Robert Pinsky is one of the most famous living poets in America — he once even appeared on an episode of “The Simpsons.” He was the U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, and he more or less defined the job for everyone who came after him, starting an enormously popular national poetry program and turning himself into a much coveted speaker and public intellectual.
Though it's been 20 years since he was at the height of his celebrity, it can still be hard to see the poems through the scrim of the persona: Pinsky is a public figure, but his poetry is nonetheless esoteric, particular and strange. He’s skeptical of religion, but interested in a Jewish vision of history; he’s a proponent of high culture; and he likes to make wide associative leaps between lines. Pinsky is not a prolific poet: he has only published two books since his time as a poet laureate. His poems are methodical, carefully built, heady, perhaps sometimes off-putting, gently sarcastic, and very good.
One of the qualities that made Pinsky such an appealing national poet is his extraordinarily sonorous reading voice; he writes the kind of sonically alive poetry that is built to be read aloud. “At the Foundling Hospital,” his seventh collection of new poems (a career-spanning selected preceded this book in 2011), opens with a poem about “a little newborn god/ That made the first instrument.” He describes how “He scooped out a turtle’s shell/ And strung it with a rabbit’s guts/…/ The wiry rabbitflesh/ Plucked or strummed,/ Pulled taut across the gutted/ Resonant hull of the turtle.” Note the long bass tones of the syllables — “strung,” “guts” — that mimic the depths of the instrument’s music; the stuttering hard stops — “plucked,” “taut,” “gutted” — that suggest the twang of the strings.
But Pinsky, a serious fan of jazz, doesn’t just imitate music. He’s always been a poet of high moral seriousness and purpose, interested in what sticks to words through time, how they transport history, what they do and don’t reveal about the past and the present; and he is alarmed by how today’s Americans are and are not attending carefully to their words.
“The Foundling Tokens,” the major statement of this book, associatively slithers through an encounter in a museum for a hospital for abandoned infants, each of whom is named with a “token:/ Bit of lace or a pewter brooch,/ Identifying coin, button/ Or bangle.” If they arrive with “A name [it is] by rule never/ To be used again for that/ Foundling.” What, he wonders, is the use of “Unconsulted but retained/ Relic syllables of a name”? The impossible wish of this museum, of poetry, of language, is to reclaim what’s lost, “The same/ Boy again, reconceived.” But, he concludes, “almost never was/ A foundling reclaimed, ever.” We fail our history, fail to remember and react.
Even our own name, Pinsky says in another poem, is “the one word you can’t ever/ Hear clearly, but as in a carnival mirror.” Elsewhere, we ignore wisdom passed down through generations. “Sayings of the Old” stitches together old saws (another poem is titled “The Saws”) whose warnings we tend to ignore: “One of them said of mules: A creature willing/ To labor for you patiently many years,/ Just for the privilege to kick you once.”
These poems amount to a list of the ways we acquiesce to what we see in the distorted mirror of language, from the Bible through the most pressing current events; it’s no accident, I think, that one of our most public poets publishes his new book in an election year:
A politician makes hay in Oklahoma
By saying he doubts Darwin and climate change.
A kayak to Nyack. Home, home on the range.
Elect you, sigh for you, die for you. Our systems fed
By long-dead life that rotted to our sweet crude—
Warmth, movement, light and all our musical racket.
Lipstick traces. How we do. An airplane ticket.
High volume, gasoline roar, an amplified voice
Keening its meaning — will we die of all this?
These poems seem to tacitly refute Donald Trump (poetry is perhaps the least of the Republican candidate’s concerns, though perhaps it shouldn’t be, bent as he is on the capacity of language to spin the truth), or at least the kind of twisted public discourse that this election has ushered to the forefront — though perhaps all poetry does that.
But, Pinsky also suggests with no small amount of irony and wit in this prescient book, we’ve left bread crumbs in the language to help us find our way back to sanity, if only we’ll follow them.
Teicher is the editor of “Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz.” His next book of poetry, “The Trembling Answers,” will be published in April 2017.
By Robert Pinsky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 80 pp., $23