Poetry and the World: Selected Prose, 1977-1987by Robert Pinsky
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/i>
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.
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Read an Excerpt
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.
Meet the Author
Robert Pinsky was born on October 20, 1940 in Long Branch, New Jersey. He received a B.A. from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow in creative writing, and studied under the poet and critic Yvor Winters .
He is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Gulf Music: Poems; Jersey Rain (2000); The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 (1996), which received the 1997 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee; The Want Bone (1990); History of My Heart (1984); An Explanation of America (1980); and Sadness and Happiness (1975).
He is also the author of several prose titles, including The Life of David; Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry (2002); The Sounds of Poetry (1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Poetry and the World (1988); and The Situation of Poetry (1977). In 1985 he also released a computerized novel, Mindwheel.
Pinsky has published two acclaimed works of traslation: The Inferno of Dante (1994), which was a Book-of-the-Month-Club Editor's Choice, and received both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award ; and The Separate Notebooks by Czeslaw Milosz (with Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass ).
About his work, the poet Louise Glück has said, "Robert Pinsky has what I think Shakespeare must have had: dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician's dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions."
From 1997 to 2000, he served as the United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. During that time, he founded the Favorite Poem Project, a program dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry's role in Americans' lives.
In 1999, he co-edited Americans' Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology with Maggie Dietz. Other anthologies he has edited include An Invitation to Poetry (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004); Poems to Read (2002); and Handbook of Heartbreak (1998).
His honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, both the William Carlos Williams Award and the Shelley Memorial prize from the Poetry Society of America, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate .
Pinsky has taught at both Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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