Is there a poet more visible in contemporary American culture than Robert Pinsky? In addition to receiving many well-deserved awards, Pinsky has placed himself before the camera’s eye more often than most writers, let alone poets, appearing on both The Colbert Report and—as himself—in an episode of The Simpsons. His role as unofficial ambassador of poetry is not without justification: the only US poet laureate appointed to three consecutive terms (1997–2000), Pinsky dedicated much of his initial time in the post to establishing the Favorite Poem Project, a multimedia venture that invites Americans of all cultural persuasions to read, record and discuss their favorite poems (favoritepoem.org). The project was fostered by two ideas Pinsky had been exploring in his critical writing for decades: that “poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art,” and that it is a fundamentally social, and therefore political, act. The Favorite Poem Project received some 18,000 submissions during a one-year open call and logged, in response to a collection of fifty videos, some 25,000 letters. Its success has disproven many theories about the irrelevance of poetry in the wider culture, even as the project takes the considerable risk of making a poem’s relevance seem solely a function of its popularity. The project has also provided substance for Pinsky’s claim, in his prose collection Poetry and the World (1988), that “the truest political component of poetry is the sense of whom the poem belongs to.”
Pinsky’s Selected Poems shows that being popular doesn’t entail being predictable. This new volume does what any good Selected should do: present a vision—carefully shaped by its author—of the trajectory of that poet’s career. But Pinsky’s approach is somewhat unusual: the selections from his early books are scant and have been placed at the back of the volume, while those from his recent work are more plentiful and, placed at the front, receive a proportionately greater amount of emphasis. Pinsky has also included sections culled from some of his recent sequences, presenting what feel like new poems, altered by their changed context. While intrusive in a larger sense, this deliberate reshaping is salutary, providing a fresh, invigorating look at a poet whose work has become so familiar that it can be easy to forget how idiosyncratic and downright strange his recent poems are, and how distinct his early work was at the time of its inception.
We “all dream it, the dark wind crossing/The wide spaces between us,” ends Pinsky’s first poem from his first collection. The poem is appropriately titled “Poem About People,” and the volume is called Sadness and Happiness (1975). Pinsky’s strongest work has a rough, musical vibrancy that makes these titles sound drab, but it is important to remember the aesthetic disposition of the era in which he first began writing. Robert Lowell still dominated the poetic landscape, and imitators of confessional and Beat poetry proliferated, saturating the field until the more egregious tendencies of each had become period styles. “It is all bosh, the false/Link between genius and sickness,” came Pinsky’s rebuttal, in “An Essay on Psychiatrists,” to the confessional and Beat cults of personal suffering. At the same time, in response to the flabby and nearly ubiquitous free verse of the day, he often wrote in unhurried iambic pentameter. In the same poem, Pinsky delivers a restrained elegy for his early mentor at Stanford University, the poet and critic Yvor Winters:
He drank wine and smoked his pipe more than he should;
In the end his doctors in order to prolong life
Were forced to cut away most of his tongue.
That was their business. As far as he was concerned
Suffering was life’s penalty; wisdom armed one
Against madness; speech was temporary; poetry was truth.
Aside from this stirring poem, Pinsky would take two important lessons from his time at Stanford with Winters: an unfashionable belief that “prose virtues…. Clarity, Flexibility, Efficiency, Cohesiveness” are essential to a poet’s technical repertoire; and an openness to the available traditions of poetry, to work by poets other than his like-minded contemporaries, no matter where they fell on the stylistic or political spectrum.
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Sadness and Happiness was followed a year later by a book of criticism, The Situation of Poetry, in which Pinsky attempted to transcend polemical arguments about aesthetic and social divisions in the poetic canon by emphasizing the availability of a rich and varied tradition. In that book he also used the term “discursive” to describe poems that prize a sense of verbal and conceptual motion—“neither ironic nor ecstatic”—as a way of conveying the impression of a mind or sensibility at work: the movement between images and ideas is as important as the components themselves. In Pinsky’s view, this mode of discourse makes for “some of the most exciting, overwhelming moments” in poetry, “when a poet breaks through into the kind of prose freedom and prose inclusiveness…. [and] claims the right to make an interesting remark or to speak of profundities, with all of the liberty given to the newspaper editorial, a conversation, a philosopher, or any speaker.” In this context, Pinsky’s second volume of poetry, An Explanation of America (1980), seems almost inevitable: a discursive, book-length poem that attempts to encompass the diverse array of forces, both historical and personal, that have shaped the formation of the country (as well as Pinsky’s poems). Part of what is so pleasing about Pinsky’s Selected is that it neither skips over this period in his career nor dwells on it longer than necessary. In retrospect, however, Explanation seems more a necessary lengthening of breadth and scope that made possible History of My Heart (1984), The Want Bone (1990) and The Figured Wheel (1996). In the great poems from these books—“The Figured Wheel,” “History of My Heart,” “Shirt,” “At Pleasure Bay,” “Ginza Samba,” “The City Dark” and “Impossible to Tell”—Pinsky forged his mature style, a poetry that blends social and musical ambition in an inimitable and polyphonic manner.