John Updike’s death (R.I.P. Rabbit) served to remind me of one of his rules for criticism that I try to follow. It’s a good one. It is:

“Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

He also had one about not reviewing something that you’re predisposed to dislike and to not review the works of friends. One of the problems with this endeavor is that there will be certain works appearing in the New Yorker that fit neatly into the former, namely the tried-and-true, first-person narrative lyric. I can either bypass them or continue to try to work within the intentions of the poet. I’ll try the latter until it becomes apparent that I can’t do it fairly. Of course I have liked several first-person narrative lyrics, namely Carson, Seidel, and Micheal Dickman’s, largely because their voices are expansive or they’re doing something unique with the structure of the narrative.

But enough about me (which is so not the point of this).

Though he doesn’t necessarily suppress the “I”, Robert Pinsky’s poetry rarely is about him. When the “I” does appear, it usually has the role of bus driver–its purpose is to take you somewhere.

One of this country’s most public poets (a former Poet laureate who really worked the position), Pinsky’s poetry is melodious, discursive, expansive.  His lines can be as rangy and inclusive as Whitman’s and has some of the formal properties and repetitions of jazz standards (Pinsky loves jazz).

His poems are formal or maybe neo-formal: there’s a heavy iambic beat and his stanzas carry many of the formal trappings yet his end-rhymes are often inexact. In his translation of Dante’s Inferno, he worked the terza rima with imperfect end-rhymes that shared the same final consonant (for example, stuck/back/work, and scan/unseen/then) which he said, in his introduction to that volume, sounded more interesting than exact rhymes. I’m not sure if I agree; it did, however, give him more options to work  a demanding form in this rhyme-poor language.

At his best, Pinsky cooks up something savory and sweet, something that seems made at the last minute–no time for the apron!–with the leftovers in the fridge and brings it out of the kitchen with a dusting of flour still clinging to his jeans (that just sounds wrong). “A Shirt” is a terrific and surprising poem. And many of the sections of “Essays to a Psychiatrist” are clicking on all cylinders. One section in that poem in particular moves from Greek tragedy to “‘tragedy’ / in the sense of newspapers” to a description of Rex Morgan, M.D. comic strip that I thought very effective, even a little bit radical.

His misses are usually victims of a tangle of proper nouns whose relationships to one another (or their purported effect) are less than clear (e.g. Joan of Arc – Jackie Robinson – Eden – Gomorrah – Golf – Xbox in a poem from his latest book). Or he gets a little tipsy with the music and ends up producing a strange dysesthesia as in these opening lines from “The Living”:

The living, the unfallen lords of life,
Move heavily through the dazzle
Where all things shift, glitter or swim–

As on a day at the beach, or under
The stark, absolute blue of a snow morning,
With concentric peals of brightness

Ringing in the cold air. They seem drugged.

Drugged, indeed. I’ve also witnessed his tendency to overuse the patented “Of Machine for Magical Abstractions” where the practitioner simply has to plug-in the following formula to make instant poetry: concrete noun/preposition (usually of)/abstract noun. A couple products of the “Of Machine for Magical Abstractions” are in the example above.

But nobody will ever fault Pinsky for not being ambitious though, and his poems are usually highwire acts with figurative language, much like the poem appearing in the January 26, 2009, issue of the New Yorker. “Last Robot Poem” is a trope on the creative process, the instrument of creation and imagination caught in an infinite loop of maker and man: a variation on the chicken/egg argument; the snake swallowing its own tail. Here Pinsky has the little newborn god–which as we find out later in the poem, is really the product of the mind–making an instrument from turtle shell and rabbit guts: the first instrument. Which then radiates, vibrates, hums; engages the creative circuits and imposes meaning on the world through music and mythology, “dreaming up Heaven and Hell” and creating the modern brain.

I know Pinsky likes to create that jazz music effect but sometimes it feels like we’re viewing his poems through fly-vision: looking at the same object through a slightly different lens. The third stanza seemed gratuitous to me; an unnecessary repetition of the previous stanza; a stanza needless of repeating; the stanza of third where the repeating machine is making of the unnecessary.

But the overall extended metaphor–the creative process, which is the main thread of his prominent poem, “The Figured Wheel“– is, I think, original and well done. I (heart) figurative language.

Postscript bullets of observation:
It’s a boy! (the little newborn god, that is).

When I think of “cloven brainflesh” I think of the devil trampling my brain with his neat, single-file hoofprints.

Further reading

An interview with Guernica.

Another interview.

A Washington Post review of Gulf Music.

…and one from the NY Times.

Pinsky’s 1999 Stanford U. Commencement speech.