Pinsky, Robert 1940–
Pinsky, Robert 1940–
PERSONAL: Born October 20, 1940, in Long Branch, NJ; son of Milford Simon (an optician) and Sylvia (Eisenberg) Pinsky; married Ellen Jane Bailey (a clinical psychologist), December 30, 1961; children: Nicole, Caroline Rose, Elizabeth. Education: Rutgers University, B.A., 1962; Stanford University, Ph.D., 1966. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, Boston University, 236 Bay State Rd., Boston, MA 02215-1403. E-mail—[email protected].
CAREER: University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, assistant professor of humanities, 1967–68; Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, associate professor of English, 1968–80; University of California, Berkeley, professor of English, 1980–88; Boston University, Boston, MA, professor of English and creative writing, 1988–. Visiting lecturer, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1979–80; Hurst Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 1981.
MEMBER: PEN, American Academy of Arts and Letters (appointed, 1999).
AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson, Wallace Stegner, and Fulbright fellow, Stanford University; Massachusetts Council on the Arts grant, 1974; Oscar Blumenthal Prize, Poetry (Chicago, IL), 1978; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1979; Saxifrage Prize, 1980; Guggenheim fellow, 1980; William Carlos Williams Prize, 1984; Los Angeles Times Book Review Award, Howard Morton Landon Prize for translation, both 1995, both for The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation; Shelley Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America, 1996; Lenore Marshall Prize, and Pulitzer Prize nomination, both 1996, both for The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966–1996; named Poet Laureate of the United States, 1997–2000; Harold Washington Literary Award, 1999; PEN/Voelcker Award for "an American poet at the height of his or her powers," 2004.
Sadness and Happiness, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1975.
An Explanation of America, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1979.
History of My Heart, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1984.
The Want Bone, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1990.
(Translator) The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation, illustrations by Michael Mazur, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966–1996, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
Jersey Rain, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
Landor's Poetry, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1968.
The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1976.
Robert Pinsky (recording), New Letters (Kansas City, MO), 1983.
(Translator, with Robert Hass) Czeslaw Milosz, The Separate Notebooks, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Amy Clampitt and Robert Pinsky Reading Their Poems (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1984.
Poetry and the World, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Dorothy Barresi and Robert Pinsky Reading Their Poems (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1992.
The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress: Robert Pinsky (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1995.
Digital Culture and the Individual Soul (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1997.
The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
(Collector) The Handbook of Heartbreak: 101 Poems of Lost Love and Sorrow, Rob Weisbach Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Robert Pinsky Reading His Poems in the Montpelier Room, Library of Congress, May 7, 1998, Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1998.
Poetry and American Memory (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1998.
Sharing the Gifts: Readings by 1997–2000 Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Robert Pinsky, 1999–2000 Special Poetry Consultants Rita Dove, Louise Glück, W.S. Merwin, 1999 Witter Bynner Fellows David Gewanter, Campbell McGrath, Heather McHugh (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1999.
Robert Pinsky Reading Selections from the Anthology, "Americans' Favorite Poems, the Favorite Poem Project," and Discussing Them in the Mumford Room, Library of Congress, October 7, 1999 (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1999.
The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress—Favorite Poets (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1999.
(Author of introduction) David Noevich Goberman, Carved Memories: Heritage in Stone from the Russian Jewish Pale, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor, with Maggie Dietz) Americans' Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.
(Selector) Cate Marvin, World's Tallest Disaster: Poems, Sarabande Books (Louisville, KY), 2001.
(Editor, with Maggie Dietz) Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2002.
A Favorite Poem Reading with Frank Bidart, Louise Glück, and Robert Pinsky (recording), Recorded Sound Reference Center (Washington, DC), 2003.
(Editor) William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems, Library of America (New York, NY), 2004.
(Editor, with Maggie Dietz) An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of articles and poems to American Review, American Poetry Review, Antaeus, Poetry, Shenandoah, and Yale Review. Poetry editor, New Republic, 1978–86, and Slate.com.
SIDELIGHTS: Robert Pinsky is a poet and critic whose work reflects his concern for a contemporary poetic diction that nonetheless speaks of a wider experience. Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, Pin-sky took his duties in that post quite seriously. His tenure as poet laureate was marked by ambitious efforts to prove the power of poetry, not just as an intellectual pursuit in the ivory tower, but as a meaningful and integral part of American life. "I think poetry is a vital part of our intelligence, our ability to learn, our ability to remember, the relationship between our bodies and minds," he told the Christian Science Monitor. "Poetry's highest purpose is to provide a unique sensation of coordination between the intelligence, emotions and the body. It's one of the most fundamental pleasures a person can experience." In a New York Times Book Review essay, Pinsky wrote: "Poetry is, among other things, a technology for remembering. But this fact may touch our lives far more profoundly than jingles for remembering how many days there are in June. The buried conduits among memory and emotion and the physical sounds of language may touch our inner life every day…. Poetry, a form of language far older than prose, is under our skins."
Pinsky once commented: "I would like to write a poetry which could contain every kind of thing, while keeping all the excitement of poetry." Pinsky's language, Willard Spiegelman stated in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, "while obeying the idiomatic rules of [his] own age, is intelligible beyond the fashions of a given time." Calling Pinsky "a successful and assiduous poet laureate," New York Times Book Review correspondent Adam Kirsch added: "The tasks of the public poet usually suit him well, because his intelligence seems, at bottom, less lyrical than discursive, even didactic. This poetic mode is much less favored now than in the past, but as Pinsky proves, it is still able to give pleasure."
In his volumes of criticism, including The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry in Its Traditions, Poetry and the World, and The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, Pinsky presents his views on the nature of poetry. In The Situation of Poetry, he writes of the poet's need to "find a language for presenting the role of a conscious soul in an unconscious world." This emphasis on the actual leads Pinsky to see contemporary poetry as far more continuous with earlier poetry than many critics would believe. As Denis Donoghue remarked in the New York Times Book Review, Pinsky "believes, and is pleased to show, that contemporary poetry exhibits more continuity than change." Writing in the Georgia Review, Charles Molesworth commented that "given the pluralistic state of our poetry (and the jumbled social values it builds on), Pinsky's approach remains appropriate." Donoghue concluded that "the mind at work in The Situation of Poetry is lively, fresh and critical without being obsessed by the rigor of criticism."
In the essays of Poetry and the World, Pinsky expands on his concept of poetry and, in a series of essays, examines the impact words have had on his own life. "In his foreword," wrote John L. Brown in World Literature Today, "he claims that these various elements all concern 'the relation of poetry to its great, shadowy social context, the world.' They are also linked by a common tone, a tone of relaxed, unpretentious conversation comprehensible to the common reader." "Pinsky's criticism is far removed from that of his deconstructionist academic colleagues," Brown explained. "He proclaims his respect for literary tradition…. He has none of the urge to destroy the past which fired the avant-garde movements of this century." "Even the autobiographical digressions demonstrate a heartening sense of vocation," declared Amy Edith Johnson in the New York Times Book Review. "Mr. Pinsky's honorable practice confirms the dignity and creative dimension of … the function of criticism at the present time."
The Sounds of Poetry is a slim volume that can serve as a primer on the mechanics of poetry and also as a "treatise on the social functions of poetry," to quote James Longenbach in the Nation. The critic added that the work "is not only interesting but suspenseful to read. Without discussing the meaning of poems, Pinsky has created a keenly idiosyncratic account of the place of poetry in our time." Atlantic Monthly contributor David Barber noted that The Sounds of Poetry "is an achievement for which there is surprisingly little precedent: an authoritative yet accessible introduction to the tools of the poet's trade that can be read with profit by the serious student and the amateur alike." Barber characterized the volume as "less that of a solemn classroom lecture than that of a spirited audio tour, with Pinsky offering up various devices and motifs for inspection and providing a lively running commentary on how to fine-tune the ear to respond to the distinctive verbal energies that make poetry 'poetic.'" Longenbach concluded: "Whatever else it does, The Sounds of Poetry suggests why its author, who once wrote a poetry distinguished by subject matter, has become a poet of crotchety, gorgeous sounds. By showing us how to surrender ourselves to this bright confusion, Pinsky gives us the liberty to understand more than ever before."
In his own poetry, Pinsky has followed the principles set out in his criticism. "In Pinsky's poetry and criticism," explained Spiegelman, "there lies an abiding unity, of which the principal ingredients are ethical ambition, sanity, a sense of humor, and something to say." Critics of Pinsky's first collection, Sadness and Happiness, compared the work to Ranier Marie Rilke, James Wright, and Robert Lowell. "The feeling that, somehow, American poetry has entered a new era of confidence is borne out by … Sadness and Happiness," declared Yale Review contributor Louis L. Martz. "Pinsky is the most exhilarating new poet that I have read since A.R. Ammons entered upon the scene…. The whole of the modern world is for Pinsky a region where the soul … has to face its mysteries; and the outer conditions for him are no worse or no better than they ever were for any generation."
Pinsky's book-length poem, An Explanation of America, examines the history of the United States in the same way that poet Robert Lowell had done, but, said Spiegelman, "his characteristic tone is less agonized and tense, more subdued than Lowell's." Although both poets draw on similarities between modern America and the ancient Roman Empire, the critic continued, "where Lowell's Rome is Juvenal's, Pinsky selects the earlier empire, Augustus's and Horace's, for his historical analogy to America." "Not the least remarkable thing about Robert Pinsky's remarkable [book]," stated Michael Hamburger in the Nation, "is that it seems to defy not only all the dominant trends in contemporary poetry but all the dominant notions—both American and non-American—of what is to be expected of an American poet." "In its philosophical approach, classical learning, and orderly structure," remarked Hudson Review contributor James Finn Cotter, An Explanation of America "resembles the work of William Cullen Bryant more than that of Hart Crane, but it is not old-fashioned. It is as American as Bryant's and Crane's long poems, as embedded in the past, and as identified with the woods and prairies."
Pinsky continues his examination of history—sometimes national, sometimes personal—in two later collections of poetry. "History of My Heart, which appeared in 1984," observed J.D. McClatchy in the New Republic, "was Pinsky's breakthrough, and my guess is that it will come to be seen as one of the best books of the past decade." McClatchy elaborated: "He might still use poetry as (in Emerson's phrase) 'a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it,' but he took his stand on the contradictions and desires of the self."
The best poems in Pinsky's 1990 collection, The Want Bone, according to McClatchy, "are more personal. They do not wrestle with religious angels or intellectual demons, the myths imposed on us by tradition. Instead, they address the self, those autobiographical myths we make out of memories." Poetry essayist Paul Breslin wrote: "In The Want Bone, Pinsky faces the limits of the pleasure principle that sustains History of My Heart. There, the erotic is the basis of the social, the drive that, not so much through sublimation as through cultivation, enables us to delight and sustain each other, and to delight in art. Here, desire is irreducible hunger."
The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966–1996 "will remind readers that here is a poet who, without forming a mini-movement or setting himself loudly at odds with the dominant tendencies of American poetry, has brought into it something new," maintained Katha Pollitt in the New York Times Book Review. Breslin felt that The Figured Wheel "signals a major turn in Pinsky's stylistic development…. [In] its hurling together of the apocalyptic and vast with the mundane and the particular, it fairly bristles with linguistic energy." The critic added: "The keen analytical intelligence of the earlier poetry does not disappear. But it is intellect in service to wonder, more ready to acknowledge the radical strangeness and intractability of the world it must try to comprehend." Pollitt claimed: "What makes Mr. Pinsky such a rewarding and exciting writer is the sense he gives, in the very shape and structure of his poems, of getting at the depths of human experience, in which everything is always repeated but also always new."
Pinsky's interest in a poetry of contemporary speech and wide-ranging subject matter led him in 1994 to publish a new translation of Dante's Inferno. He had been asked, with a group of nineteen other poets, to participate in a reading of the poem at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City in May of 1993. Pinsky became fascinated with the work of the thirteenth-century Italian poet. "It just gripped me, like a child with a new video game," he told New York Times contributor Diana Jean Schemo. "I literally couldn't stop working on it." "I'm not fluent in Italian, but I love languages," Pinsky continued in an interview with New York Times Book Review contributor Lynn Karpen. "This was like being a child with a new toy. I called the translation a feat of metrical engineering, and I worked obsessively. It's the only writing I have ever done where it's like reading yourself to sleep each night. We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night."
Despite the fact that about fifty English-language translations of the Inferno have been published in the twentieth century alone, critics largely celebrated Pinsky's work. "The primary strength of this translation," declared New Yorker contributor Edward Hirsch, "is the way it maintains the original's episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character. It is no small achievement to reproduce Dante's rhyme scheme and at the same time sound fresh and natural in English, and Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante's vernacular music where many others have failed." "His skill and power as a poet inform every line of this splendid translation," stated John Ahern in the New York Times Book Review. "He shapes sinewy lines whose edges you can actually hear. This is true verse, not the typographical arrangement of poetic prose." The reviewer concluded: "From the beginning, his translation propels us through a gripping narrative whose drama is always in sharp focus and whose characters speak in distinctive voices…. [I]f he does not quite attain Dante's full symphonic range, no one has come closer."
Pinsky was named poet laureate in 1997 and served until 2000. The position carries a modest stipend, but its appeal lies in its visibility to the general public. Formerly a retiring person, Pinsky became a public figure, and he used the notoriety to promote a new project. Under his direction, ordinary Americans were invited to name their favorite poems—and some entrants were asked to read for a permanent audio archive at the Library of Congress. Pinsky set a goal of recording one hundred people, but he was inundated with letters and e-mails from all over the nation, and those participating represented all ages, all walks of life, and all levels of education. "The Favorite Poem Project is partly to demonstrate that there is more circulation of poetry and more life of poetry than there might seem with the stereotype," Pinsky explained in the Progressive. "I must say that the Favorite Poem readings, beyond my expectation, are very moving."
With Maggie Dietz, Pinsky edited a representative volume of reader responses called Americans' Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology. A Publishers Weekly reviewer stated that "the selections are as diverse as the nation that chose them." Americans' Favorite Poems proved so popular that two subsequent collections have appeared: Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology and An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman called Poems to Read "a graceful, sometimes jubilant, sometimes lyrical, sometimes brooding, but always welcoming and stirring collection."
Jersey Rain, published in 2000, was Pinsky's first collection of completely new work since The Want Bone appeared a decade earlier. Reviewing the work in Library Journal, Christian Graham observed that Pinsky's poems range from the mythic to the confessional. "Occasionally, his differing manners collide strangely," Graham stated, "but Pinsky delivers, as ever, intelligent, pensive poetry of great beauty." A critic in Publishers Weekly felt that the work's "lighter pieces will delight fans, but the poems with more profound aspirations lack a penetrating introspection." According to Lee Oser in World Literature Today, "the book holds interest both as a marker of poetry's development after modernism, and as the work of a fine and resourceful craftsman."
An Atlantic Monthly correspondent recognized Pinsky as "one of the most distinguished poets of his generation," and Breslin commented that Pinsky "has emerged as the finest American poet-critic since Randall Jarrell." For his own part, the last American poet laureate of the twentieth century told the Progressive: "I think the rhythms in a lot of my writing are an attempt to create that feeling of a beautiful, gorgeous jazz solo that gives you more emotion and some more and coming around with some more, and it's the same but it's changed, and the rhythm is very powerful, but it is also lyricism. I think I've been trying to create something like that in my writing for a long time."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 9, 1978, Volume 19, 1981, Volume 38, 1986.
Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Poetry for Students, Volume 18, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Spiegelman, Willard, The Didactic Muse, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1989.
American Poetry Review, July-August, 2003, Tony Hoaglund, "Three Tenors: Gluck, Hass, Pinsky, and the Deployment of Talent," pp. 37-42.
American Scholar, spring, 1999, Adam Kirsch, review of The Sounds of Poetry, p. 140.
Atlantic Monthly, March, 1999, David Barber, "What Makes Poetry 'Poetic?'," p. 114; October, 1999, p. 6.
Booklist, June 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poems Project Anthology, p. 1670.
Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 1998, Marjorie Coeyman, "Poet Laureate's Request: Lend Me Your Voices," p. B8.
Georgia Review, spring, 1985.
Hudson Review, spring, 1980, pp. 131-145.
Library Journal, May 1, 2000, Graham Christian, review of Jersey Rain, p. 118; July 1, 2002, Daniel L. Guillory, review of Poems to Read, p. 85; October 15, 2002, Scott Hightower, review of Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, p. 73.
Life, October, 1998, Melissa Faye Greene and Jillian Edelstein, "Poetry U.S.A.," p. 114.
Nation, January 26, 1980, pp. 86-87; September 21, 1998, James Longenbach, review of The Sounds of Poetry, p. 34.
New Republic, September 24, 1990, pp. 46-48; October 28, 2002, David Bromwich, "The Roughs and Beards," p. 25.
New Yorker, January 23, 1995, pp. 87-90.
New York Times, January 31, 1995, pp. B1, B2.
New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1977, Denis Donoghue, review of The Situation of Poetry; July 23, 1989, Amy Edith Johnson, review of Poetry and the World, p. 19; September 25, 1994, "A Man Goes Into a Bar, See, and Recites: 'The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained,'" pp. 15-16; January 1, 1995, Lynn Karpen, "A Fear of Metrical Engineering," and John Ahern, "Vulgar Eloquence," p. 3; August 18, 1996, Katha Pollitt, "World of Wonders"; April 9, 2000, Adam Kirsch, "Vox Populi."
Poetry, October, 1990, pp. 39-41; July, 1997, Paul Breslin, review of The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966–1996, p. 226; August, 1999, Christian Wiman, review of The Sounds of Poetry, p. 286.
Progressive, May, 1999, Anne-Marie Cusac, "Robert Pinsky," p. 35.
Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1999, "Home Grown," p. 77; March 6, 2000, review of Jersey Rain, p. 105.
TriQuarterly, winter, 1994, "A Conversation with Robert Pinsky," pp. 21-37.
Utne Reader, September-October, 1999, Anne-Marie Cusac, "Robert Pinsky's Grand Slam," p. 98.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1989, pp. 751-752; autumn, 2000, Lee Oser, review of Jersey Rain, p. 820.
Writer, November, 1999, Susan Kelly, "An Interview with Robert Pinsky," p. 18.
Yale Review, autumn, 1976.
Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (August 10, 2004), "Robert Pinsky."
Boston University Web site, http://www.bu.edu/ (October 17, 2003).
Favorite Poem Project Web site, http://www.favoritepoem.org/ (November 22, 2000).
Poetry & Literature Center of the Library of Congress Web site, http://www.loc.gov/poetry/poetry.html/ (August 9, 2004).