In 1996 Robert Pinsky published The Figured Wheel, a collected poems comprising his first four books of poems that also included some new work; the next year he would become the Poet Laureate of the United States. Perhaps not coincidentally, his next volume did not appear until 2001, the year after his tenure as Laureate ended. Pinsky achieved more visibility in the latter role than many another poet who has held the post, all in an effort to increase the viability of poetry in America. His serious attention to the task has earned Pinksy the epithet “civic poet” as an acknowledgement of the degree to which, as poet, critic, and proselytizer for poetry, he is able to express a convincing sense of poetry as a taught and learned cultural asset. Reading Pinsky, one tends to reflect on early, schoolroom encounters with poetry in poems offered not as hermetic repositories of private arcana but as encounters with language that create a vital sense of cultural heritage in “the best that has been thought and said.”
Pinsky’s Selected Poems offers a condensation of The Figured Wheel, adding as well a sampling from the two volumes (Jersey Rain (2001) and Gulf Music (2007)) Pinsky has published in the 21st century. The poems run in reverse chronology from the more recent volumes to Pinsky’s debut, Sadness and Happiness, in 1975. In reading backwards through the highlights of the career thus far, it is not easy to pick out any definite turning point, any particular poem or volume where the familiar, fully formed poet of formal and precise composition seques into a less mature Pinsky. This is not to say that there is no “progress” in Pinsky’s output—“History of My Heart” from the volume of that name, in 1984, is, in its grasp of how to make the personal compelling without being self-serving, way beyond “Sadness and Happiness”—but rather a way of noticing that his approach to poetry remains consistent, that there is little sense of a new volume exploring some unprecedented path. Does that translate into a poet who seems to play it safe to a certain degree? Yes; Pinsky seems content to resist, until lately perhaps, the showy compressions and jarring elisions common to much of our contemporary verse. Nor does Pinsky risk the kind of narcissistic self-exposures that are many a poet’s stock and trade; his poems can be autobiographical but are rarely “confessional.”
Take, for instance, a poem like “The Green Piano” in Jersey Rain, an apostrophe directed at the titular instrument, full of a heightened pathos that shows Pinsky’s grasp both of heroic rhythms and the irony with which a contemporary reader receives them:
Ivory and umber, so you stood half done, a throbbing mistreated noble,
Genuine—my mother’s swollen livestock of love: lost one, unmastered:
You were the beast she led to the shrine of my genius, mistaken.
Pinsky can keep up this coy paean for thirty-nine lines and even include a phrase like “a crappy little Baldwin Acrosonic” to make sure we know he’s not completely serious. Then compare this with “Keyboard,” in Gulf Music:
Her little cries of pleasure, blah-blah, the place
Behind her ear, lilacs in rain, a sus-chord,
A phrase like a moonlit moth in tentative flight,
O lost Eurydice, blah-blah.
The “blah-blah” of the evocation of Orpheus’ song might easily visit any number of Pinsky’s own stringently paced and earnestly intended poems. “Keyboard,” like many of the poems in the selection from Gulf Music, particularly “Poem With Lines in Any Order,” shows a more telegraphic, associative mood, as if he has grown impatient with making sure all his transitions and appositions are clear, as if, finally, it’s okay not being classical all the time.
The problem, though, with a more intuitive poem like “Keyboard” is that the drop in rigor makes it more likely the poet will attempt compressions that do not really work, as in this mini-vignette of a Nazi pianist compelled to play piano for sixteen hours by the Red Army: “They drank and raped while the Nazi fingered the keys. / The great Song of the World. When he collapsed / Sobbing at the instrument they stroked his head / And blew his brains out.” Coy heroic pathos about a family piano may be appropriate; coy irony as a feint against melodramatic bathos simply cheapens both this “cold-blooded” turn and affects a mood in which “blah-blah” becomes a suitable response to anything a poem might say, no matter how much it strives to be measured and mercurial. In “Immature Song,” from Gulf Music, Pinsky seems to take himself to task for this new tack: “And you, my poem, you are like / An adolescent: confused, awkward, self-preoccupied, vaguely / Rebellious in a way that lacks practical focus, moving without / Discipline from thing to thing.” True enough, but the cure, despite what this preemptory voice might suppose, is to focus rebellion, not flaunt self-preoccupied maundering.
One might hazard that the Laureate experience has given us a Pinsky a bit more portentous (though one wonders if it’s possible to be more portentous than the relatively early “Explanation of America”), so that a poem like “Jersey Rain” seems to me ruined, after its litany of Jersey towns, by a refusal to drop into the demotic and thus register real rain in a real Jersey; instead, Pinsky wants “an art” that overcomes where he’s from.
Pinsky loves jazz music and one senses that he would really like to let it all hang out and strike improv gold—in “Gulf Music” he comes as close as he’s gotten, with its “O try my tra-la-la, ma la belle, mah walla-woe” (though “tra la la” is an awfully coy rendition of singing over speech)—and sometimes, as in the final eighteen lines of “History of My Heart,” his language sings and lifts, managing to run the risk of adolescent lyricism and succeed because it trusts “the little singing notes of wanting” the way a vocalist must. Then there are the relatively simple lyrical poems that yield dense pleasures of sound, as in “Soot”: “A seed / Of particles that Zeuslike penetrated / The bread and carboned the garden tomatoes.” (Besides my joy at those last four words, I register that Zeus and homely garden are nimbly placed cheek by jowl for a bright impossible second.) And there are more carefully elliptical lyrics, like “The Want Bone,” and able moves toward an “off the cuff” voice of a poet who, perhaps, has had to explain our cultural heritage once too often (“Louie Louie”).
One of Pinsky’s activities as Laureate was the creation of “The Favorite Poem Project,” an archive of people reading aloud favorite poems. The Pinsky poem I would select for inclusion sits at the opening of this volume, as if a high-water mark, a gesture toward song as an example of how the lyric works and why it matters. Each of the five lines in its five stanzas rhymes with its matching lines, a to a, b to b, and so on. It begins:
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.
“Spirit” finds rhymes with “inherit,” “parrot” (twice), and “share it,” to let us know that rhyme is a being of the ear, as spirit is a being of the air, and “air” is both breath and melody. Indeed, “air” and “there” will find off-rhymes with “sphere” and “here,” as if to gesture to the “ear” never named. “Body” rhymes with “ready,” “study,” and “unsteady” before returning to “body”: as if a ready body leads to unsteady study. The poem’s compression makes the play with rhyme serve meaning but also serves to accentuate the pleasure of liberty within lyric constraint. It stands as well as any poem here for Pinsky’s facility and the purpose it serves: to make a music that means something.
One might say that Pinsky has attended well Hamlet’s advice to the players, and, in the very tempest of his passion and inspiration, acquires and begets a temperance to give all smoothness. The pleasures of Pinsky’s poems are found in their capable smoothness, their balance, and, here and there, little fillips that smack the ear and jar the mind.
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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