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: poetry being the genre that conscripts us into its public precisely by sharpening our sensation of being private. Pinsky is a great poet of just this sort of synchronized privacy, as well as of the inevitability of common culture, its uncanny return in our most intimate environments (living rooms, bedrooms) and actions (loving, grieving—or, indeed, writing poems). Because this inevitability is only measurable when it pops up in private life, we find in Pinsky moments of enormous personal import—the father and sister on the couch—alongside miscellania: Tom and Jerry, Oprah Winfrey.
These seeming incongruities make reading him sometimes a wild ride. The precise logic that binds Hermes (who, according to the Greeks, built the first lyre from the shell of an unlucky tortoise) to Oprah Winfrey didn’t exist until Pinsky created this specialized device, the poem itself, for detecting it. By the end of the poem, the focus has shifted to poetry itself, another “box within a box” whose own superpowers rival even those of TV:
Thank you, for I watched, I watched
Sid Caesar speaking French and Japanese not
Through knowledge but imagination,
His quickness, and Thank you, I watched live
Jackie Robinson stealing
Home, the image—O strung shell—enduring
Fleeter than light like these words we
Remember in: they too are winged
At the helmet and ankles.
The “strung shell” of the lyre makes these feats of association possible within language, “winged/At the helmet and ankles.” Pinsky’s poems often read like complex studies of a single word in all its aspects. Here, that word is “home”: its comforting sense is implied in the image of father and sister snuggling in the chair; a darker sense, in the mother’s illness (and the “homes” to which we consign “the dying” and “the sick”); finally, transformed by Jackie Robinson’s Hermes-like “theft” of it, “home” becomes home plate. The accomplished transfiguration of “home” in the earlier senses to “home” in this last sense serves, in fact, as the poem’s own home plate. Once we cross it, the poem soon ends.
“To Television” is the kind of obliquely autobiographical poem Pinsky has perfected, approaching “home” through odd angles and channels, the “personal” material estranged by mass cultural bits or, often, by literature itself. The deeper your sense of home, growing up, the weirder it must seem that your imagination could dwell in some entirely different place. Pinsky’s hometown seems to have been the sort of vividly “real” place that made the competing vividness of poetry seem deeply uncanny. Imagine, as a young person growing up in Long Branch, that you suddenly find that the excruciations of people very far from you (lovestruck Romans, women whose babies have died, court poets in China or Elizabethan England) weirdly fit you to a T. The battiness of having your identity displaced onto poems, carried away by them to distant ports of call, and returned to you, a teenager in New Jersey: this is something you never get over. Pinsky has a short memoir, “Salt Water,” partly about these ironies of circumstance:
One of the main junkyards in Long Branch used to belong to a man called, oddly enough, Ash. I went to Izzy Ash’s junkyard in the summer of 1962 to get a part for a 1953 Dodge convertible which I proposed to drive out to California. I was going to be a poet, and I was going to Stanford. Mr. Ash took this in as he grunted and tugged at a long-handled wrench, removing the part I needed from a wrecked Coronet.
Pinsky’s intention “to be a poet” isn’t heard, but instead “taken in,” because it isn’t quoted, but instead reported. These are the kinds of swallowed vows and baffled acknowledgments that punctuate an artist’s life in Long Branch. But later, something interesting happens: poetry, which once transported you far from home, takes you back there. The convertible never could have done that. Both the trans-temporality of poems (they can carry you anywhere) and their radical portability (you can carry them anywhere, provided you have a memory) give them an innate advantage over other kinds of devices: Dodges, TVs, or the “half-ton infant” in Pinsky’s poem “The Green Piano”:
You blocked a doorway and filled most of the living room.
The sofa and chairs dwindled to a ram and ewes, cowering; now,
The colored neighbors could be positive we were crazy and rich,
As we thought the people were who gave you away for the moving
Out of their carriage house—they had painted you the color of pea soup.
The drunk man my mother hired never finished antiquing you
Ivory and umber, so you stood half done, a throbbing mistreated noble,
This thing is doomed, a sacrificial beast; but also poignant, precisely because it is so cruelly and excessively embodied. Its body gets budged, bonged, dinged, cracked, swabbed, antiqued, painted green, painted pink, and finally junked. It then goes out of existence, until Pinsky writes a poem named for it that replaces it, the “iron and brass, ten kinds of hardwood and felt” reconstituted by, and therefore trumped by, language. You can memorize “The Green Piano”: to carry the green piano with you would be a much more cumbersome proposition.
If poetry isn’t exactly a fast car, or a TV, or a green piano, what kind of contrivance is it? Selected Poems is arranged in reverse-chronological order, a manifestation of Pinsky’s interest in circularity over strict linear chronology, his impulse to flip ends and beginnings. “Rhyme,” whose own conclusions are neatly circular, comes first:
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.
As though enacting its own ephemerality, the stanza emerges from, then recedes into, the element it names, “air” (the poem as a whole also ends on this word). And yet, as we soon learn, it isn’t poetry that is ephemeral, but rather the poets themselves who take up temporary residence inside the language. The stanzas that follow strike me as among the best things Pinsky has ever written, as though defying the long odds they set:
A bird the medium of its song.
A song a world, a containment
Like a hotel room, ready
For us guests who inherit
Our compartment of time there.
In the Cornell box, among
Ephemera as its element,
The preserved bird—a study
In spontaneous elegy, the parrot
Art, mortal in its cornered sphere.
The room a stanza rung
In a laddered filament
Clambered by all the unsteady
Chambered voices that share it,
Each reciting I too was here—
In a room, a rhyme, a song.
In the box, in books: each element
An instrument, the body
Still straining to parrot
The spirit, a being of air.
The crucial moment here is when the word “parrot” becomes a verb: by “parroting” we become stuffed parrots, taxidermy versions of ourselves suspended forever in the art we leave behind. It’s a brilliant trick, used to deliver the news, both good and bad, that our artifacts (if we build them properly, as Cornell did, and as Pinsky does) outlast us. New, future souls assemble inside them.
In this account, poems are a kind of temporal agora, a public space where citizens of time come to congregate. This sounds a little mystical, but it is, in fact, precisely social, if “social” is understood to refer not only to the gatherings of living people along the x-axis of historical time—the here and now—but also along the y-axis of artistic time. Viewed from that perspective, “the present” is like a little provincial village (perhaps like Long Branch) we can’t wait to get out of:
I live in the little village of the present
But lately I forget my neighbors’ names.
More and more I spend my days in the City:
The great metropolis where I can hope
To glimpse great spirits as they cross the street,
Souls durable as the cockroach and the lungfish.
“The city” is art itself; the village is everything still untransformed, which includes, of course, most of what happens to a person in a lifetime, or to a culture in an era. Moving material from the “village” of untransformed experience to “the city” of art is something all poets want to do, at some level of intention: this is the refining process by which mortal “names” become “souls.”
The vision of poetry as a cross-temporal congregation of souls is something Pinsky wants his poems to represent, rather than just imply. It is not easy, in poetry—a medium that favors compression and symbolic substitution—to devise a style that honors the actuality of individual persons while also suggesting their cosmic inconsequence, as well as one’s own. This problem impels all of Pinsky’s writing; his imagination toggles constantly between panorama and detail, big picture and individual pixel. Both scales have a moral justification; both imply one sort of truth; but neither one is in itself a complete assessment of human reality, and the one tends to negate the other. This is the crux of “Poem About People,” the first poem in his first book. Watching stangers on the street, we can “feel briefly like Jesus,” Pinsky writes, carried by “a gust of diffuse tenderness”:
But how love falters and flags
When anyone’s difficult eyes come
Into focus, terrible gaze of a unique
Soul, its need unloveable….
This fear of “faltering” love when faced with a “unique soul” chastens Pinsky when he thinks, as he often thinks, in abstract terms about human lives.
The fear of miscarrying “unique souls” has led him to invent a sort of poem that I would call the ensemble elegy: big, rolling lists of names, names plucked from oblivion in the nick of time. This sort of poem has the virtue of getting more people in, and yet, since we’re always moving down the list to the next person and then the next, they end up acting out many of the erasures they seek to redress. They zoom toward, so as to zoom past, the names they conjure. His early poems were stocked with half-recalled Long Branch characters. Memory is too fogged and crowded to linger very long on these touching people: cameo players in the drama of existence, they get, at most, a name, a trait or two, a muffled leitmotif:
What about the people who came to my father’s office
For hearing aids and glasses—chatting with him sometimes
A few extra minutes while I swept up in the back,
Addressed packages, cleaned the machines; if he was busy
I might sell them batteries, or tend to their questions:
The tall overloud man with a tilted, ironic smirk
To cover the gaps in his hearing; a woman who hummed one
Prolonged note constantly, we called her “the hummer”—how
Could her fat white husband (he looked like Rev. Peale)
Bear hearing it day and night? And others: a coquettish old lady
In a bandeau, a European. She worked for refugees who ran
Gift shops or booths on the boardwalk in the summer;
She must have lived in winter on Social Security. One man
Always greeted my father in Masonic gestures and codes.
Later poems, especially the sublime “An Alphabet of My Dead,” adapt this method of enumeration to far more anguishing losses much closer to home.
But Pinsky’s most ingenious method for representing the congeries of selves that gather in poems is to write not about poems, but about material objects: the green piano, a shirt, a jar of pens, one’s own left hand, a baseball against the black backdrop of a summer night. These poems draw on the William Carlos Williams maxim “No ideas but in things,” but drastically expand the analysis of things and thing-ness to encompass the entire history of human shaping that meets in them. The word “thing” first meant “a meeting,” “an assembly” (this curious fact is mentioned in Pinsky’s chapbook, First Things to Hand); an online etymology dictionary points out that the Icelandic parliament is called the “Althing.” Pinsky’s “things” are assemblies across time: not just the “ideas,” but the vendettas, the scams, the desires and fears of the past that repose inside them.
“Ginza Samba” is a madcap assembly-poem about the Rube Goldberg–like path a song takes through history to arrive inside our brains, passing through Belgium (where the saxophone is invented) to Niger (where the Russian poet Pushkin’s grandfather was born) to Fifties America, where Stan Getz and Cal Tjader record “Ginza Samba,” to the record player in Newton, Massachusetts, where Pinsky was living when he wrote this poem and where, in the poem, he listens and plays along on his own saxophone, to me, in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where I write this review, to you, wherever you are reading it.
A hint about the nature of these poems resides, again, in etymology: our word “assemble” in the sense of “put together” is very new, and derives from “assembly line”: to assemble is simply the action undertaken when people form an assembly line. When you buy a new bike or a gas grill with “some assembly required” printed on the box, you don’t have to convene a meeting of friends and neighbors to put it together: “assemble” is a metaphor for what you do all by yourself. In the same way, when we put on a shirt or write a poem, we recapitulate (individually and by hand) the actions of the men and women who assembled the material we assemble. The remarkable thing about “Ginza Samba” and the more famous “Shirt,” among others, is that they track a course of assembly over time that includes us, our participatory reading of the poem.
As Pinsky has gotten older, his past has gotten longer, as it does for us all. His confidence in the preservative function of memory has therefore had to face up with everything he has forgotten. He has wanted a more tattered, a mangier kind of poem, not to reflect some new modern or postmodern condition of cultural raggedness (as the usual rationales for fragmentation and “difficulty,” those first formulated by T.S. Eliot, would have it), but to reflect the growing randomness of the contents of his memory, as well as of the cultural memory bank. His latest poems (from Gulf Music) allow big gaps—“gulfs”—between their constituent parts, and wonder openly about their own prospects in the future’s retrospective tally:
I used to wonder, what if the Baseball Hall of Fame
With too many thousands of greats all in time unremembered?
Hardly anybody can name all eight of their great- grandparents.
Can you? Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?
This is a gregarious, utterly American update on the Keatsian wish to be ranked, after one’s death, among the poets. My prediction is that Robert Pinsky’s children’s grandchildren will indeed remember his name, and mine will remember it, too.