Proving Irony by Compassion: The Poetry of Robert Pinsky

Article excerpt

If a critic today calls a poet "traditional" he or she almost always continues by saying, "Of course I mean traditional in the energetic sense, the forward sense, in the sense of not settling for safe pieties." And so flow the disclaimers. But the damage has already been done. "Traditional" seems a burdensome stamp, a coat of single, opaque color. Even used in an avant-garde context, as Harold Rosenberg used it in his resonant phrase, "the tradition of the new," it still tends to stigmatize, and that phrase hasn't had nearly the staying power you might expect. Not that people don't appreciate a paradoxical turn of phrase. But if we persist, as unfortunately we do, in dividing writers into two camps, the experimental and the traditional, it is still the latter that has all the explaining to do. And he who explains the most convinces the least.

Robert Pinsky is a traditional poet. What follows is an essay that will, I hope, serve as a disclaimer to eliminate the negative connotations of that label. Rather than begin by pointing to Pinsky's wide-ranging cultural sensibility, or his mastery of literary-historical knowledge, all of which will surface eventually, I should say at the start that this poet, in two books of criticism and three of poetry, stands out by virtue of his emotional rightness. Now such an attribute may be more stigmatizing in a cynical age than being called traditional. I mean by emotional rightness that balance of feeling and intelligence that is often hard-won but never agonized in its display. We live in an age, to put it mildly, that doesn't care much for tact. Emotional rightness is nearly a synonym for tact, but it adds to tact a sense of urgency, a willingness to break rules and transgress boundaries when necessary. It's a virtue difficult to discuss, having an ethical shape analogous to what Michael Polyani calls "tacit knowledge," that ingrained, "in-bodied" complex of awareness and standards that can't be quantified or easily transmitted. Pinsky has increasingly become a moral poet, that rarest of modern types, not by being a scourge or a satirist, but by returning to questions and matters of right and wrong, truth and error, and seeking to prove--more in the sense of test than vindication--his feelings about such matters. This is not to say (here comes a disclaimer) that his work has none of our contemporary concerns, such as fascination with popular culture, an obsessive interest in certain mythic topics, and a penchant for psychoanalytic assumptions about human behaviour. Pinsky draws on such concerns and more, but he manages to be personal without being confessional, sophisticated without" being glib, and knowledgeable without being world-weary or cutely playful.

Reading Pinsky offers positive delights as well as negative ones, however. His poetic language has many of the best features of good prose, as its connections and complexities flow from a straight-forward approach to his subjects. His subjects, especially in his latest book, History of My Heart, are chosen with an eye to both scale and variety. He can write about a visit to a concentration camp, his New Jersey childhood, Fats Waller, or an apocalyptic vision, all with deft control. As for his critical skills, his book on Walter Savage Landor might be taken as a model of how to approach a neglected, less-than-major figure and show his accomplishments and pertinence to a new generation of readers. His book on contemporary poetry was the first to offer intelligent scruples about those dominant verse conventions that had become rigidified by the middle of the nineteen-seventies. The book had a positive partisan core, as such books usually do, and lately Pinsky has been closely linked with some of his contemporaries, such as Robert Hass, James McMichael, and Frank Bidart. This group works on elective affinities, however, and their work has not been advanced by any manifesto or explicit program of shared styles or subjects. …