Impossible to Tell: On Robert Pinsky

Impossible to Tell: On Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems shows that being popular doesn’t entail being predictable.


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 ( 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.

* * *

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.

Pinsky has documented his love of jazz and the saxophone in many of his poems and essays, and his best poems often feel—however carefully planned—like the most exquisitely timed solos. The statement of a theme, followed by a variation; the theme repeated, a fourth higher; then another variation, interwoven with and yet branching off from the underlying pattern; the melody veering into the near stratosphere before pulling back again as the riff returns; a flurry of notes, unexpected and yet seemingly inevitable, signaling the solo’s end. Throughout “Impossible to Tell,” from The Figured Wheel, the title phrase is used in much the same way a composer would use a primary theme:

Impossible to tell his whole delusion.
In the first months when I had moved back East
From California and had to leave a message

On Bob’s machine, I used to make a habit
Of telling the tape a joke; and part-way through,
I would pretend that I forgot the punchline,

Or make believe that I was interrupted—
As though he’d be so eager to hear the end
He’d have to call me back. The joke was Elliot’s,

More often than not. The doctors made the blunder
That killed him some time later that same year.
One day when I got home I found a message

On my machine from Bob. He had a story
About two rabbis, one of them tall, one short,
One day while walking along the street together

They see the corpse of a Chinese man before them,
And Bob said, sorry, he forgot the rest.
Of course he thought that his joke was a dummy,

Impossible to tell—a dead-end challenge.

Each time the title phrase returns, it is changed by its context and presentation. Though the words “impossible to tell” are always the same, they ring—much like a similarly varied refrain from “At Pleasure Bay”—“never the same way twice.”

Other poems from this period unfold in a similar but subtler fashion. “Shirt” uses a recurring rhythmic pattern to stitch to the actual physical components of a shirt—“The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters/Printed in black on neckband and tail”—such disparate events as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, George Herbert’s love affairs with African slaves, the plight of Scottish and Malaysian factory workers, and a phrase from Hart Crane’s The Bridge (“shrill shirt ballooning”). “History of My Heart” harnesses much of the same rhythmic propulsion but relies more on the interlacing of stories to generate its structure. The poem, a watershed when it was published, illustrates Pinsky’s most common compositional approach: divergent strands are woven around a central theme, creating a mosaic of historical fact, lyric description and personal history. No particular theme or image receives greater emphasis than another, any more than one note in a musical phrase or composition receives more weight except in the role it plays in creating the greater whole. These poems are deeply personal yet openly intelligible, steeped in history and the culture of the day. To a mind receptive to the strengths of Shakespeare as well as Eliot, Ginsberg as well as Keats, autobiographical material would seem no more or less important than a historical battle or the construction of a bridge; neither would be worth throwing away in favor of the other.

* * *

After the release of The Figured Wheel, which won the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer, Pinsky was appointed poet laureate. Jersey Rain, published three years later, drew on earlier strengths but signaled a shift into new territory, the boundaries of which were not immediately clear. The poems in Jersey Rain were both shorter and longer in scope, more fragmented and more discursive at the same time. “Samurai Song” seems to build its tense, clipped tercets from the lyrics of a half-forgotten song—“When I had no eyes I listened./When I had no ears I thought./When I had no thought I waited”—while “An Alphabet of My Dead” uses alphabetic ordering to generate a series of prose poems almost ten pages long. “Vessel,” an ode to the poet’s body as it falls asleep, is written in off-rhymed, near-pentameter couplets. Far from seeming long-winded or forced, these experiments attest to Pinsky’s continued exploration of forms both invented and traditional, as well as the principle that one mode—free verse or couplets, prose poem or song—is ultimately just as arbitrary, and indispensable, as another. The dense texture of these poems, such as “The Green Piano” (“Aeolian. Gratis. Great thunderer, half-ton infant of miracles”), creates an increasingly supple and powerful music while blending outer and inner worlds. If Pinsky began his career by writing elegant, loose, discursive poems, his later poems seemed to be aging into a powerfully concentrated mix of styles:

Stone wheel that sharpens the blade that mows the grain.
Wheel of the sunflower turning, wheel that turns
The spiral press that squeezes the oil expressed
From grain or olives. 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.

Gulf Music, Pinsky’s most recent volume, is an unexpectedly dense and seemingly chaotic collection. One of its best pieces, “Rhyme,” which opens Selected Poems, seems to have whirled out of the knotted, cyclical works of Jersey Rain: “Air an instrument of the tongue,/The tongue an instrument/Of the body, the body/An instrument of spirit,/The spirit a being of the air.” In others, such as Gulf Music’s title poem, the interweaving of worldly and personal history recalls Pinsky’s most memorable work: “The hurricane of September 8, 1900 devastated/Galveston, Texas…. Eight years later Morris Eisenberg sailing from Lübeck/Entered the States through the still-wounded port of Galveston.” But instead of threading these strands on recurring phrases or intertwined plots, Pinsky uses pure sound—the mimicking of musical sounds (“walla whirledy wah,” “bawaah”) first aired in his poem “Ginza Samba”—to shift from story to story. He even begins the poem with a couplet of pure noise: “Mallah walla tella bella. Trah mah trah-la, la-la-la,/Mah la belle. Ippa Fano wanna bella, wella-wah.” The source of his strange syllable-sounds is the music of Henry “Professor” Longhair, an early New Orleans blues musician whose story is also mentioned alongside Pinsky’s grandparents, Texas hurricanes and TV shows. In Gulf Music, Pinsky’s use of music and fragmentation brings the poems to a near incantatory pitch, almost song, an achievement that paradoxically makes his earlier poems—though no less important or impressive—seem almost traditional, as if they had already become part of an accepted poetic vocabulary that Pinsky was forced to challenge again in his own lifetime.

Ever alert and responsive to shifts in idiomatic speech and formal innovation, Pinsky often writes in his latest work as though he were taking cues from a younger generation of poets who, in turn, were influenced and inspired by him. The success of poems like “Poem With Lines in Any Order” and “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” both from Gulf Music, hinges on their ability to strip away and deliberately obfuscate narrative in a manner that feels engaging and pleasurable, rather than contrived. In this they are unlike much contemporary poetry, which displays a similar athletic ability with language alongside innovative, imaginative thinking, but is often more overwhelmed by its materials than master of them. This failure, I think, arises from the fear of making a statement, from the aversion of poets to hold themselves accountable for the dialogue initiated by the materials, tenets and tendencies of the day. Statements are risky and unstylish still. But Pinsky long ago set out to claim “the right to make an interesting remark or to speak of profundities.” What is admirable about his work is that he is able to reach for profundities in a way that neither negates the enduring power of the lyric nor risks sounding inflated or portentous. Any technique he applies toward this end—destabilizing the central speaker, using sound as a structural principle, focusing a wider lens on culture and history, experimenting with compositional structures—is grounded in the desire to communicate more forcefully with an audience assumed to be listening. (“I have always assumed unconsciously that people want poetry,” Pinsky says in an essay from Poetry and the World.) The fierce conviction that we find poems “as necessary as food” anchors Pinsky’s virtuosity in what Frank Bidart has called the “radical given”: the reason behind the speaker’s need to speak, a poem’s reason for existing.

Selected Poems charts the course of a varied, prolific and still evolving career. Here is proof, bound in a single cover, of a lifetime’s singular achievement: Pinsky’s poems offer a liturgy for our culture and time, the scrolls in which our shared history and art, our joys and our griefs can be divined. Incantatory and songlike, yet imbued with the communicative clarity of prose, these poems fulfill what Pinsky calls “our social responsibility as poets”: to carry on the music of the dead, to bear witness to what we see, and to make the unpoetic poetic for generations to come.

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