Jim Schley's Essays

Poetry’s Voice and Human Solidarity: Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky, Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Author of translations, anthologies, and criticism as well as six volumes of poetry, including his magisterial The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, from 1997 through 2000 Robert Pinsky was a particularly energetic U.S. poet laureate.

During that tenure, he launched a popular multimedia documentary venture, the Favorite Poem Project, which solicited nominations and then readings from many Americans of poems they found meaningful.

Pinsky’s new book  of essays originated as a suite of lectures he delivered in 2001 at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values. 

This brief, luminescent volume, published as a handsome little hardcover, poses a question that many readers will recognize as urgent: What is the ongoing social (that is, more than personal) role of the ancient art of poetry, especially in a democracy? 

Pinsky argues that Americans suffer from countervailing yearnings ― for autonomy on the one hand (recoiling from the homogeneity of mass society) and unanimity on the other. Despite our popular culture’s emphasis on self-reliance and independence, as a people we often appear drastically anxious to blend into the crowd, abiding by very conventional mores, theologies, work and family structures, clothing and grooming. 

As Pinsky observes, while we’re pressed to submit and conform, we feel compelled to keep asserting our individuality. As a result, we suffer from contradictory terrors: dread of either being absorbed into an anonymous conglomerate or dispersed in our separate "identities": isolated, lacking a sense of kinship with an encompassing community. 

This is a state Pinsky sees as: "a vicious, tribalized factionalism, the coming apart of civic fabrics through fragmentation, ranging from the tremendous, paranoid brutalities of ethnic cleansing and ruthless terrorism to the petty division of mass culture into niches. Religious difference, racial difference, linguistic difference, even generational difference can seem compounded and hypertrophied by information-age forces."

In his new book, Pinsky’s rhetorical dueling partner is the early 18th-century French social historian Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, who after traveling through the country wrote, "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests ― in one word, so anti-poetic ― as the life of a man in the United States." Of Americans’ oft-noted lack of historical sensibility, Tocqueville laments, "Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." 

Pinsky responds by invoking the dynamism and eclecticism of market-driven democracy, contrasted with Tocqueville’s aristocratic model. "To be thrown back ‘forever’ on oneself," Pinsky counters, "suggests a degree of mobility, a freedom from constraint and dependence, that is potentially exhilarating as well as deranging: a liberation, as well as a void."

Though he bemoaned our cultural superficiality, Tocqueville acknowledged that "the principle of equality does not, then, destroy all the subjects of poetry: it renders them less numerous, but more vast."

Democracy in America describes a time before the watershed era of Dickinson and Whitman, Melville and Hawthorne and Twain. What these Americans brought to the page was a new voice, never heard before. 

Voice is a human character expressed as sound. In Pinsky’s view, "Poetry reflects, perhaps even concentrates, the American idea of individualism as it encounters the American experience of the mass ― because the art of poetry by its nature operates on a level as profoundly individual as a human voice."

In his 1998 book, "The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide," Pinsky traces the phrasing and sonic unfolding of a group of sample poems memorable for their audible complexity and power. The most exhilarating sections of Pinsky’s new book again display his gifts as a guide to close reading and listening. These are the means ― sound in movement, experienced aloud ― by which the greatest poems rise clear above the ordinary clatter and din.

Pinsky is extraordinarily capable of describing what actually occurs ― in the ear, on the tongue, in the mind and pulse ― under the impact of poems. By examining illuminating passages, including examples from Frost, Oppen, Bishop, and Robinson (the staggering "Eros Turannos," quoted whole), Pinsky shows how poems make sense of tumultuous, unpredictable, even crazed existence. The enjoined cadences of words and rhythms that comprise a poetic voice convey sensations of human contact, fusing individual awareness with another consciousness. 

Pinsky believes that poetry achieves such fusion more completely than any other artistic medium. Whereas the visual arts and music are essentially abstract, and while fiction narrates events we experience indirectly and plays present situations as if overheard, when reading poems our very own voices are the instruments of expression, embodying someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and insights.

In the Favorite Poem Project, that convergence of public and personal, Pinsky and his colleagues demonstrated that many, many readers ― regular folks ― have intense and enduring relationships with poems. Some critics of the Favorite Poem anthology and subsequent video have bemoaned the "narcissism" of many participants, their tendency to say "This poem is about me." Yet what is that but a confirmation of empathy and communion?  

While a lyric poem may seem by definition and tradition to be a solo effusion, the upwelling of one person’s rapture or grief or rage, Pinsky is convinced that in the startling directness of a speaking voice which is not just "narration" but a poem’s very substance, we can hear "the tidal forces within lyric poetry that draw it toward social reality." 

Could immersion in poetry from a young age make us more alert and engaged citizens?  

Pinsky sees an ability to read and write, to understand others and express ourselves as we really are, as integral to being able to glean meaning from the world. 

"Possibly the difficulty many people have in writing sentences manifests a lack of bodily exercise, breath executing patterns of meaning. We try to correct the condition with drills and abstract instructions. Why and how might a professional soldier like Ulysses S. Grant come to write so well? Could it reflect the fact that nineteenth-century Americans recited a lot of poetry, so the mimesis of meaning came into the region we designate as in our bones or under our skin?"

And while clearly seeing heroism in poetry’s way of vaulting over the boundaries that divide us, Pinsky distinguishes that role from moral crusading. 

"Poetry is not the voice of virtue and right thinking ― not the rhyme department of any progressive movement. The turns of verse, between justified and ragged, the regular and the unique, the spoken and the implied, the private and the social, profoundly embody not a moral but a cultural quest for life between a barren isolation on one side and an enveloping mass on the other. That quest is the action of poetry’s voice."

― Published in abbreviated form in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 2, 2003