Feb 6, 2008

A Single Poem Reaches the General Culture

Rarely has a single poem garnered so much attention in the general intellectual culture. The poem is entitled “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” which is the work of Robert Pinsky (pictured), whose recent widely-reviewed collection is entitled Gulf Music. Pinsky was a student of Yvor Winters’s in the 1960s, in the last years of Winters’s life, when he was getting, it has seemed, even more crotchety than he had been for most of his life. I have commented a couple times on Pinsky on this blog. Some consider him a Wintersian, a follower of Yvor Winters in some sense, though I do not. He certainly doesn’t write anything even close to what I would consider classical poetry.

In major publications on the web, you can find at least a dozen reviews or essays on this poem and the collection that it appears in. Google or another search engine will help you find them. Just this week, the New York Times Book Review came out with its review of Gulf Music and devoted considerable space (two long paragraphs, which is a massive amount for one poem in that paper) to “Poem of Disconnected Parts.” You can find the poem in several locations on the web as well, though I intend to reprint it when I consider it.

That a poem by a one-time student of Winters has generated so much comment is an important event. Hence, I feel that I must offer a consideration of the poem, which I will have ready shortly. You can probably guess, if you have spent any time reading this blog and have read the poem, that I think this poem is very far from a good poem, though it isn’t worthless junk, certainly. Pinsky does appear to have made a serious effort at understanding and trying to inspire us to do something about the injustice of wrongful imprisonment by the U.S. government. The title of the poem is clearly -- and rather unfortunately -- ironic, in that all the poem’s disheveled parts are indeed connected, though in a very loose way. In the meantime, you can find my previous brief comments on Pinsky through the search box at the top of this front page and find the poem by searching through Google.

It’s worth noting that the discussion of Pinsky’s poem has provided the occasion for one of the funniest comments on Yvor Winters I recall in recent decades. Poet and critic William Logan (whom I have also mentioned on this blog) reviewed Gulf Music in the New Criterion recently. He received a letter objecting to his review, and his reply to the letter has been published in the most recent New Criterion. In that reply, Logan goaded the letter-writer with the claim that he would rather watch Yvor Winters break-dance than Robert Pinsky try to use playful nonsense words. Just that one flash of Yvor Winters -- a jowly, thickset, gray-suited, pipe-puffing, furrow-browed professor -- break-dancing was thoroughly amusing.

I probably won’t go into detail on William Logan’s take on Gulf Music, though I do want to take a moment to comment on one general aspect of criticism that I find irritating and unwarranted. Logan complains of Pinsky’s earnest tone. Critics often complain similarly about some general feel of an artist’s work that doesn’t appeal to them. They often imply, as Logan does, that no poem should be written in such a tone. Such a tone, they imply, SHOULDN’T appeal to anyone. But I think there is room enough in the vast world of arts and letters for earnest writing (even for preaching and didacticism, God forbid), as much as for experimental play and downright childishness, among many other styles and tones. Though I favor classicism, though I believe classicism to yield our finest artworks, I try to stay away from thinking that everyone must write in a single way or single set of ways. If Robert Pinsky wishes to write with a politically earnest tone rather than in an engagingly playful manner, he is welcome to do as he thinks best. We already have masses of poets who are playful aplenty. Some earnestness can be good, no? Maybe a lot of earnestness[1]. Now, let me be clear, I’m not LIKELY to think the playful great art or fine writing, the best that can be done -- but playful has its place. Critics need to back off on extraneous points.


1. This raises the issue of expectations, what we look for when we take a poem in hand. In general, readers no longer look to poetry for political comment. We tend to think overt political comment or advice or opinion is inappropriate to poetry. Further, modern critical theory across the arts and letters disapproves, generally, of what is called “preaching,” overt counsel, recommendation, or exhortation. It is even generally thought inartistic, bad form, to “preach” in ANY way. This rather large theoretical issue needs some close study, for Winters spoke on occasion about the matter in his essays.

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