Jersey Rain: Poems


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Innovative, engaging poems from a leading American poet.

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 mud

On the potter's wheel that spins to form the vessel

That holds the oil that drips to cool the blade.

—from "Biography"

Jersey Rain takes up a central American subject: the emotional power of inventions, devices, and homemade imaginings — from the alphabet and the lyre through the steel drum and piano to the record player, digital computer, and television. Formally innovative and highly readable poems like "ABC," "Ode to Meaning," "To Television," and "The Green Piano" meditate a life guided by the quick, artful tinkerer-god Hermes: deity of music and deception, escort of the dead, inventor of instruments, brilliant messenger, and trickster of heaven.

Robert Pinsky, United States Poet Laureate 1997-2000, has received the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He is poetry editor at Slate and teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

"Poise and intellect do not preclude passion . . . in this ravishing and unusually revealing collection." (Booklist)

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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.

—Monica Ferrell

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Despite the Springsteen-esque title, the same phrasal gifts that drive 1996's new and collected volume, The Figured Wheel, and Pinsky's acclaimed translation of the Inferno, are well-displayed in this slim, sixth collection. Unfortunately, most of the poems' occasions and insights don't quite measure up to the rhetorical firepower turned upon them. The hortatory mode dominates the collection: "To the Phoenix" begins, "Dark herald, self-conceived in the desert waste,/ What yang or yin enfolds your enigma best?" Invoking Prufrock, the body as "Vessel" is implored "O veteran immersed from toe to crown,// Buoy the population of the soul/ Toward their destination before they drown." "A Phonebook Cover Hermes of the Nineteen-forties" features "Fire zigzag in his grasp, labeled `Spirit/ Of Communication'--unhistorical,/ Pure, the merciless messenger." There is pleasure in the sheer muscle of these constructions, and it's clear that the poet's archaisms are within his control. Yet the name-checks--of Oprah, Ecco press editor Daniel Halpern and others--grow tiresome, and the stabs at intimacy are tinged with a neo-Lowellian obsession with guilt and grandeur. One can't help reading pretentious references to Pinsky's duties as U.S. poet laurate into an "Autumn Quartet" (written "On my birthday"), which calls on "the heros of antiquity /To pass their lonely double knowledge on/ To such as Odysseus, who learned to tell the story/ Of his life, couched in as many lies as needed./ Among the epic bravos, a civic man." The prose centerpiece, "An Alphabet of My Dead," brings in family, a student suicide, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse and "Plural dead in categories like counting sheep, the exterminated Jews of Europe, the obliviated Kallikaks of New Jersey " among others. "To Television," "The Green Piano" and other lighter pieces will delight fans, but the poems with more profound aspirations lack a penetrating introspection. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Pinsky has several careers within the realm of literature: poet, translator, and public advocate of poetry. All of these influences can be felt in his new collection, which is the first assembly of his own lyric verse to appear since The Want Bone (The Figured Wheel served as a Collected Earlier Poems). At times, his poems reach for the extra-personal, the mythic or abstract, as in "The Knight's Prayer" or "To the Phoenix"; at others, they move through personal or confessional modes, as in "An Alphabet of My Dead" or "To Television." Pinsky seems most comfortable with the gnomic or elevated phrase: "The shifting hero wanders alien places,/ Through customs of cities and histories of races,/ Recollects, travels and summons together all--/ All manners of the dead and living, in the great Hall." Occasionally, his differing manners collide strangely, but Pinsky delivers, as ever, intelligent, pensive poetry of great beauty. For most collections.--Graham Christian, formerly with Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From the Publisher
"Poise and intellect do not preclude passion . . . in this ravishing and unusually revealing collection. . . . Life changes shape and intent in Pinsky's poems, like the gods and goddesses of old, and his chronicling of its metamorphoses is grace incarnate."—Booklist

"With lavish technical gifts, a discriminating civic intelligence, and an impish relish for what goes against the solemnities of a lot of contemporary verse, Pinsky has given us one of the outstanding bodies of work in English-language poetry."—Justin Quinn, The Boston Book Review

"The poetic mode of Jersey Rain is reflective, full of pathos for the human condition, and rich in its emotional scope. . . . Pinsky's poems remind us that . . . poetry is a tool for living."—David Clippinger, Harvard Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374178871
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 52
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.33 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Pinsky, United States Poet Laureate 1997-2000, has received the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He is poetry editor at Slate and teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

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Read an Excerpt

It spends itself regardless into the ocean.
It stains and scours and makes things dark or bright:
Sweat of the moon, a shroud of benediction,
The chilly liquefaction of day to night,

The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather

To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
--from "Jersey Rain"
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Table of Contents

Samurai Song 3
Vessel 4
Ode to Meaning 5
Autumn Quartet 8
ABC 10
An Alphabet of My Dead 11
The Haunted Ruin 20
To the Phoenix 22
A Phonebook Cover Hermes of the Nineteen-forties 23
The Cycles 24
Porch Steps 25
The Superb Lily 27
Summer in Saratoga Springs 29
To Television 31
The Green Piano 33
Machines 35
Victrola 36
Song 37
Steel Drum Variations 38
The Hall 40
The Tragic Chorus 41
In Memory of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan 43
Biography 45
At the Worcester Museum 46
The Knight's Prayer 50
Jersey Rain 52
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2001

    Circles of Investigations

    Seasons change. So can people, poetry and the English Language. A very subtle expression of He who calls the Waters. The Circle is Like a search for He who searches the minds and hearts. The more circles, the deeper the perception. He who makes the morning Darkness soils the roots. Very complex, sensitive and obscure if one lacks knowledge in the little known. That being some have been chosen to be on the potters wheel by He who declares to man what his thought is. This Poems thoughts are a very diverse choice of words as if revealing the rain or tears that fall from heavens white clouds to grow the grain and employ the makers of equipment that mows the grain. Jersey Rain brings a great harvest.

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