Impossible American Words: A Look at Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky - former U.S. Poet Laureate

The Lenore Marshall Prize, the Howard Morton Landon Prize, the Shelley Memorial Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Former Poet Laureate of the United States and editor of Slate magazine, a well known online publication. He was even on The Simpsons once. It’s safe to say that Robert Pinsky is a giant of American poetry, and indeed an out-and-out top dog of poetry throughout the world.

He was born in New Jersey in 1940 and studied at Stanford University. As Poet Laureate he founded the ‘Favourite Poem Project’, which is committed to encouraging the role of poetry in the lives of everyday Americans, and he currently teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University. He also delivered a series of lectures in 2001 named The Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

When you read his work you’re overcome by two senses: the first is that you don’t understand what he’s saying, and the other is that you know exactly what he’s talking about. This may seem contrived, but it’s true. True in the way that what he writes is often in colloquial terms, with the lines themselves seeming understandable enough, but the stanza as a whole being difficult to comprehend. I’ll give you an example: “What has a brilliant, living soul to do with/Your harps and fires” is a line from the famously long poem Impossible To Tell (which featured on The Simpsons). Easy enough to understand, but consider the whole verse: “What has a brilliant soul to do with/Your harps and fires and boats, your bric-a-brac/And troughs of smoking blood? provincial stinkers”. The imagery he uses is powerful but confusing, mixing pictures of conventional damnation with modern ideas and terms, namely “provincial stinkers”. What does he mean by that? Is talking about the afterlife as a part of the living world?

No other poet achieves such flowing rhythm in free verse poetry. Take his Ode To Meaning for example: “I read/That Crusoe’s knife/Reeked of you, that to defile you/The soldier makes the rabbi spit on the torah”. Words that roll off the tip of your tongue with such ease, which find form and motion that’s often only achieved by a well thought out rhyme scheme. Read the last part again, “The soldier makes the rabbi spit on the torah”. It has an uncanny drum like rhythm that helps to give the whole line poignancy, as well as fluidity. Let’s not forget the words themselves, the meaning. Here he is considering faith, perhaps epitomising the role of modern religion only by the act of defiling holy texts. At least, that’s what I thought. Is it a comment on God’s place in today’s society? Maybe it is, but that’s the joy of poems like this, and indeed the point of them; the different ways in which they can be read and interpreted.

His poem Samurai Song reads like an anthem for those who’ve faced repeated strife, and haven’t faltered; “When I had no father I made/Care my father. When I had/No mother I embraced order”. The continuous turn of phrase just shows the intelligence and complexities of his work. He talks about loss, which we all experience, but he presents it in a way not done before, and at first glance it seems like just a poem of clever contradictions, but once read a few times you start to get the meaning of why he makes these contradictions. I guess he’s saying that your loss will consume you only if you let it.

Robert Pinsky is the kind of poet people should know about. His modern style and relatable subject matter makes his poems accessible to all, and his work as Poet Laureate has a firm place in society, and should be recognised. I fully encourage anyone to have a glance at his work. Carol Ann Duffy could learn a thing or two. Perhaps the master of the English language is an American.


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