Authors: Robert Pinsky

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: Jewish


Robert Pinsky is an accomplished poet and critic. He was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, to Milford Pinsky, an optician, and his wife, Sylvia. All four of Pinsky’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants to America from Eastern Europe. The environment of Long Branch, which Pinsky describes as a “decayed resort town,” made a deep impression on the poet-to-be. In an autobiographical essay, “Salt Water,” Pinsky describes how living close to the ocean causes the imagination to be pushed in “extravagant directions.”{$I[AN]9810001590}{$I[A]Pinsky, Robert}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Pinsky, Robert}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Pinsky, Robert}{$I[tim]1940;Pinsky, Robert}

Robert Pinsky

Pinsky’s memories of childhood are happy, but he was restless and unhappy as an adolescent; he was suspended from school for cutting classes and insubordination. He played the tenor saxophone and daydreamed of achieving fame as a jazz musician and composer. Playing music expressed his craving for freedom and art.

Realizing the limits of his gifts as a musician, Pinsky began to dream of becoming a poet. During his first year of graduate school at Stanford University, he showed his poems to the poet and critic Yvor Winters, who was teaching there. One of Pinsky’s better-known poems, “Essay on Psychiatrists,” includes a tribute to Winters. Undeterred by Winters’s initial criticism, Pinsky arranged a directed reading course with him on the periods of poetry in English. Pinsky marks his meeting with Winters as “a kind of birth.”

“Essay on Psychiatrists,” a seventeen-page poem from Pinsky’s first poetry collection, Sadness and Happiness, displays the discursive style that characterizes much of his poetry. Pinsky traces his employment of long lines and units to his ambition to “use all the aspects” of himself–including comedic and visionary aspects–in his art.

Pinsky’s second book of poetry, An Explanation of America, consists almost entirely of the title poem. Critics have compared its incorporation of both mundane and historical materials on a near-epic scale to Paterson (1946-1958), by William Carlos Williams, another poet who influenced Pinsky. In the poem, which critic Willard Spiegelman likens to “a melting pot of others’ voices” within Pinsky’s meditations, the poet and the oldest of his three daughters, to whom the poem is addressed, “repeat the adventure of all American immigrants confronting the vastness of the continent.” Pinsky delivers a lecture whose authoritativeness is modulated with, in Spiegelman’s words, “great tenderness.”

In 1981 Pinsky was sent by the cultural branch of the U.S. State Department on a tour of several Eastern European countries, where he read his poems and talked informally with writers, scholars, and students about American poetry. Pinsky is convinced that his awareness of the power of language is not simply an “ideology assimilated by the upward-striving, English-speaking descendent of ambitious steerage immigrants from Eastern Europe,” but rather comes from inside him.

Pinsky’s poetry has been noted not only for its tonal shifts and balances but also for its mixing of autobiographical anecdotes with political, social, and philosophical commentary. From his mother’s witnessing Fats Waller play a toy piano when she worked at Macy’s department store to his own visit to the site of a concentration camp–incidents informing poems in his third collection, History of My Heart–Pinsky interweaves the personal and public into his work.

Pinsky’s poem “Visions of Daniel,” in his fourth collection, The Want Bone, suggests that the challenge facing the biblical prophet Daniel is emblematic of that confronting twentieth century poets. The collection, published as the poet approached fifty, shows his concern with the moral dilemmas of the age and demonstrates his skill at counterpoising invention and formality.

In 1984 Pinsky’s computerized novel, Mindwheel, was published as formatted disks. Newsweek hailed the work as a “new art form.” Pinsky himself likened the multiple narratives of his “quest romance” to Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy (c. 1320). Ten years later, Pinsky would win a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his translation of The Inferno of Dante, part one of the Divine Comedy. Pinsky’s nonfiction works, which articulate his absorption in the creative tension between innovation and tradition, effectively complement his creative works. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Wellesley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and Boston University. From 1997 to 2000, he was the poet laureate of the United States.

BibliographyFreedman, Jonathan. “How Now, Middlebrow?” Raritan 20 (Winter, 2001): 169-180. This review of Pinsky’s anthology Americans’ Favorite Poems says much about Pinsky’s place in the world of poetry.Glück, Louise. “Story Tellers.” American Poetry Review, July/August, 1997, 9-12. Glück explores the narrative impulse in Pinsky’s work through comparisons with the poems of Stephen Dobyns. She attends to how each poet’s work is involved with time and history.Lehman, David, ed. Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms: Sixty-five Leading Contemporary Poets Select and Comment on Their Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Lehman’s concept appears to be superficial, but the choices of poems and the quality of the authors’ commentaries are exceptional throughout. Pinsky explicates “The Want Bone” with candor and shares his enthusiasm for the use of the word “O.” His remarks are incisive and revealing.Longenbach, James. “Robert Pinksy and the Language of Our Time.” Salmagundi 103 (Summer, 1994): 155-177. Longenbach argues that Pinsky’s originality in vision and in poetic diction can be understood by taking seriously his acknowledged indebtedness to and affinities with other writers.Miller, Greg. “Spirituality in American Poetry.” Tikkun 18 (January/February, 2003): 68-70. Pinsky’s poem “Daniel” is analyzed.Molesworth, Charles. “Proving Irony by Compassion: The Poetry of Robert Pinsky.” The Hollins Critic 21 (December, 1984): 1-18. Molesworth deals with three major topics: Pinsky’s use of discursive poetry, the role of irony in his work, and the all-important theme of compassion.Parini, Jay. “Explaining America: The Poetry of Robert Pinsky.” Chicago Review 33 (Summer, 1981): 16-26. Parini has written widely on the subject of contemporary poetry, and this short study gives an excellent account of the connection between Pinsky’s critical theories and the volume An Explanation of America.Pollitt, Katha. “World of Wonders.” The New York Times Book Review 18 (August, 1996): 9. Addressing The Figured Wheel, Pollitt praises Pinsky’s unique contribution in probing the human experience through poems that give both intellectual and sensual pleasure.Tangorra, Joanne. “New Software from Synapse Takes Poetic License.” Publishers Weekly 227 (April 19, 1985): 50. Even though Tangorra’s piece is relatively brief, it offers an intriguing glimpse at another side of Pinsky’s creative expression–his electronic novel-game Mindwheel, the construction of which provides some fascinating clues about how Pinsky’s mind works and about how he organizes material in more traditional formats, such as those of poetry.
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