Pinsky, Robert (Neal)

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PINSKY, Robert (Neal)

Nationality: American. Born: Long Branch, New Jersey, 20 October 1940. Education: Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, B.A. 1962; Stanford University, California (Woodrow Wilson, Stegner, and Fulbright fellow), M.A., Ph.D. 1966. Family: Married Ellen Bailey in 1961; three daughters. Career: Assistant professor of Humanities, University of Chicago, 1967–68; professor of English, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1968–80; professor of English, University of California, Berkeley, 1980–89. Since 1988 professor of English, Boston University. Visiting lecturer, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979–80; Hurst Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, 1981. Poetry editor, New Republic, Washington, D.C., 1978–87, and since 1996 Slate.Awards: Massachusetts Council on the Arts grant, 1974; Oscar Blumenthal prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1978; American Academy award, 1980; Saxifrage prize, 1980; Guggenheim fellowship, 1980; William Carlos Williams award, 1985; Landon prize in translation, 1995; Los Angeles Times book award, 1995; Shelley memorial award, 1996; Ambassador book award in poetry, 1997; Poet Laureate of the United States, since 1997; Lenore Marshall prize in poetry, 1997, for The Figured Wheel; Harold Washington literary award, 1999. Address: Department of English, Boston University, 236 Bay State Road, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, U.S.A.



Sadness And Happiness. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1975.

An Explanation of America. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, and Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.

Five American Poets, with others. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.

History of My Heart. New York, Ecco Press, 1984.

The Want Bone. New York, Ecco Press, 1990.

The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966–1996. New York, Farrar Straus, 1995.

Jersey Rain. New York, Farrar Straus, 2000.


Mindwheel (computerized novel; Steve Hales and William Mataga, programmers). Richmond, California, Synapse Software, 1985.


Landor's Poetry. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968.

The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1977.

Poetry and the World. New York, Ecco Press, 1988.

The Sounds of Poetry. New York, Farrar Straus, 1998.

The Handbook of Heartbreak. New York, Morrow, 1998.

Americans' Favorite Poems. New York, Norton, 1999.

Translator, with Robert Hass, The Separate Notebooks, by Czeslaw Milosz. New York, Ecco Press, 1984.

Translator, The Inferno of Dante. New York, Farrar Straus, 1994.


Manuscript Collection: Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

Critical Studies: By Hugh Kenner, in Los Angeles Times, 11 February 1976; by Robert van Hallberg, in Chicago Review, spring 1976; by William Pritchard, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 11 June 1976; by Louis Martz, in Yale Review (New Haven, Connecticut), autumn 1976; The Didactic Muse by Willard Spiegelman, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1989; "On Robert Pinsky" by James Longenbach, in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), 103, summer 1994; "The Horatian Poetics of Ezra Pound and Robert Pinsky" by Lowell Bowditch, in Classical World, 89(6), July-August 1996; "Story Tellers" by Louise Gluck, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 26(4), July-August 1997; "Robert Pinsky: The Poet Laureate and His Poems" by Grace Cavalieri, in Pembroke (Pembroke, North Carolina), 31, 1999; "The Poet Laureate on His Land: Robert Pinsky's 'An Explanation of America'" by William E. Sheidley, in The Image of America in Literature, Media, and Society, edited by Will Wright and Steven Kaplan, Pueblo, Colorado, Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, 1999.

*  *  *

If there is a consistent ground rule for Robert Pinsky's poems, early to late, it is that apparent simplicity is the invitation to troubling complexity. It is an attractive movement of the mind, finding exceptions to simple rules, unexpected textures to smooth surfaces, division and ambivalence to simple feelings. And the strategies are abundance, surprise, and variations on a theme. In "Poem about People," the first poem in his first book, Sadness and Happiness, what begins as genial and compassionate people watching-

Balding young men in work shoes
And green work pants, beer belly
And white T-shirt, the porky walk
Back to the truck, polite; possible
To feel briefly like Jesus,
A gust of diffuse tenderness...

—turns to a friend's painful divorce and then to a movie clip that in turn leads to a burning vision of desperate personal shame-

...the sensitive
Young Jewish soldier nearly drowns
Trying to rescue the thrashing
Anti-semitic bully, swimming across
The river raked by nazi fire,
The awful part is the part truth:
Hate my whole kind, but me,
Love me for myself.

It is not a predictable sequence.

The most ambitious poems in the book are meditative sequences—"Tennis," the title poem "Sadness and Happiness," and "Essay on Psychiatrists"—that are in the form of theme and variations. The last includes comic social scenes, satire, a discussion of Pentheus and Dionysus as psychiatrists, and Yvor Winters's defense of madness in poets, and it concludes that we are all psychiatrists fumbling our way between stars. It is a poem designed to make psychiatrists uneasy, being itself uneasy about their claims to power over the secret life. Predictably, psychiatrists might say that jealousy for their mastery of the sexual secret underlies the poem.

An Explanation of America is just that. Its classical antecedent is not the Juvenal-Johnson-Lowell "Vanity of Human Wishes" but rather Horace's Epistle I, xvi, written from his Sabine farm, which Pinsky translates as part of his text. It is philosophical discourse, not satire. The poem is addressed to his oldest daughter, much of it quite genuinely so, for the mode of address is not merely a trope in some of the poem's very challenging passages. The daughter is often a real presence in the poem and appears to be too iconoclastic, intelligent, and searching to be satisfied with easy answers. She is a critic of "that tyrant and sycophantic lout, the Majority," and the speaker says,

		...Political Science bores you,
You prefer the truth, and with a Jesuit firmness
Return to your slogan: "Voting is not fair."

A sense of the poem's complexity and uneasiness of feeling is implicit in the following list:

I want for you to see the things I see
And more, Colonial Diners, Disney, films
Of concentration camps, the napalmed child
Trotting through famous news film in her diaper
And tattered flaps of skin, Deep Throat, the rest.

This is not an America free of cruelty, nor with the last entry is the monologue to the daughter easy about domesticated sexuality. The explanation is not tidy or even terribly analytic. It is impressionistic, rather, and concludes with a sense of America as dreamlike—"So large, and strangely broken, and unforseen."

Pinsky's commitment to discursive poetry is seen in his next book, History of My Heart, in which he adopts his method defiantly in the face of the dominant approach to his subject, which is the shaping of his feelings. Instead of confession or epiphanies of the atomistic ego or intimations of moral instructions that thwart childhood narcissism, Pinsky offers explanations that are complex, ironic, and allusive. In the title poem of the volume history becomes family mythmaking in his mother's fantasy of meeting Fats Waller, which was drawn from a movie, in the way language creates experience in an account of a first sexual tryst ("To see eyes melting so I could think This is it, / They're melting! "), and in a cluster of images we are presented with the overarching erotic revery that

Makes the one who feels seem beautiful to the beholder
Witnessing the idea of the giving of desire—nothing more
Than the little singing notes of wanting—the heart
Yearning further into giving itself into the air, breath
Strained into song emptying the golden bell it comes from,
The pure source poured altogether out and away.

It should be clear that the explanatory and discursive mode has not eliminated lyricism. It has in fact restored to the lyric the modes of discourse that have been rare in the twentieth century. The strategy is continued in the remainder of the book. In "The Unseen," set in a tour of a concentration camp, Pinsky addresses the absent God:

O discredited Lord of Hosts, your servant gapes
Obediently to swallow various doings of us, the most
Capable of all your former creatures—we have no shape,
We are poured out like water, but still
We try to take in what won't be turned from in despair.

This is not cold exposition but rather intelligent discourse about the heart's history in history. In his poem "The Cold" Pinsky retrieves this fashionable, exhausted word and moves the philosophical cold outdoors as weather, where it belongs:

Or like me, working in a room alone,
Watching out from a window...
...not having been out in hours
I come up close idly to feel the cold,
Forgetting for a minute what I was doing.

The Want Bone refers not a phallic image but to an oral one, the dried mouth bones of a shark, an emblem of its desire to live. It is death longing for life and love, food and family. In the poems of this book pastiche and assemblage have joined the technique of variations on a theme to produce deliberate derangement of the apparent subjects and greater tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces. We find an explicit celebration and savoring of the richness of words and of their anarchic history. There is more play with language than in previous books, and Pinsky has adapted stories of Jesus' childhood from the Apocrypha and embroidered the story of the prophet Daniel. In a prose section Jesus, in the form of a ciclogriff, befriends Isolde to learn about love. Tristan is a violent bard, however, and Jesus cannot save Tristan or Isolde, who is boundlessly committed to him. We see it coming, but the charm is in the telling. This is the book of a poet approaching fifty who is determined to expand his art. Pinsky maintains his sense of the well-shaped line, stanza, and poem. He strays far from the iambic but never entirely moves out of its range. His rhymes, typically off-rhymes, are inventive and formal without being insistent. The volume shows him to be one of the most sophisticated technicians of his generation and perhaps one of its finest poets.

The new poems in The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966–1996 extend this mastery, and the book contains poems that may well become American classics. Particularly effective is "Avenue," a poem central to a sequence about cities, and an elegy for Elliot Gilbert called "Impossible to Tell," which is built around two jokes. This is a new and daring type of elegy, and I like to imagine the author of "Lycidas" being thrilled by its rightness. The new poems in the volume are not a random assortment. In a note to "Avenue," with reference to an explanation of Yom Kippur as the day of "at-onement," Pinsky says, "All, one: a play of unity and diversity that in turn makes me think of the fragmented, plural American city, held together visibly by words, by the signs and spoken or sung syllables of its streets, where all our 'they' is somehow 'one.'" This motif is woven throughout the new poems, many of which deal with the city as the figure for the multiplicity and "numerousness" of the soul. It is the interwoven web of our humanity in which the matrix of Charlie Parker, Pushkin, Sax (the inventor of the instrument), and the saxplaying Pinsky is united in "Ginza Samba." Pinsky's vision (and it is right to speak of it using this term) has a lot of the philosophical playfulness of Borges mixed with the air of the historical menace of Milosz.

Pinsky includes "The Rhyme of Reb Nachman," a poem composed for a Halloween celebration, among his selection of translations and a poem by Milosz, "Incantation," among his own poems. The latter is explained, at least in part, by the fact that his translation of "The World" was rejected by Milosz as not being sufficiently subordinated to the Polish, as being an English poem in its own right. It is an odd situation but entirely appropriate to the overlapping boundaries Pinsky's new work celebrates.

Like all of his previous books, Jersey Rain reflects Pinsky's determination to expand his art. The move in this case is toward a high style, a solemnity, a high seriousness in the Arnoldian sense. It was not that Pinsky did not demonstrate this quality before, but earlier it was accompanied by a subversive metaphysical wit, for example, the jokes in his elegies and his sly satirical flashes. Such qualities are rarer in this book. The move is similar to what is seen in a number of important American writers, for example, Eliot, Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, and Hemingway, late in their careers. The poems are still rooted in Pinsky's vernacular strength that flourishes in delicate tension with his formality, which is itself subtle and not self-assertive. For this reason it can be missed by young, infatuated readers, just as they may not notice the loosened formality of Yeats, Bishop, Lowell, or Stevens. Consider the lines that conclude "Autumn Quartet," a birthday poem:

Among the epic bravos, a civic man.
The centaurs showed him truth in fabulation,
In every living city the haunted ruin.

The reach is impressive, seeing Odysseus as artist, explorer, and destroyer, the latter usually reserved for Achilles. And Odysseus takes his place in a row of heroes that include Lincoln, Washington, Leopold Bloom, and Jackie Robinson. "Ode to Meaning" is an elegy with no jokes. Its reach is straightforwardly metaphysical, and its tone and music are elevated. The poem begins with-

Dire one and desired one,
Savior and sentencer

—and concludes with-

If I
Dare to disparage
Your harp of shadows I taste
Wormwood and motor oil, I pour
Ashes on my head. You
are the wound. You
Be the medicine.

The meaning invoked here has become deeply interwoven with death and its meaning. The poem is very different from the improvisational and digressive prose piece "An Alphabet of My Dead," one of the few works in the collection that points backward toward Pinsky's earlier work. It is nostalgic and full of a sense of real loss, but it lacks the grief-driven desperation for meaning of the "Ode to Meaning." It is this latter quality that characterizes the book.

Pinsky's translation The Inferno of Dante is the most idiomatic and vigorous adaptation of terza rima in English. His strategy of using consonantal rhyme in place of exact rhyme has enabled him to avoid much of the artificiality of earlier translations and to approximate Dante's famous compression. In fact, he is so successful that Dante's tercets seldom last three lines in Pinsky's English, and the direct link in Italian between syntax and stanza structure is abandoned. Unlike the original, almost all of Pinsky's tercets are enjambed.

Among Pinsky's other books is The Sounds of Poetry, a guide to prosody for students that focuses on accents and sound patterns without scansion or the customary classifications of accentual-syllabic poetry. The starting point is vocal reality rather than traditional prosody, although a discussion of meter and the sounds it explains runs throughout. The book is restricted, however, and gives way to a nontechnical empirical approach. In effect, Pinsky is paraphrasing technical prosody for technophobes at the same time that his sustained attention to sound reveals patterns that were not attended to before.

Someone looking for connections between Pinsky and his graduate school mentor, the important and charismatic critic-poet Yvor Winters, would strain to find them. Pinsky is a poet-critic, and the priority of poetry is important. Early in his career he lost Winters's tone of fastidious, moralistic criticism that did not suffer opposition gladly, and he has restored Williams to the Winters canon and expanded it to include all sorts of decadent New Yorkers. While there is a vivid heroic portrait of Winters in the long poem "Essay on Psychiatrists," what survives of the influence in Pinsky's poetry is a struggle with traditional forms and a diction that favors aestheticized, philosophical coldness and certitude in only a few early poems. Pinsky's criticism likewise has grown free of Winters's influence. It is urbane and international and lacks the odor of orthodoxy.

Pinsky has taken his elevation to the poet laureateship of the United States with deep seriousness, and he has taken on the task of establishing a record of the "best-loved poems" of the American people, of a fluid and dynamic vernacular canon. His approach is to exclude the customary canon shapers, the poets and scholars, in order to discover a popular, demotic consensus. This is part of a somewhat quixotic overall project of recovering or defining the historical memory of a pluralist culture of improvised traditions, one that is separable from the commercial project of pop culture. In addition, Pinsky's presence on the Public Broadcasting System's News hour every week has made poetry present to a wide audience.

—Barry Goldensohn