The Washington Post
Selected Poemsby Robert Pinsky
Intense verbal music with a jazz feeling; invention against the grain of expectation; intelligence racing among materials with the variety of a busy street—these have been the qualities of Robert Pinsky's work since his first book, Sadness and Happiness (1975), celebrated for setting a new direction in American poetry. At that time, responding to a/i>
Intense verbal music with a jazz feeling; invention against the grain of expectation; intelligence racing among materials with the variety of a busy street—these have been the qualities of Robert Pinsky's work since his first book, Sadness and Happiness (1975), celebrated for setting a new direction in American poetry. At that time, responding to a question about that book, Pinsky said: "I would like to write a poetry which could contain every kind of thing, while keeping all the excitement of poetry."
That ambition was realized in a new way with each of his books, including the book-length personal monologue An Explanation of America; the transformed autobiography of History of My Heart; the bestselling translation The Inferno of Dante; and, most recently, the savage, inventive Gulf Music. That variety and renewal are represented in this brilliantly chosen volume.
The Washington Post
“Simply said, Robert Pinsky is one of the few literary artists working in our language whose work is unquestionably major work.” Louise Glück
“[Pinksy's] poems are striking in their desire to open wide ... and contain everything, to refuse absolutely to reject anything ... Pinsky's poems rarely lend themselves to easy and decisive interpretation. (For this reason they tend to grow rather than wither with rereading.) One might say of his work, as one would say of jazz, that the point is less to interpret or understand it than to enjoy the sound and energy and mad improvisation ... Sadness and happiness, beauty and ugliness, peace and violence--each has its place in Pinsky's capacious poetry, for its universe is the one in which we all live.” Troy Jollimore, The Washington Post
“One might say that Pinsky has attended well Hamlet's advice to the players, and, in the very tempest of his passion and inspiration, acquires and begets a temperance to give all smoothness. The pleasures of Pinsky's poems are found in their capable smoothness, their balance, and, here and there, little fillips that smack the ear and jar the mind.” Donald Brown, The Quarterly Conversation
“Pinsky is an important figure. He is also, as Tony Hoagland has rightly observed, ‘a much stranger poet than is generally acknowledged.' This abiding strangeness, this ability to perpetually surprise us with his jittery music, oddball catalogues, and outright collage-making--gestures that at the same time are impeccably crafted and as often-as-not shaped into stately couplets and tercets--are one source of Pinsky's significance. He has also, as the new volume eloquently attests, remade himself several times as a poet, and with each change moved closer to a goal of being at once wholly idiosyncratic and highly accessible. He is an exceedingly personal writer--this trait especially manifests itself in his capacities as an elegist--while at the same time very concerned with public subjects that too many of his generational peers have chosen to neglect . . . he temples of the ancient Sumerians employed various priests and functionaries, but one of the most important occupations was that of ‘chief lamenter,' the reciter and singer of hymns. The chief lamenters' function and artistry were civic, but the best of them must have had voices and individual styles comparable to the idiosyncratic majesty of Robert Pinsky. The past, he tells us in one poem, is a ‘haunted ruin,' like the ‘billion corridors / of the semi-conductor.' And that is Pinsky: he stands with sandaled feet on the ziggurat steps, while under his arm he carries an iPad. And . . . this lamenter-in-chief knows that his story must also be our own.” David Wojahn, Tikkun
“[A] sense of an American gathering extends throughout the volume, into the angry political poems of Gulf Music (2007), a reference to Hurricane Katrina, through the prose blocks of ‘An Alphabet of My Dead,' and back to what may still be Pinsky's most famous poem, the book-length An Explanation of America (1979), excerpted here, whose clearly argued triads of blank verse compared the United States after Vietnam to the republic in earlier days--and to imperial Rome. However well Pinsky fits a wide modern audience, he is also someone whose poems should last.” Publisher's Weekly
“For 36 years, Robert Pinsky has been writing his exciting, musical poetry . . . his poems bubble up and dissolve like fireworks, like something written across a stretch of blue sky, seen from the warm sand. ‘What is Imagination,' he asks in ‘Ode to Meaning,' ‘But your lost child born to give birth to you?' This is one exuberant collection. Baseball, desire, jazz--only poetry could hold them all.” Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
“This edition of Pinsky's poems is as satisfying as a cross-section of his remarkable 35-year career could be. Its inverted chronological order allows one to trace the emergence of a public, civic-minded poet to his early concerns about the human mind and heart, ‘the legendary muscle that wants and grieves.' The poems in this book long ago established Pinsky as an ambassador for poetry, but this book reminds us that his poems still deserve the most attention of all.” Dave Lucas, Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“Robert Pinsky's Selected Poems invites us to read his career in reverse, to start with his most recent books and move back through the decades to his first . . . The book is therefore shaped more like a detective story than a traditional chronological narrative. The question is not where is the young poet is going, but rather, how did the older poet get to where he is. As Pinsky is one of the best American poets around, it is a question worth asking . . . Pinsky has gotten fiercer as he has gotten older, and the later poems suggest ways to read or reread the earlier ones. Pinsky has become something of a public figure . . . who has not sacrificed the complexities of poetic construction for a false, aw-shucks simplicity. His Selected Poems shows how this was always where he wanted to be. It is a generous selection in all senses of that word. It is a tribute to its quality that it is, at 200 pages, still too short.” David Kaufman, Tablet
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Read an Excerpt
By Robert Pinsky
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2011 Robert Pinsky
All rights reserved.
FROM GULF MUSIC
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.
A bird the medium of its song.
A song a world, a containment
Like a hotel room, ready
For us guests who inherit
Our compartment of time there.
In the Cornell box, among
Ephemera as its element,
The preserved bird — a study
In spontaneous elegy, the parrot
Art, mortal in its cornered sphere.
The room a stanza rung
In a laddered filament
Clambered by all the unsteady
Chambered voices that share it,
Each reciting I too was here —
In a room, a rhyme, a song.
In the box, in books: each element
An instrument, the body
Still straining to parrot
The spirit, a being of air.
IF THE DEAD CAME BACK
What if the dead came back not only
In the shape of your skull your mouth your hands
The voice inside your mouth the voice inside
Your skull the words in your ears the work in your hands,
What if they came back not only in surnames
Nicknames, names of dead settlement shtetl pueblo
Not only in cities fabled or condemned also countless dead
Peoples languages pantheons stupidities arts,
As we too in turn come back not only occulted
In legends like the conquerors' guilty whisperings about
Little People or Old Ones and not only in Indian angles
Of the cowboy's eyes and cheeks the Dakota molecules
Of his body and acquired antibodies, and in the lymphatic
Marshes where your little reed boat floats inches
Above the mud of oblivion O foundling in legends
The dead who know the future require a blood offering
Or your one hand accuses the other both lacking any
Sacrifice for the engendering appetites of the dead.
Mallah walla tella bella. Trah mah trah-la, la-la-la,
Mah la belle. Ippa Fano wanna bella, wella-wah.
The hurricane of September 8, 1900 devastated
Galveston, Texas. Some 8,000 people died.
The Pearl City almost obliterated. Still the worst natural
Calamity in American history, Woh mallah-walla.
Eight years later Morris Eisenberg sailing from Lübeck
Entered the States through the still-wounded port of Galveston.
1908, eeloo hotesy, hotesy-ahnoo, hotesy ahnoo mi-Mizraim.
Or you could say "Morris" was his name. A Moshe.
Ippa Fano wanna bella woh. The New Orleans musician called
Professor Longhair was named Henry Roeland Byrd.
Not heroic not nostalgic not learned. Made-up names:
Hum a few bars and we'll homme-la-la. Woh ohma-dallah.
Longhair or Henry and his wife Alice joined the Civil Defense
Special Forces 714. Alice was a Colonel, he a Lieutenant.
Here they are in uniforms and caps, pistols in holsters.
Hotesy anno, Ippa Fano trah ma dollah, tra la la.
Morris took the name "Eisenberg" after the rich man from
His shtetl who in 1908 owned a town in Arkansas.
Most of this is made up, but the immigration papers did
Require him to renounce all loyalty to Czar Nicholas.
As he signed to that, he must have thought to himself
The Yiddish equivalent of No Problem, Mah la belle.
Hotesy hotesy-ahno. Wella-mallah widda dallah,
Mah fanna-well. A townful of people named Eisenberg.
The past is not decent or orderly, it is made-up and devious.
The man was correct when he said it's not even past.
Look up at the waters from the causeway where you stand:
Lime causeway made of grunts and halfway-forgettings
On a foundation of crushed oyster shells. Roadbed
Paved with abandonments, shored up by haunts.
Becky was a teenager married to an older man. After she
Met Morris, in 1910 or so, she swapped Eisenbergs.
They rode out of Arkansas on his motorcycle, well-ah-way.
Wed-away. "Mizraim" is Egypt, I remember that much.
The storm bulldozed Galveston with a great rake of debris,
In the September heat the smell of the dead was unbearable.
Hotesy hotesy ahnoo. "Professor" the New Orleans title
For any piano player. He had a Caribbean left hand,
A boogie-woogie right. Civil Defense Special Forces 714
Organized for disasters, mainly hurricanes. Floods.
New Orleans style borrowing this and that, ah wail-ah-way la-la,
They probably got "714" from Joe Friday's badge number
On Dragnet. Jack Webb chose the number in memory
Of Babe Ruth's 714 home runs, the old record.
As living memory of the great hurricanes of the thirties
And the fifties dissolved, Civil Defense Forces 714
Also dissolved, washed away for well or ill — yet nothing
Ever entirely abandoned though generations forget, and ah
Well the partial forgetting embellishes everything all the more:
Alla-mallah, mi-Mizraim, try my tra-la, hotesy-totesy.
Dollars, dolors. Callings and contrivances. King Zulu. Comus.
Sephardic ju-ju and verses. Voodoo mojo, Special Forces.
Henry formed a group named Professor Longhair and his
Shuffling Hungarians. After so much renunciation
And invention, is this the image of the promised end?
All music haunted by all the music of the dead forever.
Becky haunted forever by Pearl the daughter she abandoned
For love, O try my tra-la-la, ma la belle, mah walla-woe.
VENI, CREATOR SPIRITUS
Blessed is He who came to Earth as a Bull
And ravished our virgin mother and ran with her
Astride his back across the plains and mountains
Of the whole world. And when He came to Ocean,
He swam across with our mother on his back.
And in His wake the peoples of the world
Sailed trafficking in salt, oil, slaves and opal.
Hallowed be His name, who blesses the nations:
From the Middle Kingdom, gunpowder and Confucius.
From Europe, Dante and the Middle Passage.
Shiva is His lieutenant, and by His commandment
Odysseus brought the palm tree to California,
Tea to the Britons, opium to the Cantonese.
Horses, tobacco, tomatoes and gonorrhea
Coursed by His will between Old Worlds and New.
In the Old Market where children once were sold,
Pirated music and movies in every tongue,
Defying borders as Algebra trans-migrated
From Babylon to Egypt. At His beck
Empire gathers, diffuses, and in time disperses
Into the smoky Romance of its name.
And after the great defeat in Sicily
When thousands of Athenians were butchered
Down in the terrible quarries, and many were bound
And branded on the face with a horse's head,
Meaning this man is a slave, a few were spared
Because they could recite new choruses
By the tragedian Euripides, whose works
And fame had reached to Sicily — as willed
By the Holy One who loves blood sacrifice
And burnt offerings, commerce and the Arts.
A disembodied piano. The headphones allow
The one who touches the keys a solitude
Inside his music; shout and he may not turn:
Image of the soul that thinks to turn from the world.
Serpent-scaled Apollo skins the naive musician
Alive: then Marsyas was sensitive enough
To feel the whole world in a touch. In Africa
The raiders with machetes to cut off hands
Might make the victim choose, "long sleeve or short."
Shahid Ali says it happened to Kashmiri weavers,
To kill the art. There are only so many stories.
The Loss. The Chosen. And even before The Journey,
The Turning: the fruit from any tree, the door
To any chamber, but this one — and the greedy soul,
Blade of the lathe. The Red Army smashed pianos,
But once they caught an SS man who could play.
They sat him at the piano and pulled their fingers
Across their throats to explain that they would kill him
When he stopped playing, and so for sixteen hours
They drank and raped while the Nazi fingered the keys.
The great Song of the World. When he collapsed
Sobbing at the instrument they stroked his head
And blew his brains out. Cold-blooded Orpheus turns
Again to his keyboard to improvise a plaint:
Her little cries of pleasure, blah-blah, the place
Behind her ear, lilacs in rain, a sus-chord,
A phrase like a moonlit moth in tentative flight,
O lost Eurydice, blah-blah. His archaic head
Kept singing after the body was torn away:
Body, old long companion, supporter — the mist
Of oranges, la-la-la, the smell of almonds,
The taste of olives, her woolen skirt. The great old
Poet said, What should we wear for the reading — necktie?
Or better no necktie, turtleneck? The head
Afloat turns toward Apollo to sing and Apollo,
The cool-eyed rainbow lizard, plies the keys.
Its leaves flutter, they thrive or wither, its outspread
Signatures like wings open to form the gutter.
The pages riffling brush my fingertips with their edges:
Whispering, erotic touch this hand knows from ages back.
What progress we have made, they are burning my books, not
Me, as once they would have done, said Freud in 1933.
A little later, the laugh was on him, on the Jews,
On his sisters. O people of the book, wanderers, anderes.
When we've wandered all our ways, said Ralegh, Time shuts up
The story of our days — Ralegh beheaded, his life like a book.
The sound bk: lips then palate, outward plosive to interior stop.
Bk, bch: the beech tree, pale wood incised with Germanic runes.
Enchanted wood. Glyphs and characters between boards.
The reader's dread of finishing a book, that loss of a world,
And also the reader's dread of beginning a book, becoming
Hostage to a new world, to some spirit or spirits unknown.
Look! What thy mind cannot contain you can commit
To these waste blanks. The jacket ripped, the spine cracked,
Still it arouses me, torn crippled god like Loki the schemer
As the book of Lancelot aroused Paolo and Francesca
Who cling together even in Hell, O passionate, so we read.
Love that turns or torments or comforts me, love of the need
Of love, need for need, columns of characters that sting
Sometimes deeper than any music or movie or picture,
Deeper sometimes even than a body touching another.
And the passion to make a book — passion of the writer
Smelling glue and ink, sensuous. The writer's dread of making
Another tombstone, my marker orderly in its place in the stacks.
Or to infiltrate and inhabit another soul, as a splinter of spirit
Pressed between pages like a wildflower, odorless, brittle.
JAR OF PENS
Sometimes the sight of them
Huddled in their cylindrical formation
Repels me: humble, erect,
Mute and expectant in their
Rinsed-out honey crock: my quiver
Of detached stingers. (Or, a bouquet
Of lies and intentions unspent.)
Pilots, drones, workers. The Queen is
Cross. Upright lodge
Of the toilworthy, gathered
At attention as though they believe
All the ink in the world could
Cover the first syllable
Of one heart's confusion.
This fat fountain pen wishes
In its elastic heart
That I were the farm boy
Whose illiterate father
Rescued it out of the privy
After it fell from the boy's pants:
The man digging in boots
By lanternlight, down in the pit.
Another pen strains to call back
The characters of the thousand
World languages dead since 1900,
Curlicues, fiddleheads, brushstroke
Splashes and arabesques:
Footprints of extinct species.
The father hosed down his boots
And leaving them in the barn
With his pants and shirt
Came into the kitchen,
Holding the little retrieved
Symbol of symbol-making.
O brood of line-scratchers, plastic
Scabbards of the soul, you have
Outlived the sword — talons and
Wingfeathers for the hand.
The lesser twin,
The one whose accomplishments
And privileges are unshowy: getting to touch
The tattoo on my right shoulder.
Wearing the mitt.
I feel its familiar weight and textures
As the adroit one rests against it for a moment.
They twine fingers.
Lefty continues to experience considerable
Difficulty expressing himself clearly
And correctly in writing.
Comparison with his brother prevents him
From putting forth his best effort.
Yet this halt one too has felt a breast, thigh,
Clasped an ankle or most intimate
Of all, the fingers of a hand.
And possibly his trembling touch,
As less merely adept and confident,
Is subtly the more welcome of the two.
In the Elysian Fields, where every defect
Will be compensated and the last
Will be first, this one will lead skillfully
While the other will assist.
And as my shadow stalks that underworld
The right hand too will rejoice — released
From its long burden of expectation:
The yoke of dexterity finally laid to rest.
I have heard that adolescence is a recent invention,
A by-product of progress, one of Capitalism's
Suspended transitions between one state and another,
Like refugee camps, internment camps, like the Fields
Of Concentration in a campus catalogue. Summer
Camps for teenagers. When I was quite young
My miscomprehension was that "Concentration Camp"
Meant where the scorned were admonished to concentrate,
Humiliated: forbidden to let the mind wander away.
"Concentration" seemed just the kind of punitive euphemism
The adult world used to coerce, like the word "Citizenship"
On the report cards, graded along with disciplines like History,
English, Mathematics. Citizenship was a field or
Discipline in which for certain years I was awarded every
Marking period a "D" meaning Poor. Possibly my first political
Emotion was wishing they would call it Conduct, or Deportment.
The indefinitely suspended transition of the refugee camps
Must be a poor kind of refuge — subjected to capricious
Kindness and requirements and brutality, the unchampioned
Refugees kept between childhood and adulthood, having neither.
In the Holy Land for example, or in Mother Africa.
At that same time of my life when I heard the abbreviation
"DP" for Displaced Person I somehow mixed it up with
"DTs" for Delirium Tremens, both a kind of stumbling called
By a childish nickname. And you my poem, you are like
An adolescent: confused, awkward, self-preoccupied, vaguely
Rebellious in a way that lacks practical focus, moving without
Discipline from thing to thing. Do you disrespect Authority merely
Because it speaks so badly, because it deploys the lethal bromides
With a clumsy conviction that offends your delicate senses? — but if
Called on to argue such matters as the refugees you mumble and
Stammer, poor citizen, you get sullen, you sigh and you look away.
Excerpted from Selected Poems by Robert Pinsky. Copyright © 2011 Robert Pinsky. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
A former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. In addition to his books of poetry and The Inferno of Dante, he has written prose works, including The Life of David and The Sounds of Poetry.
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