Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poet-critics. Often called the last of the “civic” or public poets, Pinsky’s criticism and verse reflect his concern for a contemporary poetic diction that nonetheless speaks of a wider experience. Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, his tenure was marked by ambitious efforts to prove the power of poetry—not just as an intellectual pursuit in the ivory tower, but as a meaningful and integral part of American life. “I think poetry is a vital part of our intelligence, our ability to learn, our ability to remember, the relationship between our bodies and minds,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “Poetry’s highest purpose is to provide a unique sensation of coordination between the intelligence, emotions and the body. It’s one of the most fundamental pleasures a person can experience.” Calling Pinsky “a successful and assiduous poet laureate,” New York Times Book Review correspondent Adam Kirsch added: “The tasks of the public poet usually suit him well, because his intelligence seems, at bottom, less lyrical than discursive, even didactic. This poetic mode is much less favored now than in the past, but as Pinsky proves, it is still able to give pleasure.”
In his volumes of criticism, Pinsky presents his views on the nature of poetry. In The Situation of Poetry, he writes of the poet’s need to “find a language for presenting the role of a conscious soul in an unconscious world.” This emphasis on the actual leads Pinsky to see contemporary poetry as far more continuous with earlier poetry than many critics would believe. As Denis Donoghue remarked in the New York Times Book Review, Pinsky “believes, and is pleased to show, that contemporary poetry exhibits more continuity than change.” In Poetry and the World, Pinsky expands on his concept of poetry and, in a series of essays, examines the impact words have had on his own life. “Even the autobiographical digressions demonstrate a heartening sense of vocation,” declared Amy Edith Johnson in the New York Times Book Review. “Mr. Pinsky’s honorable practice confirms the dignity and creative dimension of ... the function of criticism at the present time."
The Sounds of Poetry is a slim volume that can serve as a primer on the mechanics of poetry and also as a “treatise on the social functions of poetry,” according to James Longenbach in the Nation. Atlantic Monthly contributor David Barber noted that The Sounds of Poetry “is an achievement for which there is surprisingly little precedent: an authoritative yet accessible introduction to the tools of the poet’s trade that can be read with profit by the serious student and the amateur alike.” Barber characterized the volume as “less that of a solemn classroom lecture than that of a spirited audio tour, with Pinsky offering up various devices and motifs for inspection and providing a lively running commentary on how to fine-tune the ear to respond to the distinctive verbal energies that make poetry ‘poetic.’“ In Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Pinsky resumes his examination of poetry’s necessity to contemporary, democratic culture. Reviewing the book for The New Republic, David Bromwich wrote, “One is never in any doubt about the tendency of Pinsky’s argument. He urges appreciation not of what the poet does in writing a poem, but of what the poet does in reading it. The poet mainly counts as one more reader. So, too, Pinsky’s idea of the place of poetry in democratic culture comes from an image of someone reading a poem to an audience.”
In his own poetry, Pinsky has followed the principles set out in his criticism. “In Pinsky’s poetry and criticism,” explained Willard Spiegelman, “there lies an abiding unity, of which the principal ingredients are ethical ambition, sanity, a sense of humor, and something to say.” Critics of Pinsky’s first collection, Sadness and Happiness, compared the work to Ranier Marie Rilke, James Wright, and Robert Lowell. Yale Review contributor Louis L. Martz declared that “Pinsky is the most exhilarating new poet that I have read since A. R. Ammons entered upon the scene.” Pinsky’s second volume was the book-length poem, An Explanation of America. Like Robert Lowell, Pinsky attempted to understand American history through a comparison to ancient Rome. “Not the least remarkable thing about Robert Pinsky’s remarkable [book],” stated Michael Hamburger in the Nation, “is that it seems to defy not only all the dominant trends in contemporary poetry but all the dominant notions—both American and non-American—of what is to be expected of an American poet.” “In its philosophical approach, classical learning, and orderly structure,” remarked Hudson Review contributor James Finn Cotter, An Explanation of America “resembles the work of William Cullen Bryant more than that of Hart Crane, but it is not old-fashioned. It is as American as Bryant’s and Crane’s long poems, as embedded in the past, and as identified with the woods and prairies.”
Pinsky continued his examination of history—sometimes national, sometimes personal—in two later collections of poetry. “History of My Heart” observed J. D. McClatchy in the New Republic, “was Pinsky’s breakthrough, and my guess is that it will come to be seen as one of the best books of the past decade.” The best poems in Pinsky’s 1990 collection, The Want Bone, according to McClatchy, “are more personal. They do not wrestle with religious angels or intellectual demons, the myths imposed on us by tradition. Instead, they address the self, those autobiographical myths we make out of memories.”
The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 “will remind readers that here is a poet who, without forming a mini-movement or setting himself loudly at odds with the dominant tendencies of American poetry, has brought into it something new,” maintained Katha Pollitt in the New York Times Book Review. Paul Breslin felt that The Figured Wheel “signals a major turn in Pinsky’s stylistic development.... [In] its hurling together of the apocalyptic and vast with the mundane and the particular, it fairly bristles with linguistic energy.” Pollitt claimed: “What makes Mr. Pinsky such a rewarding and exciting writer is the sense he gives, in the very shape and structure of his poems, of getting at the depths of human experience, in which everything is always repeated but also always new.”
Pinsky’s interest in poetry that mixed contemporary speech with wide-ranging subject matter led him in 1994 to publish a new translation of Dante’s Inferno. He had been asked, with a group of nineteen other poets, to participate in a reading of the poem at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City in May of 1993. Pinsky became fascinated with the work of the thirteenth-century Italian poet. “It just gripped me, like a child with a new video game,” he told the New York Times. “I literally couldn’t stop working on it.” “I’m not fluent in Italian, but I love languages,” Pinsky continued in an interview with the New York Times Book Review. “This was like being a child with a new toy. I called the translation a feat of metrical engineering, and I worked obsessively. It’s the only writing I have ever done where it’s like reading yourself to sleep each night. We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night.”
Despite the fact that about fifty English-language translations of the Inferno have been published in the 20th century alone, critics largely celebrated Pinsky’s work. “The primary strength of this translation,” declared Edward Hirsch, “is the way it maintains the original’s episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character. It is no small achievement to reproduce Dante’s rhyme scheme and at the same time sound fresh and natural in English, and Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante’s vernacular music where many others have failed.” “His skill and power as a poet inform every line of this splendid translation,” stated John Ahern in the New York Times Book Review. “He shapes sinewy lines whose edges you can actually hear. This is true verse, not the typographical arrangement of poetic prose... [I]f he does not quite attain Dante’s full symphonic range, no one has come closer.”
Pinsky was named poet laureate in 1997 and served until 2000. The position carries a modest stipend, but its appeal lies in its visibility to the general public. Formerly a retiring person, Pinsky became a public figure, and he used the notoriety to promote a new project. Under his direction, ordinary Americans were invited to name their favorite poems, and some entrants were asked to read for a permanent audio archive at the Library of Congress. Pinsky set a goal of recording one hundred people, but he was inundated with letters and e-mails from all over the nation, and those participating represented all ages, all walks of life, and all levels of education. “The Favorite Poem Project is partly to demonstrate that there is more circulation of poetry and more life of poetry than there might seem with the stereotype,” Pinsky explained in the Progressive. “I must say that the Favorite Poem readings, beyond my expectation, are very moving.”
With Maggie Dietz, Pinsky edited a representative volume of reader responses called Americans’ Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology. A Publishers Weekly reviewer stated that “the selections are as diverse as the nation that chose them.” Americans’ Favorite Poems proved so popular that two subsequent collections have appeared: Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology and An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman called Poems to Read “a graceful, sometimes jubilant, sometimes lyrical, sometimes brooding, but always welcoming and stirring collection.”Jersey Rain, published in 2000, was Pinsky’s first collection of completely new work since The Want Bone appeared a decade earlier. Reviewing the work in Library Journal, Christian Graham observed that Pinsky’s poems range from the mythic to the confessional. “Occasionally, his differing manners collide strangely,” Graham stated, “but Pinsky delivers, as ever, intelligent, pensive poetry of great beauty.” Pinsky’s latest book, Gulf Music, was published to wide acclaim in 2007. In a review for the New York Times, Joel Brouwer wrote that the collection was “not just an argument for but a demonstration of contemporary poetry’s necessity and vitality in our democracy.” Citing Pinsky’s influence as a critic and “American civic poet,” Brouwer continued: “Pinsky is our finest living specimen of this sadly rare breed, and the poems of “Gulf Music” are among the best examples we have of poetry’s ability to illuminate not only who we are as humans, but who we are — and can be — as a nation.”
Paul Breslin has commented that Pinsky “has emerged as the finest American poet-critic since Randall Jarrell”; Joel Brouwer that “[n]o other living American poet — no other living American, probably — has done so much to put poetry before the public eye.” For his own part, the last American poet laureate of the 20th century told the Progressive: “I think the rhythms in a lot of my writing are an attempt to create that feeling of a beautiful, gorgeous jazz solo that gives you more emotion and some more and coming around with some more, and it’s the same but it’s changed, and the rhythm is very powerful, but it is also lyricism. I think I’ve been trying to create something like that in my writing for a long time.”
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, assistant professor of humanities, 1967-68; Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, associate professor of English, 1968-80; University of California, Berkeley, professor of English, 1980-88; Boston University, Boston, MA, professor of English and creative writing, 1988—. Visiting lecturer, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1979-80; Hurst Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 1981.
- Sadness and Happiness, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1975.
- An Explanation of America, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1979.
- History of My Heart, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1984.
- The Want Bone, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1990.
- (Translator) The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation, illustrations by Michael Mazur, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
- The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
- Jersey Rain, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
- Gulf Music: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2007
- Landor's Poetry, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1968.
- The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1976.
- Robert Pinsky (recording), New Letters (Kansas City, MO), 1983.
- (Translator, with Robert Hass) Czeslaw Milosz, The Separate Notebooks, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1984.
- Amy Clampitt and Robert Pinsky Reading Their Poems (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1984.
- Poetry and the World, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1988.
- Dorothy Barresi and Robert Pinsky Reading Their Poems (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1992.
- The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress: Robert Pinsky (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1995.
- Digital Culture and the Individual Soul (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1997.
- The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
- (Collector) The Handbook of Heartbreak: 101 Poems of Lost Love and Sorrow, Rob Weisbach Books (New York, NY), 1998.
- Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Robert Pinsky Reading His Poems in the Montpelier Room, Library of Congress, May 7, 1998, Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1998.
- Poetry and American Memory (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1998.
- Sharing the Gifts: Readings by 1997-2000 Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Robert Pinsky, 1999-2000 Special Poetry Consultants Rita Dove, Louise Glück, W. S. Merwin, 1999 Witter Bynner Fellows David Gewanter, Campbell McGrath, Heather McHugh (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1999.
- Robert Pinsky Reading Selections from the Anthology, "Americans' Favorite Poems, the Favorite Poem Project," and Discussing Them in the Mumford Room, Library of Congress, October 7, 1999 (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1999.
- The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress—Favorite Poets (recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1999.
- (Author of introduction) David Noevich Goberman, Carved Memories: Heritage in Stone from the Russian Jewish Pale, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 2000.
- (Editor, with Maggie Dietz) Americans' Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.
- (Selector) Cate Marvin, World's Tallest Disaster: Poems, Sarabande Books (Louisville, KY), 2001.
- (Editor, with Maggie Dietz) Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
- Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2002.
- A Favorite Poem Reading with Frank Bidart, Louise Glück, and Robert Pinsky (recording), Recorded Sound Reference Center (Washington, DC), 2003.
- (Editor) William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems, Library of America (New York, NY), 2004.
- (Editor, with Maggie Dietz) An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of articles and poems to American Review, American Poetry Review, Antaeus, Poetry, Shenandoah, and Yale Review. Poetry editor, New Republic, 1978-86, and Slate.com.
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 9, 1978, Volume 19, 1981, Volume 38, 1986.
- Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
- Poetry for Students, Volume 18, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
- Spiegelman, Willard, The Didactic Muse, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1989.
- American Poetry Review, July-August, 2003, Tony Hoaglund, "Three Tenors: Gluck, Hass, Pinsky, and the Deployment of Talent," pp. 37-42.
- American Scholar, spring, 1999, Adam Kirsch, review of The Sounds of Poetry, p. 140.
- Atlantic Monthly, March, 1999, David Barber, "What Makes Poetry 'Poetic?'," p. 114; October, 1999, p. 6.
- Booklist, June 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poems Project Anthology, p. 1670.
- Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 1998, Marjorie Coeyman, "Poet Laureate's Request: Lend Me Your Voices," p. B8.
- Georgia Review, spring, 1985.
- Hudson Review, spring, 1980, pp. 131-145.
- Library Journal, May 1, 2000, Graham Christian, review of Jersey Rain, p. 118; July 1, 2002, Daniel L. Guillory, review of Poems to Read, p. 85; October 15, 2002, Scott Hightower, review of Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, p. 73.
- Life, October, 1998, Melissa Faye Greene and Jillian Edelstein, "Poetry U.S.A.," p. 114.
- Nation, January 26, 1980, pp. 86-87; September 21, 1998, James Longenbach, review of The Sounds of Poetry, p. 34.
- New Republic, September 24, 1990, pp. 46-48; October 28, 2002, David Bromwich, "The Roughs and Beards," p. 25.
- New Yorker, January 23, 1995, pp. 87-90.
- New York Times, January 31, 1995, pp. B1, B2.
- New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1977, Denis Donoghue, review of The Situation of Poetry; July 23, 1989, Amy Edith Johnson, review of Poetry and the World, p. 19; September 25, 1994, "A Man Goes Into a Bar, See, and Recites: 'The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained,'" pp. 15-16; January 1, 1995, Lynn Karpen, "A Fear of Metrical Engineering," and John Ahern, "Vulgar Eloquence," p. 3; August 18, 1996, Katha Pollitt, "World of Wonders"; April 9, 2000, Adam Kirsch, "Vox Populi."
- Poetry, October, 1990, pp. 39-41; July, 1997, Paul Breslin, review of The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996, p. 226; August, 1999, Christian Wiman, review of The Sounds of Poetry, p. 286.
- Progressive, May, 1999, Anne-Marie Cusac, "Robert Pinsky," p. 35.
- Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1999, "Home Grown," p. 77; March 6, 2000, review of Jersey Rain, p. 105.
- TriQuarterly, winter, 1994, "A Conversation with Robert Pinsky," pp. 21-37.
- Utne Reader, September-October, 1999, Anne-Marie Cusac, "Robert Pinsky's Grand Slam," p. 98.
- World Literature Today, autumn, 1989, pp. 751-752; autumn, 2000, Lee Oser, review of Jersey Rain, p. 820.
- Writer, November, 1999, Susan Kelly, "An Interview with Robert Pinsky," p. 18.
- Yale Review, autumn, 1976.
- Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (August 10, 2004), "Robert Pinsky."
- Boston University Web site, http:// www.bu.edu/ (October 17, 2003).
- Favorite Poem Project Web site, http://www.favoritepoem.org/ (November 22, 2000).
- Poetry & Literature Center of the Library of Congress Web site, http://www.loc.gov/poetry/poetry.html (August 9, 2004).*
Poems By ROBERT PINSKY
More poems by Robert Pinsky (28 poems)
- Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant
- Discretions of Alcibiades
- Doctor Frolic
- Embassy Architecture
- Essay on Psychiatrists
- Gulf Music
- History of My Heart
- Impossible to Tell
- Poem about People
- Poem of Disconnected Parts
- Ralegh’s Prizes
- Stupid Meditation on Peace
- Summoning the Personal Devil
- The Destruction of Long Branch, N. J.
- The Hearts
- The View from the Road
- Voyage to the Moon
Translated By Robert Pinsky
Articles By ROBERT PINSKY
- No Tiara, No Crown
What do you do when Milosz tells you, "The pope liked this poem very much"?
Audio & PodcastsPoem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day The Poetry Magazine Podcast
Meat Wants Sweet
Poetry from Robert P. Baird, Wilmer Mills, Connie Voisine, Sandra Simonds, plus a libretto by Robert Pinsky, and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist on poetry and the brain.
The Post-Secular Age
Poems and prose by Robert Pinsky, José Antonio Rodríguez, Connie Voisine, and Philip Metres in the February issue of Poetry magazine.
Robert Pinsky speaking on “Modernism and Memory” at the Key West Literary Seminar.
Robert Pinsky: Essential American Poets
Recordings of former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, with an introduction to his life and work. Recorded in 2007, in studio, Boston, MA.
VideoNewsHour Poetry Series
- Catching Up With Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky
Much of former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's writing has focused on American life. He takes a look back at his career with Jeffrey Brown.
LIFE SPAN 1940–