Pinsky, Robert

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PINSKY, ROBERT (1940– ), U.S. poet and critic. Author of six collections of his own poetry and five important books of literary criticism, as well as translations of Milosz and Dante, Pinsky is the only American poet to have held the post of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress for three consecutive years (1997–2000). The appointments to the position allowed him to bring to fruition what he called the Favorite Poem Project. Contrary to conventional notions of the philistinism of American culture, Pinsky believed that lyric poetry continued to be a vital presence in the lives of ordinary American citizens. Thus the Favorite Poem Project invited readers to send in short prose statements explaining why their favorite poem was important to them. From an abundant initial response various readers were selected for a series of video recordings that presented them reading the poems that they treasured. There followed two anthologies of those poems and a digital archive, the sum total of which bore witness to what Pinsky claimed was the hidden but vital presence of poetry far beyond the walls of the universities and research libraries.

Revealing an underground life of the spirit in the post-modern era is the central act of Pinsky's own poetry as well. His work assays and charts the life of the soul amid the swirling and always perplexing currents of the contemporary. Pinsky sometimes seems to wonder whether there is such a thing as a soul to worry about, but more often he measures the labors, passions, and effortful creations of human beings – however flawed – as visible and invaluable signs of the soul's existence. His restless intelligence, his abiding curiosity about how the soul fares – be it for good or ill – has been with him from his first book of poetry, Sadness and Happiness (1973), where he notes in the first poem the "terrible gaze of a unique/Soul, its need unlovable." The concern is still there in his most recent book, Jersey Rain (2000), in "The Haunted Ruin," where Pinsky writes that everything we touch leaves something of ourselves in it. Even in our machines, our computers and handsaws, there thus remains a residue of ourselves, a "machine soul."

Pinsky's skeptical, troubled but surprisingly firm faith that there is a soul has its analogue in his attitude toward God. All sorts of gods thickly populate his collections of poetry. They range from Yahweh to Shiva to Jesus to Hermes and beyond to various lesser spirits, prophets, heroes, and all those who traffic with the gods. Pinsky's religious themes are heterodox, ironic, and inclusive, but they are also nonetheless grounded in the intellectual inheritance of Judaism. Raised in what he has called "a nominally Orthodox" Jewish family, in a working-class neighborhood of Long Branch, n.j., Pinsky attended Rutgers for his B.A. and Stanford for his Ph.D. He taught at Wellesley College, the University of California, Berkeley, and then in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University. Thus there is also a streak of the scholarly in his work, for he seems to study Judaism (as well as any other religion or manifestation of culture) as part of the abiding human impulse toward meaning. The stance he takes in some of his poems reminds one of Job facing the whirlwind, a whirlwind that one might call God, or History, or Fate, or Civilization. The best example of this is in "The Figured Wheel," a poem that gives its name to the title of his New and Collected Poems (1996), where Pinsky stands stunned by an impersonal power, rolling through our lives and throughout history. It is also perhaps his sense that there are impersonal spirits moving in the world that led Pinsky also to his translation of Dante's Inferno (1994).

At other times, however, Pinsky seems a contemporary psalmist, praising the surprising ways in which the gods reveal themselves. In "To Television," from Jersey Rain, Pinsky likens the "boob-tube" to Hermes, and sings its praises for the strange comfort it sometimes brings, however bad the rest of its news may be. In this context, it is significant that Pinsky's book of prose The Life of David (2005) speaks of an "obdurate calculus of pain." That too is an essential part of his psalmlike poems. One hears the stern facts of human suffering woven through the very fabric of a poem like "Shirt," from The Want Bone (1990). Here the speaker fingers a shirt, admiring each part of its construction, and as he does he thinks of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, and recalls the photos of workers leaping from the windows, which then links him to thoughts of heaven and the afterlife, and the poetry of George Herbert, the English metaphysical, author of a poem called "The Collar." That thought brings him back to the shirt and a woman named Irma who has left a tag in it saying it was she who inspected this shirt. Up, down, and across the spans of human history, culture, and suffering, the poem not only praises the shirt, but all that is human and woven into that which we wear on our backs.

Yet for all the centrality of matters of soul and faith to Pinsky's work, there remains an equally firm and open-ended commitment to experience, to this world, to history, and to the turbulent vitality of lives lived. In meditations such as his book-length An Explanation of America (1980) or in the more recent "An Alphabet of My Dead" in Jersey Rain, one senses above all in this poetry an earned freedom of thought and feeling. As with William Carlos Williams, another great poet of New Jersey and urban America, one has the feeling that there is nothing in this world or the next that Pinsky conceives of as alien to poetry. Though fonder of traditional and more formal poetry than Williams was, Pinsky is nonetheless in the direct line of descent from Williams in regard to his sense of the vitality of the art. In his most important collection of essays, The Poet and the World (1988), Pinsky argues that "only the challenge of what may seem unpoetic, that which has not already been made poetic by the tradition, can keep the art truly pure and alive." The ongoing transformation of the apparently "anti-poetic" into poetry of the first order is one of the great revelations that the work of Robert Pinsky continues to offer.


J. Longenbach, Modern Poetry After Modernism (1997); W. Spiegelman, The Didactic Muse (1989).

[Frederick J. Marchant (2nd ed.)]