Background & Poem: Shirt by Robert Pinsky 

Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poet-critics. Often called the last of the “civic” or public poets, Pinsky’s criticism and verse reflect his concern for a contemporary poetic diction that nonetheless speaks of a wider experience. Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, his tenure was marked by ambitious efforts to prove the power of poetry—not just as an intellectual pursuit in the ivory tower, but as a meaningful and integral part of American life. “I think poetry is a vital part of our intelligence, our ability to learn, our ability to remember, the relationship between our bodies and minds,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “Poetry’s highest purpose is to provide a unique sensation of coordination between the intelligence, emotions and the body. It’s one of the most fundamental pleasures a person can experience.” Calling Pinsky “a successful and assiduous poet laureate,” New York Times Book Review correspondent Adam Kirsch added: “The tasks of the public poet usually suit him well, because his intelligence seems, at bottom, less lyrical than discursive, even didactic. This poetic mode is much less favored now than in the past, but as Pinsky proves, it is still able to give pleasure.”

In his volumes of criticism, Pinsky presents his views on the nature of poetry. In The Situation of Poetry, he writes of the poet’s need to “find a language for presenting the role of a conscious soul in an unconscious world.” This emphasis on the actual leads Pinsky to see contemporary poetry as far more continuous with earlier poetry than many critics would believe. As Denis Donoghue remarked in the New York Times Book Review, Pinsky “believes, and is pleased to show, that contemporary poetry exhibits more continuity than change.” In Poetry and the World, Pinsky expands on his concept of poetry and, in a series of essays, examines the impact words have had on his own life. “Even the autobiographical digressions demonstrate a heartening sense of vocation,” declared Amy Edith Johnson in the New York Times Book Review. “Mr. Pinsky’s honorable practice confirms the dignity and creative dimension of … the function of criticism at the present time.
The Sounds of Poetry
is a slim volume that can serve as a primer on the mechanics of poetry and also as a “treatise on the social functions of poetry,” according to James Longenbach in the Nation. Atlantic Monthly contributor David Barber noted that The Sounds of Poetry “is an achievement for which there is surprisingly little precedent: an authoritative yet accessible introduction to the tools of the poet’s trade that can be read with profit by the serious student and the amateur alike.” Barber characterized the volume as “less that of a solemn classroom lecture than that of a spirited audio tour, with Pinsky offering up various devices and motifs for inspection and providing a lively running commentary on how to fine-tune the ear to respond to the distinctive verbal energies that make poetry ‘poetic.’“ In Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Pinsky resumes his examination of poetry’s necessity to contemporary, democratic culture. Reviewing the book for The New Republic, David Bromwich wrote, “One is never in any doubt about the tendency of Pinsky’s argument. He urges appreciation not of what the poet does in writing a poem, but of what the poet does in reading it. The poet mainly counts as one more reader. So, too, Pinsky’s idea of the place of poetry in democratic culture comes from an image of someone reading a poem to an audience.”

In his own poetry, Pinsky has followed the principles set out in his criticism. “In Pinsky’s poetry and criticism,” explained Willard Spiegelman, “there lies an abiding unity, of which the principal ingredients are ethical ambition, sanity, a sense of humor, and something to say.” Critics of Pinsky’s first collection, Sadness and Happiness, compared the work to Ranier Marie Rilke, James Wright, and Robert Lowell. Yale Review contributor Louis L. Martz declared that “Pinsky is the most exhilarating new poet that I have read since A. R. Ammons entered upon the scene.” Pinsky’s second volume was the book-length poem, An Explanation of America. Like Robert Lowell, Pinsky attempted to understand American history through a comparison to ancient Rome. “Not the least remarkable thing about Robert Pinsky’s remarkable [book],” stated Michael Hamburger in the Nation, “is that it seems to defy not only all the dominant trends in contemporary poetry but all the dominant notions—both American and non-American—of what is to be expected of an American poet.” “In its philosophical approach, classical learning, and orderly structure,” remarked Hudson Review contributor James Finn Cotter, An Explanation of America “resembles the work of William Cullen Bryant more than that of Hart Crane, but it is not old-fashioned. It is as American as Bryant’s and Crane’s long poems, as embedded in the past, and as identified with the woods and prairies.”

Pinsky continued his examination of history—sometimes national, sometimes personal—in two later collections of poetry. “History of My Heart” observed J. D. McClatchy in the New Republic, “was Pinsky’s breakthrough, and my guess is that it will come to be seen as one of the best books of the past decade.” The best poems in Pinsky’s 1990 collection, The Want Bone, according to McClatchy, “are more personal. They do not wrestle with religious angels or intellectual demons, the myths imposed on us by tradition. Instead, they address the self, those autobiographical myths we make out of memories.”
The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996
“will remind readers that here is a poet who, without forming a mini-movement or setting himself loudly at odds with the dominant tendencies of American poetry, has brought into it something new,” maintained Katha Pollitt in the New York Times Book Review. Paul Breslin felt that The Figured Wheel “signals a major turn in Pinsky’s stylistic development…. [In] its hurling together of the apocalyptic and vast with the mundane and the particular, it fairly bristles with linguistic energy.” Pollitt claimed: “What makes Mr. Pinsky such a rewarding and exciting writer is the sense he gives, in the very shape and structure of his poems, of getting at the depths of human experience, in which everything is always repeated but also always new.”

Pinsky’s interest in poetry that mixed contemporary speech with wide-ranging subject matter led him in 1994 to publish a new translation of Dante’s Inferno. He had been asked, with a group of nineteen other poets, to participate in a reading of the poem at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City in May of 1993. Pinsky became fascinated with the work of the thirteenth-century Italian poet. “It just gripped me, like a child with a new video game,” he told the New York Times. “I literally couldn’t stop working on it.” “I’m not fluent in Italian, but I love languages,” Pinsky continued in an interview with the New York Times Book Review. “This was like being a child with a new toy. I called the translation a feat of metrical engineering, and I worked obsessively. It’s the only writing I have ever done where it’s like reading yourself to sleep each night. We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night.”

Despite the fact that about fifty English-language translations of the Inferno have been published in the 20th century alone, critics largely celebrated Pinsky’s work. “The primary strength of this translation,” declared Edward Hirsch, “is the way it maintains the original’s episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character. It is no small achievement to reproduce Dante’s rhyme scheme and at the same time sound fresh and natural in English, and Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante’s vernacular music where many others have failed.” “His skill and power as a poet inform every line of this splendid translation,” stated John Ahern in the New York Times Book Review. “He shapes sinewy lines whose edges you can actually hear. This is true verse, not the typographical arrangement of poetic prose… [I]f he does not quite attain Dante’s full symphonic range, no one has come closer.”

Pinsky was named poet laureate in 1997 and served until 2000. The position carries a modest stipend, but its appeal lies in its visibility to the general public. Formerly a retiring person, Pinsky became a public figure, and he used the notoriety to promote a new project. Under his direction, ordinary Americans were invited to name their favorite poems, and some entrants were asked to read for a permanent audio archive at the Library of Congress. Pinsky set a goal of recording one hundred people, but he was inundated with letters and e-mails from all over the nation, and those participating represented all ages, all walks of life, and all levels of education. “The Favorite Poem Project is partly to demonstrate that there is more circulation of poetry and more life of poetry than there might seem with the stereotype,” Pinsky explained in the Progressive. “I must say that the Favorite Poem readings, beyond my expectation, are very moving.”
With Maggie Dietz, Pinsky edited a representative volume of reader responses called Americans’ Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology. A Publishers Weekly reviewer stated that “the selections are as diverse as the nation that chose them.” Americans’ Favorite Poems proved so popular that two subsequent collections have appeared: Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology and An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman called Poems to Read “a graceful, sometimes jubilant, sometimes lyrical, sometimes brooding, but always welcoming and stirring collection.”Jersey Rain, published in 2000, was Pinsky’s first collection of completely new work since The Want Bone appeared a decade earlier. Reviewing the work in Library Journal, Christian Graham observed that Pinsky’s poems range from the mythic to the confessional. “Occasionally, his differing manners collide strangely,” Graham stated, “but Pinsky delivers, as ever, intelligent, pensive poetry of great beauty.” Pinsky’s latest book, Gulf Music, was published to wide acclaim in 2007. In a review for the New York Times, Joel Brouwer wrote that the collection was “not just an argument for but a demonstration of contemporary poetry’s necessity and vitality in our democracy.” Citing Pinsky’s influence as a critic and “American civic poet,” Brouwer continued: “Pinsky is our finest living specimen of this sadly rare breed, and the poems of “Gulf Music” are among the best examples we have of poetry’s ability to illuminate not only who we are as humans, but who we are — and can be — as a nation.”
Paul Breslin has commented that Pinsky “has emerged as the finest American poet-critic since Randall Jarrell”; Joel Brouwer that “[n]o other living American poet — no other living American, probably — has done so much to put poetry before the public eye.” For his own part, the last American poet laureate of the 20th century told the Progressive: “I think the rhythms in a lot of my writing are an attempt to create that feeling of a beautiful, gorgeous jazz solo that gives you more emotion and some more and coming around with some more, and it’s the same but it’s changed, and the rhythm is very powerful, but it is also lyricism. I think I’ve been trying to create something like that in my writing for a long time.”

[Updated 2010]


University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, assistant professor of humanities, 1967-68; Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, associate professor of English, 1968-80; University of California, Berkeley, professor of English, 1980-88; Boston University, Boston, MA, professor of English and creative writing, 1988—. Visiting lecturer, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1979-80; Hurst Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 1981.

 upcoming events and additional information go to : The Poetry Foundation 


By Robert Pinsky b. 1940 Robert Pinsky

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms  
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—
Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

3 comments on “Background & Poem: Shirt by Robert Pinsky 

  1. granbee says:

    What an impressive piece of researching and writing you have given us here today, Heather! Pinsky was indeed didactic, but we needed him to be so, even if we do not always enjoy it! When he said the task of the poet is to “find a language for presenting the role of a conscious soul in an unconscious world.”, I think he hit the very heart of why I myself feel driven to keep writing my poetry!


  2. Hi, Heather. I like this poet.


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