Pack, Robert

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PACK, Robert

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 29 May 1929. Education: Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, B.A. 1951; Columbia University, New York, M.A. 1953. Family: Married 1) Isabelle Miller in 1950; 2) Patricia Powell in 1961; two sons and one daughter. Career: Taught at Barnard College, New York, 1957–64, and Poetry Workshop of the New School for Social Research, New York. Since 1970 Abernathy Professor, Middlebury College, and since 1973 director, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Vermont. Editor, Discovery, New York. Awards: Fulbright fellowship, 1956; American Academy grant, 1957; Borestone Mountain poetry award, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968. Address: Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont 05753, U.S.A.



The Irony of Joy. New York, Scribner, 1955.

A Stranger's Privilege. Hessle, Yorkshire, Asphodel, and New York, Macmillan, 1959.

Guarded by Women. New York, Random House, 1963.

Selected Poems. London, Chatto and Windus, 1964.

Home from the Cemetery. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Nothing But Light. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1972.

Keeping Watch. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1976.

Waking to My Name: New and Selected Poems. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Faces in a Single Tree: A Cycle of Monologues. Boston, Godine, 1984.

Clayfeld Rejoices, Clayfeld Laments: A Sequence of Poems. Boston, Godine, 1987.

Before It Vanishes: A Packet for Professor Pagels. Boston, Godine, 1989.

Fathering the Map: New and Selected Later Poems. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Minding the Sun. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Rounding It Out: A Cycle of Sonnetelles. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999.


Wallace Stevens: An Approach to His Poetry and Thought. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1958.

The Forgotten Secret (for children). New York, Macmillan, 1959.

Then What Did You Do? (for children). New York, Macmillan, 1961.

How to Catch a Crocodile (for children). New York, Knopf, 1964.

Affirming Limits: Essays on Morality, Choice, and Poetic Form. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.

The Long View: Essays on the Discipline of Hope and Poetic Craft. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Editor, with Donald Hall and Louis Simpson, The New Poets of England and America. New York, Meridian, 1957; London, New English Library, 1974; Second Selection, Meridian, 1962.

Editor and Translator, with Marjorie Lelach, Mozart' s Librettos. Cleveland, World, 1961.

Editor, with Tom Driver, Poems of Doubt and Belief: An Anthology of Modern Religious Poetry. New York, Macmillan, 1964.

Editor, with Marcus Klein, Literature for Composition on the Theme of Innocence and Experience. Boston, Little Brown, 1966.

Editor, with Marcus Klein, Short Stories: Classic, Modern, Contemporary. Boston, Little Brown, 1967.

Editor, Selected Letters, by Keats. New York, New American Library, 1974.

Editor, with Sydney Lea and Jay Parini, The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1985.

Editor, with Jay Parini, The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Short Stories [Essays]. Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 2 vols., 1987–89.

Editor, with Jay Parini, Poems for a Small Planet, An Anthology of Nature Poetry. Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1993.

Editor, with Jay Parini, American Identities: Contemporary Multicultural Voices. Hanover, New Hampshire, Middlebury College Press, 1994.

Editor, with Jay Parini, Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem. Hanover, New Hampshire, Middlebury College Press, 1996.

Editor, with Jay Parini, Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems. Middlebury, Vermont, Middlebury College Press, 1997.


Critical Studies: "Fresh Flowers for the Urn: Reassessing Robert Pack" by Paul Mariani, in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), winter 1982; At an Elevation: On the Poetry of Robert Pack edited by David Bain, Middlebury, Vermont, Middlebury College Press, 1994.

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From his earliest works to Fathering the Map: New and Selected Later Poems, which provides a fine overview of his accomplishments, Robert Pack's poetry has celebrated man's organic relationship to all levels of creation, a relationship complicated by the playful, sometimes nagging "curse of consciousness" ("Stellar Thanksgiving"). Many of his poems are awed yet ironical responses to epigraphs from books on physics and astronomy and reveal a fascination with the mysteries of the physical universe and the equally enigmatic possibilities of the human cosmos. Such poems explore the archaeological, biological, and mythic hints of man's collective past (and unimaginable future) and his private prenatal memories.

"Grieving on a Grand Scale," a representative work, ranges from the imagined death of a lover, through speculations on the inevitable demise of the whole scale of nature, to the implications of such devastations on the fate of the persona, always the crux for Pack. Though the poem resolves "… to mourn softly, without hope of resurrection," the final lines comfort with the image of an unknowing yet elegiac universe: "young deer / Do not move (their loose watery lips / Slide over their gums with a sound like weeping." Pack generally avoids sentimentality by acknowledging human involvement in both "the crooked weasel's crooked chase" ("Canoe Ride") and the horror, however stylized, of "… lace / Of mouse bones in owl feces" ("The Black Ant").

Poems like "Descending" interpret the terror implicit in the universe as the real cost of exclusion from paradise, but Pack, negating traditional answers, substitutes openness to the wonders of creation, whatever their origin: "… above, no missing God / I miss; high satisfying sky though, and below, / Chrysanthemums in garb of gaiety" ("Raking Leaves"). "Prayer for Prayer," the concluding poem in Faces in a Single Tree, plays more seriously with religion as a wife, acknowledging the accuracy of her husband's reading of her beliefs, develops a final enigma: "Darling, I know you know something in me approves you laughing at my need to pray / … listen to God's silences even as the wind blows through / the icicles and piles snow by our shed: / we may be in for quite a night of it." Similarly, the title poem in Fathering the Map concludes when a father, without making orthodoxy explicit, bequeaths his son a childhood map and the rich and comforting traditions it implies: "all blank but for a single pin / to represent an ark, / in hope another covenant to save the earth / may find words in the dark."

The key image of delight for Pack is the family. "Breakfast Cherries" celebrates the richness of ephemeral family pleasure. In "Everything Is Possible" the expectant father achieves the illusion of godhead, while the husband in "Were It To" sees daily life as a recapitulation of paradise. Though children "redeem all sorrow," such redemption never completely calms latent anxiety or ignores the inherited pain implicit in all human relationships. "The Mountain Ash Tree," with its equivocally symbolic berries, offers Pack's most complex vision of man's precarious optimism; despite the ominous appearance and bitter taste of the fruit, its unraveled meanings force the reader to share the final affirmation that "I am still alive."

Because of the relatedness of all elements in the universe, man can revert to the "hermit crab" comfort of "shell" and "tentacles" ("My House") or aspire to a level where "only his thought remains / melodious and luminous …" ("Venus"). Such diversity parallels man's transcending of generational limits as he enacts several family roles simultaneously. A son, struggling to distinguish mother from wife and himself from his dead father, invokes the father's return and, ironically, a renewal of the whole process: "Dreaming I seek your skeleton below; / I dig the worms and find your embryo" ("Father"). "The Boat" achieves the strongest dramatization of this theme when the speaker, with deadpan earnestness, accepts both the fusion and separateness of familial roles: "I dressed my father in his little clothes. / Blue sailor suit, brass buttons on his coat. / He asked me where the running water goes. / … He told me where all the running water goes. / And dressed me gently in his little clothes." The strict terza rima perfectly embodies the theme of freedom within the ambiguous order of family cycles.

The dramatic monologues of Faces in a Single Tree, reminiscent of Frost, darken this image of family life. In "Nursing and Dreaming" a husband's anger at his wife's absorption in their infant son combines with painful memories of his mother and younger brother and with speculations on his father's possible reactions to both offspring. Despite the psychological complexity of such poems, their competent iambic lines unfortunately endow the varied speakers with similarities of voice and imagery that do not allow distinct personalities to emerge.

Amplification through repetition and the varying of verb forms becomes a stylistic signature for Pack: "I grow by choosing what I choose to know" ("Song to Myself"). Among a variety of sestinas, villanelles, and free verse, Pack's strongest form is a moral nursery rhyme in which a convincingly guileless speaker agonizes, with inevitable repetitions, toward a resolution that both repels and involves the reader. "I shot an otter because I had a gun" leads, with icy detachment, to "He shot an otter because he had a gun" ("The Shooting"). While Pack can sustain a bitingly ironic or flippant voice throughout a poem, he fails at social satire in works like "Routine" and at literary satire in "Advice to Poets," achieving only modest success with "Wilt Thou Condemn Me?," which teases for fifteen stanzas on the ambiguous virtues of irony. Pack is apparently a ruthless judge of his own verse, for he deleted many fine earlier poems from Fathering the Map and revised others.

Clayfeld Rejoices, Clayfeld Laments uses the developing consciousness of a sculptor to dramatize the abiding concerns of Pack's poetry, perhaps most effectively in a dream vision of a Las Vegas slot machine:

When Clayfeld pulled the lever down again,
  three phoenixes descended
in a row, and printed coins, like tiny suns,
  flowed from an opening
as when Zeus came to Danae in a shower...

"Inheritance," a series of thematically unified poems with five-line stanzas, continues Pack's speculations on man's evolution and his ambiguous power in the present, "… standing in his garden with an eggplant / like a plant in his palm" ("Grandeur"). Like the "Clayfeld" cycle, the "Inheritance" poems often focus on the artist's response to his perceived reality but are more explicit in articulating a credo: whether "it's good to face what's bad; / that's what a poem must do or else it lies" ("The Long and the Short of What's Good and What's Bad").

Before It Vanishes is Pack's twenty-nine-poem response, sometimes skeptical, sometimes delighted, to Heinz Pagels's popularizations of theories on the origin, nature, and possible fate of the universe. Pack's polished, occasionally moving four-line stanzas, usually rhymed abcb, do not convey the sense of awe overcoming terror that characterizes similar speculations in Milton, who provides the epigraph to the volume as well as many verbal and thematic motifs. Rather, Packs's verse seems closer to eighteenth-century redactions of cosmological theory, though he substitutes colloquialism for formal elegance. He skillfully uses run-on lines, sometimes between stanzas, to play against his formal pattern, but these line breaks rarely achieve that enrichment of meaning resulting from an altered context. Significantly, the strongest poem is "Outlasting You," Pack's elegy for Pagels, whose death cry in a mountain accident assumes its place in a rich pattern of familial and universal grief and ultimately fuses with Pack's:

...your father's cry,
a stranger's, or perhaps
you hear my decomposing voice
come echoing unloosed from a crevasse.

Fathering the Map continues Pack's celebration of "… poets who / can find within a lily pond / their own reflections …" ("Cherry Robbers"), a brilliant emblem of the complex relation between nature and the human creator. The best of this collection, perhaps of all Pack's work, is "Wild Turkey in Paradise," in which the speaker boasts of "two apple trees I planted years ago," so fertile that "I let them ripen unplucked on the branch / and fall, according to the rhythm of the year." "Such bounty" attracts, "strutting stupid from the woods (as if / no hunters stalked Vermont) / six turkeys," who rapidly proceed to a state of drunkenness in which "… their eyes / blazed with amazing knowledge that transported them, / within their bodies, into paradise." The speaker's capacity to absorb this experience while remaining detached enough to speculate on its significance and to re-create it as a poem is a perfect analogue to Pack's poetic practice.

Pack's obsessive themes continue to find powerful expression in his volumes Minding the Sun and Rounding It Out, though he is perhaps less vigorous than formerly in culling weaker verses and curbing a tendency toward schoolmasterish homiletics, especially when lamenting man's despoiling the planet and hastening the demise of an already doomed universe. Characteristically, some of the strongest poems in Minding the Sun exemplify his eclecticism, as in this passage of Keatsian intensity and lushness in "Autumn Berries":

And suddenly the field is hushed,
no crickets call, no drowsy wood doves sing,
no winds carouse among the pines,
or strum the thistle and the thorn; the dawn no longer
is reflected in the dew,
and though red berries linger on my lips, I'm left,
pale brother, here alone with you.

And a Wordsworthian moment captures a child's openness to the world of the senses "that brought such thoughtless happiness to me" ("Determination"). As in earlier volumes, Pack's best poems are witty, thoughtful responses to scientific or philosophic epigraphs, most notably in "The Loss of Estrus," "The Trees Will Die," and "Witzelsucht" (wit-seeking), whose titles suggest the range of his interests.

Sometimes the formal structure of Rounding It Out, a series of forty-eight "sonnetelles" (sixteen-line sonnets with villanelle-like repetitions), produces verses that sound mechanical or even glib. But generally Pack remains a master of enjambment, his best lines simultaneously undermining and enforcing their traditional meters and demonstrating the "solace in grief when grief is rhymed" ("Invitation"). He brilliantly intensifies natural details, as in the owl's "honed eyes" ("Stone Thoughts") and romanticizes natural phenomena, as in his paean to a tomato plant in "Pruden's Purple": "So leafy-thick, so languorously lush." With seeming casualness, Pack hints in "Baled Hay" at one of the enduring themes of his poetry, the possible order of the natural world: "A randomness that also seems designed." He has continued to communicate the evidence of the excited eye and meditative consciousness of the true poet.

—Burton Kendle