Poetry and the World: Selected Prose, 1977-1987

Poetry and the World: Selected Prose, 1977-1987

by Robert Pinsky
     
 

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A collection of sharp, entertaining, and informative essays by poet Robert Pinsky, Poetry and the World is a passionate inquiry into poetry's place in the modem world. Combining the arts of criticism and autobiography, Pinsky writes about poets as diverse as Walt VVhitman and Philip Freneau, Marianne Moore and Frank O'Hara, about a visit to Poland during

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Overview

A collection of sharp, entertaining, and informative essays by poet Robert Pinsky, Poetry and the World is a passionate inquiry into poetry's place in the modem world. Combining the arts of criticism and autobiography, Pinsky writes about poets as diverse as Walt VVhitman and Philip Freneau, Marianne Moore and Frank O'Hara, about a visit to Poland during the early days of Solidarity, and his own childhood in a seedy New Jersey resort town. The scope and diversity of these essays confirm Pinsky's stature as not only one of our best poets, but as a perceptive and engaging critic as well.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
How poets connect with the outer world is the broad theme that links these searching essays and reviews by Pinsky, a poet (History of My Heart) and critic. He admires William Carlos Williams, who had one foot in the daily life of working-class America, the foot in the avant-garde, and whose syncopated poems voice an implied critique of American culture. Pinsky puts his finger on the "sociable presence'' in Marianne Moore's poems, which make them "a profound moral force.'' He unmasks Philip Larkin, who too often affects the persona of a cheerfully philistine reactionary. Other poets whose stance vis-a-vis the world infused their art include American Revolutionary balladeer Philip Freneau, cosmopolite George Oppen, Whitman, Eliot and Edward Arlington Robinsonwho typifies the tragic fate of the sensitive individual in a provincial community. In sinuous, modulated prose, Pinsky gets deep inside his subjects' creative processes.
Library Journal
Respected poet and critic Pinsky presents us with "a series of raids and occasions'' on poetry's relationship to the world. Particularly insightful are his theoretical essays "Responsibilities of the Poet,'' originally a craft lecture, which suggests that a poem embodies "a resistance or transformation of communal values, and "Poetry and Pleasure,'' which reminds us that the goal of poetry is to give pleasurea point often forgotten in the critical rush to find deeper meanings. Sensitive to the nuances of language, Pinsky convincingly demonstrates, in essays on specific poems, not only how poetry works but why it moves us. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Donald P. Kaczvinsky, Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780880012164
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
01/01/2000
Pages:
72

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I

In this essay I want to consider "poetry" in its broadest definition, to include such forms as the short story; and to consider "the World" in a relatively narrow definition. I have in mind the world of worldliness: the social world, but more particularly the social world in its alternate glamour and squalor, its almost identical powers to divert us and to jade us. It is what Ben Jonson could embody by saying "the Court"; and indeed, in his great poem "To the World: A Farewell for a Gentlewoman, Virtuous and Noble," Jonson does seem to use "the World" as if it and "the Court" were synonymous.

To assert the existence of such a worldly world implies that there is also a different, distinct world which is other, a spiritual world. Poetry in English, with the dual, linked courtly and devotional traditions of its first great flowering, has often involved the problem of an orientation to these two worlds. I would like to use this topic as the occasion for talking about a wide, perhaps eccentric range of works. It has occurred to me that many of my favorite works, recent and historical, involve a bridge or space between the worldly and the spiritual. Poetry itself suggests such a dualism, related in ways I can't unravel. That is, the medium of words is social, yet it can also be the fabric of the most rarefied, introspective ideas; and the sensuousness of poetry is to give elegance and significance to the sounds that breath makes vibrating in the mouth and throat, animating by art those bodily noises of communication. In such ways poetry seems to have a special, enigmatic relation to the worldly world. On a more immediate level, it is worth inquiringinto the role of the worldly in contemporary poems: what role does "the World" in this sense play in the new poem one is about to write or to read?

The first example, however, is from the sixteenth century, Thomas Campion's "Now Winter Nights Enlarge":

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours,
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o'erflow with wine;
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine!
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques and Courtly sights,
Sleep's leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers' long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys
They shorten tedious nights.

The poem celebrates with the utmost relish the scenes and diversions which it puts in their proper place. While it can seem superficially a charming song about hardly anything at all, it is about that proper place, the idea of decorum. What is startling is that the stuffy idea of decorum can be treated with such energy and ebullience, an omnivorous verve that extends its appetite to flirtations, poems, riddles, dance-steps, wine cups, the miniature honey-comb of lights and the massive, fantastic storm.

Yvor Winters has used Campion's opening lines- "Now winternights enlarge / The number of their hours"—as a locus classicus forthe effective use of connotative or supra-rational effects in language:the word "enlarge" denotes rationally only the relative number ofhours in a winter night, but its aura magnifies and enhances the largescale of the charming, almost Disneyesque storm and towers. In asimilar vein, Winters points out the pleasing connotative harmonyof "waxen lights" with "honey love": the castle with its comb ofcells becomes a cozy, mysteriously sunny beehive in the thick ofwinter.

Such "harmony" and "amazement," to borrow Campion's own terms, are so egregious in the poem that Winters found them convenient examples of certain rhetorical effects. The harmony and amazement, blending the golden with the leaden, and blazing discharge of energy with well-tuned spells, by being made so prominent perform for us Campion's relation to these aristocratic, intoxicating worldly pastimes. The amazing, harmonious blending of air and architecture, wine and words, enlargement of space and time, rests on a sense of limit.

This idea of limit is quite explicit in the second stanza: the prolix, amoral rituals of courtship are limited by being assigned, with a smile, to the season of long, cold nights. And then, in a marvelous line, it All do not all things well": love-making, dancing, riddlesetting, the performance of poems-individuals are limited by their skills at these diversions; and the diversions themselves are limited, implicitly by their collocation and explicitly by the affectionate, but diminutive terms of the last two lines:

Though love and all his pleasures are but toys
They shorten tedious nights.

For a good poem to end with a brief summarizing moral statement violates a creative-writing slogan; but that is another example of the sense of limit on which Campion's song founds its success. It is a shrewd, oddly detached praise of both pleasure, and pleasure's limits.

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