by Robert Pinsky
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011
Over the past twenty years or thereabouts, Robert Pinsky has found himself in an odd predicament. He has for a long while been regarded as one of our most esteemed living poets, but in many respects he has been better known as poetry’s Smiling Public Face. He’s the go-to man on those rare occasions when an organization such as PBS or NPR wants the testimony of a poetry expert. He serves on innumerable panels and jurying committees. As poet laureate during the Clinton years he took his role much more seriously than other holders of that office; some of the programs he initiated during that time, such as his “Favorite Poem Project,” have continued with great success. In fact, Pinsky has explained poetry to the general public so well without dumbing it down, and with such a vast and energetic earnestness, that a certain percentage of his fellow poets view him with suspicion: poets with a pronounced civic streak are seen as somehow betraying an art that likes to think of itself as adversarial. A press release that accompanied my bound galley of Pinsky’s new selected volume refers to him as “one of America’s most beloved poets.” If you’re a serious poet in America, the last thing you want to be called is beloved: that’s a term reserved for the likes of James Whitcomb Riley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or some more recent poetasters who needn’t be named.
Let us hope that Pinsky’s new Selected Poems will help to dispel the more jaded views of his accomplishments. For Pinsky is an important figure. He is also, as Tony Hoagland has rightly observed, “a much stranger poet than is generally acknowledged.” This abiding strangeness, this ability to perpetually surprise us with his jittery music, oddball catalogues, and outright collage-making—gestures that at the same time are impeccably crafted and as often-as-not shaped into stately couplets and tercets—are one source of Pinsky’s significance. He has also, as the new volume eloquently attests, remade himself several times as a poet, and with each change moved closer to a goal of being at once wholly idiosyncratic and highly accessible. He is an exceedingly personal writer—this trait especially manifests itself in his capacities as an elegist—while at the same time very concerned with public subjects that too many of his generational peers have chosen to neglect. Having grown up among a family of Jewish shopkeepers on the Jersey Shore, he also writes about the complexities of class, assimilation, and ethnicity as well and as urgently as any living poet, save Philip Levine. Indeed, it might even be said that the sadly unfashionable concept of America as a cultural melting pot has guided Pinsky’s aesthetic choices as much as it has his themes. The poems tend to be wild mash-ups of high- and low-culture allusions. One poem will sample George Herbert and Fulke Greville, while another will nod to the blissful ferality of the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie.” Historical references are mixed in much the same way, with Pinksy giving equal value to macro events—the My Lai massacre, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire—and micro ones that survive in family or small town lore. His finest poem, “At Pleasure Bay,” recalls a double suicide that took place in his native Long Branch, New Jersey, in the 1920s. Yet the poem also manages to be a sort of Garden State retelling of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The melting-pot aesthetic that Pinsky has developed is best exemplified in the title poem of his 2007 collection, Gulf Music, a parable of assimilation and self-invention that interweaves the lives of two radically dissimilar individuals. One of them is Pinsky’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side, a Jewish immigrant arriving in Galveston to escape the Czarist pogroms. (Morris Eisenberg becomes his Americanized name.) His career is paired with that of Henry Roeland Byrd, the son of a former slave, later known as the great New Orleans bluesman Professor Longhair. Both lives are seen as astonishing and implausible, and both are personal stories narrated against the background of cataclysmic events, particularly the devastating Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Although the poem is set forth in a fairly strict hexameter, its juxtapositions grow wilder and wilder as the poem progresses, and they are punctuated by a giddy series of nonsense words that could only be described as Pinsky-speak. The Pinsky-speak functions as a kind of chorus, a verbal equivalent to Longhair’s stride piano filigrees and non-verbal vocal pyrotechnics, and even as a kind of pidgin that seems to recall Yiddish and Hebrew phrasings, as well as outdated Southern dialect. Here’s a typical passage:
Here they are in uniforms and caps, pistols in holsters.
Hotesy anno, Ipa Fano trah ma dollah, tra la la.
Morris took the name “Eisenberg” after the rich man from
His shtetl who in 1908 owned a town in Arkansas.
Most of this is made up, but the immigration papers did
Require him to renounce all loyalty to Czar Nicholas.
As he signed to that, he must have thought to himself
The Yiddish equivalent of No Problem, Mah la belle.
Hotesy hotesy-ahno. Wellah-mallah, widda dallah,
Mah fanna-well. A townful of people named Eisenberg.
The past is not decent or orderly, it is made-up and devious.
The man was correct when he said it’s not even the past.
But even if the past is “not even the past,” it invariably offers Pinsky a rich horde of detail, fact, and allusion to exploit. This jumble never seems the product of free association; it’s more a juggling act, and the aforementioned “At Pleasure Bay” manages to keep something like nine balls in the air at once, while still seemingly effortless. Here’s the opening passage:
In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.
Here under the pines a little off the road
In 1927 the Chief of Police
And Mrs. W. killed themselves together,
Sitting in a roadster. Ancient unshaken pilings
And underwater chunks of still-mortared brick
In shapes like bits of puzzle strew the bottom
Where the landing was for Price’s Hotel and Theater.
And here’s where boats blew two blasts for the keeper
To shunt the iron swing-bridge. He leaned on the gears
Like a skipper in the hut that housed the works
And the bridge moaned and turned on its middle pier
To let them through. In the middle of the summer
Two or three cars might wait for the iron trusswork
Winching aside, with maybe a child to notice
A name on the stern in black-and-gold on white,
Sandpiper, Patsy Ann, Do Not Disturb,
The Idler. If a boat was running whiskey,
The bridge clanged shut behind it as it passed
And opened up again for the Coast Guard cutter
Slowly as a sundial, and always jammed halfway.
The panoramic ease of these lines—offered in a blank verse filled with anapestic substitutions that gives it a wonderfully laid-back feel—does not subvert their richly allusive texture. We have a marvelously evocative photo album of the 1920s Jersey Shore, with its references to roadsters, bootleggers, and “Price’s Hotel and Theater.” There’s also, in its description of the iron bridge, a nod to one of the greatest poems of the Twenties, Hart Crane’s “The Bridge.” (In fact, Pinsky seems to be consciously echoing a passage in “The Harbor Dawn” section of that poem: “And then a truck will lumber past the wharves / As winch-engines begin throbbing on some deck.”) We also get, in the description of the mockingbird’s cry, a reference to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who famously told us that we can’t step into the same river twice. And “Sandpiper, Patsy Ann, Do Not Disturb, / The Idler”? It’s impossible not to hear echoes of the Catalogue of Ships in Book II of The Iliad. (The starting lines of the catalogue read, in Pope’s translation, “The hardy warriors whom Boeotia bred / Peneleus, Leitus, Protoenor led…”) As the poem goes on, the allusions continue to pour forth. A lengthy passage is devoted to Unity Mitford, the English noblewoman and probable mistress of Hitler, whose grief at Britain’s declaration of war against Germany prompted an unsuccessful suicide attempt. It is fitting that a poem so obsessed with a past that’s “not even the past”—and the speaker’s bafflement at the problem of suicide—closes with a passage that draws its inspiration from both the Tibetan and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The language of the poem’s ending seems partly liturgical, partly that of a Michelin guide. But it’s nothing if not majestic:
_____________________After you die
You hover near the ceiling above your body
And watch the mourners awhile. A few days more
You float above the heads of the ones you knew
And watch them through a twilight. As it grows darker
You wander off and find your way to the river
And wade across. On the other side, night air,
Willows, the smell of the river, and a mass
Of sleeping bodies all along the bank,
A kind of singing from among the rushes
Calling you further forward in the dark.
You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs
Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you
And you make love until your soul brims up
And burns free out of you and shifts and spills
Down over into that other body, and you
Forget the life you had and begin again
On the same crossing—maybe as a child who passes
Through the same place. But never the same way twice.
Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows,
The new café, with a terrace and a landing,
Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was—
Here’s where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.
Pinsky’s allusion-making machine, his desire to connect all the dots, seems a post-modern variant on what T.S. Eliot, in an influential essay on Joyce, called “The Mythological Method,” in which mythological motifs superimposed upon modern subject matter are designed to revitalize the tradition and diminish some of the tawdriness of contemporary culture. But Pinsky is blessedly free of Eliot’s pomposity and political conservatism—and much more fun to read. One reason for this is that Pinsky in his mature work seems always to straddle the cusp between absolute control and near-abandon. The control is in some ways the legacy of his tutelage at Stanford under the hyper-rational anti-modernist poet Yvor Winters, a famously gruff but charismatic teacher who seems to have bestowed upon Pinsky a sense of formal rigor that—fortunately—has been untainted by the more reactionary elements of Winters’ aesthetic. The sense of abandon comes in no small measure from Pinsky’s often-stated interest in jazz improvisation; in the manner of great bebop soloists such as Monk and Coltrane, the delights of Pinsky often derive from his ability to state a theme and stray woozily but determinedly from it before returning to it at the poem’s conclusion. True, sometimes this method can seem formulaic or self-satisfied. “Poem With Lines to Be Read in Any Order,” also from Gulf Music, is such a studied tour de force that it comes across as smug; “Alphabet of my Dead,” from the 2000 collection Jersey Rain, takes a similarly unsuccessful tack, with each letter of the alphabet being represented by a brief elegy for a dead friend or acquaintance. Every name corresponds to its respective letter, beginning with a childhood friend named Harry Antonucci, moving on to the likes of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald before ending, several pages later, with “Not YAHWEH but Yetta of Yetta’s Market on Rockwell Avenue” and “Zagreus, ancient god of the past.” The form is simply too arch for its content.
But these infelicities are a minor irritant. And when Pinsky insinuates that he serves not Yahweh but “Zagreus, ancient god of the past,” we should take him at his word. Again and again, his poems record the subversion of the poet’s attempts to live unburdened in the present—history, always personal and public at once, immediately begins to assert itself, and art gives solace primarily as a form of lamentation. “Keyboard” starts with someone listening to piano music on his headphones, but within the space of a few lines the poem becomes an evocation of horror that the poet seems almost helpless but to conjure:
Serpent-scaled Apollo skins the naïve musician
Alive: then Marsyas was sensitive enough
To feel the whole world in a touch. In Africa
The raiders with machetes to cut off hands
Might make the victim choose, “long sleeve or short.”
Shahid Ali says it happened to Kashmiri weavers
To kill the art. There are only so many stories.
The Loss. The Chosen. And even before The Journey,
The Turning, the fruit from any tree, the door
To any chamber, but this one—and the greedy soul,
Blade of the lathe …
Pinsky’s decision—or compulsion—to serve Zagreus, and his acute awareness of all the fraught ambivalence that such a decision entails, has made him one of our finest elegists. As with many poets of a certain age—Pinsky is now in his seventies—his recent work includes a good many memorial poems to dead friends and fellow poets. But Pinsky is also an elegist in a wider and equally urgent sense. In a poem entitled “The Forgetting,” Pinsky alludes to hearing Amiri Baraka read his now-infamous poem that accuses Israel of complicity in September 11. The audience, appallingly, applauds, enraptured by what Pinsky calls “an ecstasy of forgetting.” Pinsky determinedly sets himself against such forces. The temples of the ancient Sumerians employed various priests and functionaries, but one of the most important occupations was that of “chief lamenter,” the reciter and singer of hymns. The chief lamenters’ function and artistry were civic, but the best of them must have had voices and individual styles comparable to the idiosyncratic majesty of Robert Pinsky. The past, he tells us in one poem, is a “haunted ruin,” like the “billion corridors / of the semi-conductor.” And that is Pinsky: he stands with sandaled feet on the ziggurat steps, while under his arm he carries an iPad. And, as he writes in these lines from a poem entitled “Biography,” this lamenter-in-chief knows that his story must also be our own:
__________________Particles turned to mud
On the potter’s wheel that whirls to form the vessel
That holds the oil that drips to cool the blade.
My mother’s dreadful fall. Her mother’s dread
Of all things: death, life, birth. My brother’s birth
Just before the fall. His birth again in Jesus.
Wobble and blur of my soul, born just once.
That cleaves to circles. The moon, the eye, the year,
Circle of causes or chaos or turns of chance.
Line of a tune as it cycles back to the root,
Are of the changes. The line from there to here
Of Ellen speaking, thread of my circle of friends.
The art of lines, a chord of the circle of work.
Radius. Lives of children growing away.
The planet radiant in air, its root in dark.