singing, I think
It must have been a book
We had in school, I forget.

The line break at “I” points to a thoughtless narcissism that runs through the poem. I Hear America Singing was indeed a textbook, a collection of “folk poetry” from the populist ’30s. It got its title from a poem by Walt Whitman, a paean to the music of ordinary labor. You can forget what you have never heard—Whitman’s poem, the importance of common life—only if you forget the optimistic prospects and demands that that poem and that anthology dream of.

Long-term memory is always in danger. So is short-term memory. Pinsky remembers Amiri Baraka’s hateful lines about 9/11 (“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/ Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day/ Why did Sharon stay away?”):

I was in the big tent when the guy read his poem about how the Jews
Were warned to get out of the Twin Towers before the planes hit.

The crowd was applauding and screaming, they were happy—it isn’t
That they were anti-Semitic or anything. They just weren’t listening. Or

No, they were listening, but that certain way. In it comes, you hear it and
That selfsame second you swallow it or expel it: an ecstasy of forgetting.

Some big tent. Pinsky’s key word here might be “selfsame.” The particular pathology he describes is based on a defensive, because vulnerable, sense of self, one that cannot maintain any critical distance. It cannot think about things but has to incorporate or expel whatever is alien. Anything alien is forgotten, quite literally swallowed up by the avid and apparently empty self. Pinsky is right. The audience wasn’t anti-Semitic in any conscious way. In fact, it wasn’t really conscious at all.

“Shirt” wants to make us conscious. It wants us to remember. It wants us to look at the intricate histories of little things. It wants to summon up a collective recall, one that is not personal in any exclusive sense and yet includes everyone. “Shirt” is exemplary in a literal way. It can serve as an example for poets and just folks. The French writer Georges Perec exhorted his readers to interrogate their teaspoons. Pinsky has actually done it.

Pinsky has gotten fiercer as he has gotten older, and the later poems suggest ways to read or reread the earlier ones. Pinsky has become something of a public figure—he pulled off an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show with real aplomb—who has not sacrificed the complexities of poetic construction for a false, aw-shucks simplicity. His Selected Poems shows how this was always where he wanted to be. It is a generous selection in all senses of that word. It is a tribute to its quality that it is, at 200 pages, still too short.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

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