Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Rhode Island, Boston, and Robert Pinsky

Since returning from six months in London to the US in early April, I’ve had an outpatient operation to free a pinched nerve in the spine that was causing back and leg pain.  There needed to be some down time for recovery, and so, apart from physical therapy to regain strength, I haven’t done much here in southern Rhode Island except rest and make excursions to the seashore, never far away in the Ocean State.  People sometimes express curiosity as to why I live in the smallest of the fifty when I’m in the US and "smallest" is in itself part of the answer.  It seems I’ve come to adopt a contrarian approach to a lot of things. Why?  Because the standard m.o. for our supposed American dreams, goals and deeds, active for a century, has led us to the brink of failure as a nation. The American Way is to do everything on the biggest and most expensive scale possible.  
The representative American believes in cutthroat competition, getting rich (especially by bonuses), driving as fast and as rudely and dangerously as you can to shave ten seconds off a twenty-minute trip, the accumulation of as many toys as possible before one's expiration date. The fundamental attitude is, “Get out of the way, because I am the best.”  So for me small is good, just as non-competitive is good. I own practically nothing, neither house nor car, just a few books, CDs, clothes, and a computer.  I rent, I use public transport, and the public library. I don’t suffer from stress, and I don’t expect a lot of attention to be paid to me. Competition is the micro version of the macro wars that have become so popular lately as powerful individuals and nations of the world try to beat each other out of available goods and services instead of cooperating in a reciprocally interested way. The result hasn’t been good either for the modern West or for the exploited planet.  So why not take the opposite tack from what has been considered proper conduct and suitable aspiration up to now? Why not care less about conventional measures of success?  If we’re male, why not share power with women, and if white, with people of color?  Possibly we’d see some real improvement in the way things are going. To return to the micro level, it’s nice if I can write something that is topnotch, but it’s equally nice if someone else does. 

The one public event of the past month was an appearance at the New England Institute of Art in Brrookline. To arrange the reading, my Cambridge/Boston friend Jason Roush had put me in touch with David Blair, who teaches creative writing there and we agreed on a May 24th date.  I got to Boston shortly after eleven on that day and walked outside South Station to where Robert Pinsky, a friend for more than three decades now, was expecting me in his black car.  He looked well, and off we drove to for lunch in Cambridge at a Taiwanese place Robert said the novelist Ha Jin had recommended to him.  I always enjoy seeing Robert, partly because of his quick, warm intelligence and partly because it’s a pleasure to know someone generally recognized as among the very small number of world-class American poets of our era.  If his name doesn’t appear on the roster of Pultizer, NBA, or NBBC prizewinners, that’s not the fault of his work.  He has just published a magisterial Selected Poems, which, even so, I told him I found too severely pruned. I’d have preferred a more inclusive volume, but he reminded me that the earlier books are all in print, and said he wanted to put out an affordable book that would serve as an introduction to new readers.  Fair enough.

Robert Pinsky

To reread his startlingly original work for me is to relive my experience as a poet going back nearly four decades.  Robert’s first book, Sadness and Hapiness appeared in 1976, the same year as mine (titled All Roads at Once).  The YMHA in New York had in those years a program called “Introduction,” whereby four books were chosen by senior poets as the best first books of the year. The 1976 poets were Tess Gallagher, Maura Stanton, Robert, and myself. We were all invited to read at the Y, and that was the occasion when Robert and I first met. I immediately recognized him as an important new talent, and wanted to be his friend. Actually, I wrote a detailed review of his second book, An Explanation of America (collected later in a book of essays titled The Metamorphoses of Metaphor).  And then in the 90s, I wrote a review of The Figured Wheel, which was Robert’s first collected poems.  Over the years, we’ve kept in touch and I remember many glowing reunions, beginning with an evening dedicated to American poetry at the White House during the Carter Administration.  That’s when I met Ellen, to whom Robert is married. I also recall seeing him in Berkley, when he taught there, and in Oklahoma, when I was teaching at the U. of Tulsa, and he was the featured poet in the Cimarron Review literary festival.  Another time I called on him at his summer place in Truro.  I’ve also attended many readings of his, and we’ve met in Boston a couple of times.  I don’t know how Robert keeps on the go as much as he does. Apart from his writing, he gives several readings every month, keeps in touch with the Favorite Poem Project (which he launched when he was Poet Laureate), and teaches writing at B.U.  For a couple of years now, he has been giving poetry readings accompanied by a jazz combo, a format that was popular among the Beat poets back in the 1950s, but then became rare: the Rebirth of the Cool in the 21st century, we might say.  Robert is also poetry editor at Slate magazine, where he emcees online forums about classic poems.  As one of the few contemporary poets who has a regular doctoral degree in English lit (his grad school mentor was Yvor Winters), Robert knows the tradition very well and has a special affinity for Renaissance figures like Fulke Greville and the 19th century poet Landor, about whom he write an engaging critical book.  

He seemed glad for me that the spinal operation was a success.  We talked about mutual friends, discussed new books, exchanged a few jokes. And that was our meeting. He dropped me off near Harvard Square, as I had some free time before the next appointment.  I strolled around the Square, noting familiar landmarks, and dropped in at Grolier Books on Plympton Street to introduce myself to the new proprietor, a friendly woman named Carol Menkiti. Then it was time to go to Brookline Village, where Jason Roush was waiting for me.   I hadn’t seen Jason since March when he came to lunch in London (he makes an annual trip there during spring break).  Jason was introduced to this blog back in April of 2009, for those who want to look him up, and his books are available online at Amazon.  Teaching courses now at the NIE, he had planned for me to speak to one of them that afternoon, and so I did, a little surprised at how interested the students seemed to be. 

Next on the schedule was dinner with David Blair (author of a first book of poems titled Ascension Days), and Paul Rivenberg, who was putting me up that night.  After a good Venezuelan meal, it was time to go to the room at the NIE where I was to read.  Many students from the afternoon class showed up, and one or two faculty members, and Kevin Cutrer, whom I know from Facebook but had never met face to face. After the reading and a few books signed, I spoke to Tom Yuill, author of a first book titled Medicine Show. He studied with Robert Pinsky and Rosanna Warren and now teaches creative writing himself.

Next morning Paul and I had breakfast, and we talked until it was time for him to go off to work. Not long after, Jason arrived to spend the first part of the day together.  We walked to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I’ve visited many times of course, but I wanted to see the new wing, recently built to house the MFA's “Art of the Americas.”  A soberly handsome addition, faced with white marble interrupted by glazing in a faintly greenish tint.  Jason and I hit the high spots of the collection, familiar works like Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which seems to encapsulate the subject matter and tone of the Brown Decades, as recorded by Henry James, not to mention Howells, Wharton, and, elsewhere, Sargent himself.  I’ll also mention Copley’s iconic portrait of Paul Revere, a patriot suddenly in the news again because of Sarah Palin’s mixup about which side his lantern was giving a warning to during the famous midnight ride.  (One if by land and ignorant, two if by sea and scatterbrained.) Judging from Revere’s shrewd and steady gaze, I could well imagine what he might have felt before “refudicating” Palin’s various bloopers over the past few years. Still, as portrayed by Copley, the craftsman’s hands clasped the silver teapot he had made, his strong fingers (with the sort of attention to detail we associate with Vermeer) perfectly reflected in its polished surface.   
Paul Revere, by John Singleton Copley


  1. Alfred, I haven't read your words on early Pinsky in a long time. Thanks for this. Referring to Pinsky poems readily available online, "a chained alphabet of tokens" stands out in Ode to Meaning. I've got to pick up his books again and dig in.

    Nice lines about the MFA's portrait of Revere, as well. What a name.

    Do you agree that we are still too timid in our claims for the importance of poetry, of literature? Human consciousness requires symbol, metaphor. We spend 1/3 of our lives dreaming, or we lose our minds.

    But our waking efforts to rearrange our symbols, to incline them toward better versions of us, are rarely assiduous enough. Our quiet appreciation of the best work won't be enough, I propose. We do best making the most audacious claims for great work. We do best taking hold of the metaphors that run our lives, and refactoring them fundamentally.

    Pinsky's chained alphabet of tokens amazes me. We need a freer verse, and your post, Alfred, reminds me to look carefully for it in one of the first places I found it.

  2. It's interesting to hear how that early essay on Pinsky came into being — it meant a lot to me when I was working on the Pinsky chapter of Laureates and Heretics.



  3. What a great couple of days with colleagues, old friends and poetry, poetry, poetry. I very much enjoyed this tour.

  4. Phil, I don't think I can respond to all the issues you raise. But I'm warmed by the enthusiasm in what you say. Bob, if anything I said was useful to you, I'm glad. A second piece on =The Figured Wheel= appeared a while back in =Boston Review=. But Pinsky continues to expand, and there is more to say since then.

  5. Enjoyed this post. Waiting for the next, eagerly. What's taking you so long, Boss?