Robert Pinsky is perhaps the most popular poet in America today. It is not simply that he is our poet laureate, or that his Favorite Poem Project has toured the country with its readings and recordings, or that he is the editor of the beloved anthology The Handbook of Heartbreak (1998), the translator of a highly successful version of The Inferno of Dante (1994), or the author of a treatise on the technical aspects of the art, The Sounds of Poetry (1999).
Pinsky's popularity is firmly based on the strength of his poems. His creative work embodies a concern elaborated in his criticism, the dynamic between individual and community, and his poetry occurs at the permeable border where the two meet. In considering the puzzle of his own tropes and tendencies, Pinsky himself has written, "I am from a lower middle-class family in a small town in New Jersey. My grandpa had a bar there. My family was nominally Orthodox Jewish. In my work I try to pull together as many of the different kinds and levels of American experience as I can." Perhaps it is these roots that have given Pinsky his unique twist. Pinsky was, famously, a prestigious Stegner Fellow at Stanford, where he fell into the orbit of the powerful critic Yvor Winters, whose strict insistence on technical formalism deeply influenced the young poet. But if Pinsky left Stanford with a talent for meticulously crafted sound and a classicizing disposition, he nevertheless retained a crucial ingredient specific to him: his origins in the garrulous multicultural boarding houses of his childhood in Long Branch, New Jersey.
Pinsky has an ear for the colloquial, for conversational rhythms of speech that insure his poems against sterility, irrelevance, and rarefaction. His idiosyncratic diction, a hybrid of the elevated and the everyday, can express serious philosophical truths without lofty airs, and his careful but understated manner of patterning sound gives the poems aural cohesion while avoiding the appearance of excessive artifice. This is a crucial achievement because, in a sense, speech is precisely what poetry is for Pinsky: an argument articulated by one speaker to a larger audience, in which clarity, inventiveness, and beauty are valued not so much in and of themselves but in relation to their abilities of public persuasion.
This approach is seen at its most successful in Pinsky's new collection, Jersey Rain, in the many poems that trace circles of thought or investigate cycles of being and time. Indeed, his soul "cleaves to circles," as Pinsky explains in the exquisite "Biography":
Stone wheel that sharpens the blade that mows the grain,
Wheel of the sunflower turning, wheel that turns
The spiral press that squeezes the oil expressed
From shale or olives. Particles that turn to mud
On the potter's wheel that spins to form the vessel
That holds the oil that drips to cool the blade.
My mother's dreadful fall. Her mother's dread
Of all things: death, life, birth. My brother's birth
Just before the fall, his birth again in Jesus.
Wobble and blur of my soul, born only once,
That cleaves to circles. The moon, the eye, the year,
Circle of causes or chaos or turns of chance.
The line of a tune as it cycles back to the root,
Arc of the changes. The line from there to here
Of Ellen speaking, thread of my circle of friends,
The art of lines, chord of the circle of work.
Radius. Lives of children growing away,
The plant radiant in air, its root in dark.
The poem chains together so many different classes of phenomena -- descriptive observations, universal themes, personal experiences -- and does it so gracefully that Pinsky appears not to have created a connectedness, merely to have exposed one. Likewise, the equally remarkable "Samurai Song," "Porch Steps," and "Song" also link diverse material into a complicated circuit; they remind the reader of those traditional dances in which one hand is exchanged for another and the other for another until the dancer has worked his or her way around the complete circle: "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." Pinsky's technique is perfectly suited to this operation. His tercets and quatrains have a dancelike forward momentum, the outline of metric order sketches its steps, and the poet's wit provides the playfulness propelling the whole. On a more profound level, this type of circle dance may be viewed as a metaphor for Pinsky's overall project. For Pinsky, poetry is neither solipsism nor mysticism; he neither inhabits the narcissistic plane of pure self-expression, nor does he deal in the shell game of symbols and endlessly hidden meanings. Rather, poetry is an active means of appreciating the lived world that draws all its parts into one, a community.