Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems surveys an extraordinary career in poetry, now nearly forty years in the making. Pinsky is a “public poet,” as everyone always says. And yet his poems, in meeting American mass culture halfway, often seem to refuse to take even one step further. American poetry, as he wrote in his superb, Tocquevillean short book Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, must both engage and resist the “Sandburgesque giant of a society that is at once dazzling and banal, provincial and global, menacing and hopeful”:
Poetry’s voice participates in that society and its culture, but by its nature also resists them: singular where they are plural, memory-driven where they are heedless, personal where they are impersonal—luxuriously slow where they are rushed, and thrillingly swift where they are plodding.
Pinsky could be describing, here, his own poems, which shuttle rapidly between the personal and the public, blurring the line between them; which show how individuals often embody successive generations of ancestor-ghosts; and which, archiving a broad range of facts from American cultural life, thereby hold off, for their short intervals, the amnesia that seems integral to progress.
Pinsky is either American culture’s wariest contemporary celebrator or its warmest, most compassionate skeptic. The poems he writes often feel like targeted raids on mass culture, followed by risky escapes. Poets spend their whole lives around TV, just like ordinary mortals; but it took fifty years before (to my knowledge) a poet thought to acknowledge it in an ode. These lines are from Pinsky’s “To Television”:
Your patron in the pantheon would be Hermes
Quick one, little thief, escort
Of the dying and comfort of the sick,
In a blue glow my father and little sister sat
Snuggled in one chair watching you
Their wife and mother was sick in the head
I scorned you and them as I scorned so much
Now I like you best in a hotel room,
Before I have to face an audience: behind
The doors of the armoire, box
Within a box—Tom & Jerry, or also brilliant
And reassuring, Oprah Winfrey.
That “scorn”—quickly sketched, quickly erased—is a classic American story, condensed: the high-culture recruit from the Fifties middle class (Pinsky’s father was an optician; the family lived in Long Branch, New Jersey) whose sense of literature gradually widens to reincorporate all those experiences it earlier rejected. Many of Pinsky’s poems return to this sort of childhood environment, now reframed formally in terms of art and emotionally in terms of remorse: and now, therefore, hospitable.
This vision of TV suggests a republic of the halt, the lame, the poor, the jittery, and the bored, a republic we all join at one time or another. TV watchers are like bees, each one consigned to his separate chamber as part of the overall design of common experience. Or perhaps like poets …