That said, let me turn, as promised, to that recent poem by Robert Pinsky that has garnered so much attention across literary culture in recent months. The attention is a remarkable occurrence for any single poem -- but more so, for me, because Pinsky was a former student of Yvor Winters near the end of his life in the 1960s. Some label Pinsky a Wintersian, but I don’t think he even comes close to qualifying as a classicist of any sort (as I argue elsewhere on this blog). Pinsky has little to do with Winters’s ideas and the style he promoted any longer, though there was a time that Pinsky made a feint or two toward the classicism that Winters stood for. With his latest collection, there is very little of anything classical left to his poetry. Reading his work has mostly become a dull chore, as has become my labors on this post.
Pinsky’s new book of poetry, Gulf Music, has been reviewed widely in literary publications, and one poem from that book, “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” has received an amazing amount of discussion. It might be the most widely discussed poem of the past two decades in American literary culture. Even writers outside poetry circles have been taking a look at it. The poem has been reprinted on many web sites, but here it is again for convenience:
Poem of Disconnected Parts
At Robben Island the political prisoners studied.
They coined the motto EACH ONE TEACH ONE.
In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as "PROFESOR."
Many of my friends are moved by guilt, but I
Am a creature of shame, I am ashamed to say.
Culture the lock, culture the key. Imagination
That calls the boiled sheep heads in the market "Smileys."
The first year at Guantanamo, Abdul Rahim Dost
Incised his Pashto poems into styrofoam cups.
"THE SANGOMO SAYS IN OUR ZULU CULTURE WE DO NOT
WORSHIP OUR ANCESTORS: WE CONSULT THEM."
Becky is abandoned in 1902 and Rose dies giving
Birth in 1924 and Sylvia falls in 1951.
Still falling still dying still abandoned in 2006
Still nothing finished among the descendants.
I support the War, says the comic, it's just the Troops
I'm against: can't stand those Young People.
Proud of the fallen, proud of her son the bomber.
Ashamed of the government. Skeptical.
After the Klansman was found Not Guilty one juror
Said she just couldn't vote to convict a pastor.
Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather.
"THE ANCESTORS SAY THE PROBLEM WITH YOUR KNEES
BEGAN IN YOUR FEET. IT COULD MOVE UP YOUR BACK."
But later the Americans gave Dost not only paper
And pen but books. Hemingway, Dickens.
Old Aegyptius said, Whoever has called this Assembly,
For whatever reason -- that is a good in itself.
O thirsty shades who regard the offering, O stained earth.
THERE ARE MANY FAKE SANGOMOS. THIS ONE IS REAL.
Coloured prisoners got different meals and could wear
Long pants and underwear, Blacks got only shorts.
No he says he cannot regret the three years in prison:
Otherwise he would not have written those poems.
I have a small-town mind. Like the Greeks and Trojans.
Shame. Pride. Importance of looking bad or good.
Did he see anything like the prisoner on a leash? Yes,
In Afghanistan. In Guantanamo he was isolated.
Our enemies "disassemble" says the President.
Not that anyone at all couldn't mis-speak.
The PROFESORES created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.
Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don't also write poetry.
Guilts, metaphors, traditions. Hunger strikes.
Culture the penalty. Culture the escape.
What could your children boast about you? What
Will your father say, down among the shades?
The Sangomo told Marvin, "YOU ARE CRUSHED BY SOME
WEIGHT. ONLY YOUR OWN ANCESTORS CAN HELP YOU."
Copyright Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Now, how do I as a Wintersian classicist believe we should we judge this work? First, it’s not poetry. It’s prose. A slack, pretentious prose. A New York Times reviewer described this as “relentless” blank verse. Huh? Is that a joke? I try to be charitable at all times, but this comment has to be one of the most idiotic or ignorant claims I have read about poetry in my entire life. This poem is not written in blank verse by any definition of the term. It can barely be described as verse at all. I will admit that since Pinsky’s generally sloppy lines are roughly equal in length and divided into couplets, with each couplet coming to a period close, you can construe this writing as a very loose, lazy sort of verse. So loose that it amounts to prose, in my judgment. But it is at least plausible that it could be defended as verse.
Turning to its structure, the poem does have a rather disheveled sort of organization, though it is nearly haphazard. The prose couplets of roughly equal length make a series of discreet declarative statements of various kinds that touch repeatedly on a set of broad themes. Beyond this, there is no structural principle. Such an approach is a severe weakness in any poem.
Now, I am aware that Pinsky is interested in jazz. He has even said in interviews and essays that he is trying to do with poetic language what jazz has done in music. The experiment has had some interesting results. But the experiment is mostly failing badly, as it has in this poem. Pinsky’s riffs are wholly inappropriate to serious poetic discourse, which Pinsky clearly wants to engage in. He writes as though he found a few brightly colored beans in a big jar and tossed them on a table for us. We readers are left to do the poet’s real work, the real writing, the real thinking -- making sense of the beans of life that might chance to catch a poet’s roving, rummaging eye. Nothing in this poem clearly indicates the way the beans are to be taken, which means we can take them in just about any way we like, which means that the exercise is just about pointless -- which means that this work of art, if such we agree (charitably) to call it, is just a scattering of beans. As you will see when I discuss themes, each bean stands as an observation or aside on a variety of notions, tossed on the table without evident order or structural purpose other than that they touch on certain broad themes almost at random. I find this structure very weak, truly almost insipid.
By the way, Pinsky mentions various people and situations without explanation. Some of these are perfect examples of a poetic weakness that Yvor Winters called pseudo-reference, which means talking about things that the writer doesn’t explain in enough detail to make sense of. For example, the people Becky, Rose, Sylvia, the comic, Dost, Marvin of the final couplet, and others are all pseudo-references. That’s fine. Sometimes scatterings of beans are mildly interesting or lightly pleasing for one reason or another. But let’s not confuse such scatterings with great or good or satisfying art.
As to style, Pinsky’s writing here and most everywhere else nowadays is quite slack and even pockmarked with clichés, which, as I will discuss below, has become his standard practice. Ignoring the clichés for the moment, I see nothing in the least distinguished about this writing. It reads like bland conversation, the lifeless prattling of someone who thinks far too much of himself. Pinsky has been writing in this limp, slovenly style for more than a decade now. I find it tedious. It certainly offers nothing eloquent or moving. Since readers of poetry usually love language, it is downright sad that there is nothing in Pinsky’s writing that might draw us in. He offers no formal coherence, no music, no eloquence. There are a couple mildly pleasing turns of phrase, I’ll admit, but so few that the poem mostly reads like the work of an average high school student.
Now, as to theme, the poem is wide open to interpretation, nearly infinitely open. That appears to be Pinsky’s intent, though we can only guess at intent. I could, anyone could, take a merry stab or two at what Pinsky is trying to say to us, but our varied guesses would amount to each of us telling himself what he thinks about these nearly haphazard remarks rather than coming to an understanding of what Robert Pinsky might be trying to tell us (presuming that he knows himself, which is questionable). For there is no clear indication in the poem of what Pinsky wants us to see or know or think about the themes.
Yet from what we can discern, the subject matter is serious. For this I applaud Pinsky. He appears, at the least, to be trying to say something important about social and political life. The misty subject matter of several of the couplets leads us to believe that Pinsky is trying to say something morally and politically serious about a handful of themes. These themes stand out because they are repeated, in Pinsky’s insufferable jazz-like manner. Unjust imprisonment is one such theme. Pinsky gives a few couplets on that subject, especially in the emphatic opening couplet that alludes to the lengthy imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. We guess (all we can do is guess) that Pinsky wants us to consider this imprisonment to be unjust and that, thus, one of the themes of this poem is governmental injustice. (The photo that accompanies this post is a shot of Mandela’s Robben Island cell.) Another implied central theme is shame. Pinsky indiscriminately plops in several couplets that seem, roughly, to concern shame, including the emphatic final couplet. But, at the end, when we try to fuse these jumbled, annoyingly jazzy observations on shame with the random comments on imprisonment, can we come up with anything thematically, conceptually solid? Just barely. Here’s my guess: Pinksy appears to be telling us that he is, and we should be, ashamed about unjust imprisonments and, presumably, other immoral methods of governmental control. For our society to get its governmental practices right, he appears to be saying, we need to tap into and act upon our feelings of shame, which can be rediscovered by trusting the wisdom of our ancestors. But the various comments on these themes do not properly cohere. We can only resort to guesswork.
You have my guess, but there are probably a thousand others just as valid. My main point is that whatever Pinsky is trying to say in this poem can only be guessed at. Indeed, he appears to have intended to make us guess, guess all we wish, make up our own meaning, rather than to make it clear what HE as author means. The reader is put in the situation of having to come up with what he or she thinks, reflecting on what “shame” or “ancestors” happens to mean to him or her in this woolly context. You do get the exceedingly vague sense that Pinsky disapproves and is ashamed of the practices of unjust imprisonment. But he offers no insight into this idea through this treatment of the notion. If a poet is going to make a statement so trite as that, he or she had better offer it in language that strongly adjusts the emotions to the proverbial statement. But, as I have argued, the writing is messy and insipid.
Pinsky appears to try to make a few aphoristic statements, as though he is interested in conceptual generalities, in moral principles. But his aphorisms have no bite because they are loose, vague, and slackly written. Consider for example the line “Culture the penalty. Culture the escape.” This seems to carry some weight. It is a generalized comment that we think might sum up an important turn in the argument. But when we reach the end, we realize that this statement about culture is so trivial that is saying almost nothing at all.
David Orr, a regular at the New York Times on poetry, has had little good to say about Yvor Winters (not that he is entirely negative), but Orr was on the mark about the common compositional mode of most poetry nowadays, which Robert Pinsky seems to be employing as a ritual:
[A certain poet’s] technique is a variation on the trendiest contemporary style, which relies heavily on disconnected phrases, abrupt syntactical shifts, attention-begging titles (“The Gem Is on Page Sixty-Four”), quirky diction (“orangery,” “aigrettes”), flickering italics, oddball openings (“The scent of pig is faint tonight”) and a tone ranging from daffy to plangent -- basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein. It’s not hard to write acceptable poetry in this mode, which is one of the reasons so many people make use of it. After all, poets need jobs, and for those, they need books -- and for those, well, they need poems.
That’s fairly close to a summary of the style and substance of “Poem of Disconnected Parts.” As you see, the poem is actually anti-communicative. It is not striving to communicate anything, any vision or theory or idea about injustice or imprisonment or shame or culture. It expects YOU, the reader, to communicate to yourself, to put together a puzzle of your own making, since the edges of the pieces are so uniform that they will fit together in any of a thousand arrangements. And it appears that Pinsky is smugly proud of what his poem is, as announced in the title. He appears to want his ideas and musings to be disconnected, so that we readers are forced to connect them in any way we wish. But this is an abdication of a writer’s central responsibility and opportunity, as Yvor Winters argued frequently about experimental poetry. The title is, moreover, obviously, tastelessly ironic. Yet the irony doubles back on Pinsky. For though Pinsky is being ironic in that he pompously thinks that his clumsy, sloppy observations CAN be indeed connected, though he obviously desires us to make up some connections on our own, his bland ideas truly are disconnected. They are just beans on a table. A blooming buzzing confusion.
Thus, the poem traduces one of the central principles of classicism -- order. If I spent time trying to impose what I think these couplets signify on the poem, I would find it to have been a waste of time, which might not be bad all in all. Sometimes you just waste time in life for the sake of diversion. The problem is that I don’t usually read literature in order to waste time. At the end of reading, say, George Herbert “Church Monuments,” I want to arrive at some deeper, powerful understanding, significantly deeper, and to feel my emotions aligned properly to that understanding. Herbert’s poem, for a great example, pays on the effort it takes to fathom the poet’s understanding. But I suspect strongly that “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” as with much of Pinsky’s poetry, is just a waste of time. There will never be a payoff, other than filling some time with idle reflection.
Now, is this a bad thing? Should this poem not exist? Should it not be read? Of course not, in answer to all three questions. But this doesn’t mean that the poem is good. I don’t think this poem deserved to be published, but somebody thought otherwise. It’s puzzling, even sad, but it has happened, and the classicist must live with it.
Before closing, I want to come back to Pinsky’s style. Is there anything in his diction or syntax that could be seen as rewarding, beans of particularly attractive hue or shape? I see almost nothing in this poem worth bothering with, worth trying to enjoy deeply or contemplate with care or meditate on with earnestness. But there is worse. What, for goodness sake, has been Pinsky’s purpose in turning to the strange and icky practice of using gobs of clichés and puns? When did Pinksy wander so far from a basic knowledge of good writing that he became enamored of the cliché in the way of the poseur. Look at me, he seems to be saying, I can use a cliché because when I use it, it isn’t one. Oh, puh-leassssse! Another nauseating example of this from Pinsky’s work is a poem published recently in the New Yorker, “The Saws,” in the February 11, 2008, issue. Here Pinsky uses clichés and puns to... what?... well, to bolster the use of clichés and puns:
The saying dead as a doornail is still dead as a doornail:
Whatever a doornail might be or was, long lost in the dark,
The dark, the dark -— not always deepest before dawn, Pal.
Back then, passing a graveyard you might actually whistle:
No walk in the park, a black back street back in the day.
Zombie expressions, Buddy, as thin as a spare dime.
Generated by generations they still stagger the castle,
Wan, rife. Benighted or bedazed by the March of Time,
Time, time. The old saws hardly ever anymore called saws:
Kiss the cat and you kiss the fleas. And That’s the story of my life.
Copyright The New Yorker
This is worse than lazy writing. It’s dopey, unworthy of a high school creative writing class. Pinsky appears to think (you can’t tell, obviously) that this shows intelligence -- a bit of the ol’ wit and wisdom. It shows exactly the opposite. The man has arrived at a point at which he has next to nothing to say. It’s a sad end for a student of Yvor Winters in near vapidity.
I conclude my long remarks with a quotation from William Logan, the poetry critic who writes often for the New Criterion. Logan recently reviewed Pinsky’s Gulf Music, in which “Poem of Disconnected Parts” appears. He received a letter objecting to his review and then made these sharp comments in his reply:
My complaint [about Robert Pinsky’s poetry] is that even in the poems that are deadly serious, like the “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” it may not be enough merely to invoke Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island or the murder of the desaparecidos. Such shallow references underestimate the poet’s labor and condescend to what he means to honor. It’s as if Shakespeare had just said, “Agincourt!” and left it at that. Context is all....
Amen and Amen. As much as I like to see a poem achieve wide attention in our culture, as much as I could have been pleased that the author of that poem was a student of Yvor Winters, we must move on from this sorry episode in contemporary poetry.