A Secret Mission

By Robert Pinsky on 4.29.09

Essential Pleasures has a secret mission. As I hope I’ve indicated all month, while writing about specific poems in this space, the main idea is to provide a lot of poems that people have enjoyed reading aloud. By my editorial standards of excellence, the range is from more-than-respectable to great works of art. In this announced purpose the book means to be attractive and useful for readers in general, including experts as well as newcomers to the art. I try for a balance between the familiar and the unexpected.

I have also had a second, implicit purpose: to provide an introduction to poetry; an introduction to the art based on experience, absolutely free of classroom exercises and classroom languages (fine in their place); terminology for figures of speech and forms; technical and theoretical matters; devices and instructions.

Here is the plan I suggest for the reader who wants an introduction to the art of poetry: begin reading Essential Pleasures at its beginning, with the poems in short lines. When you come to something you like, read it aloud at least two or three times. When you come to something that doesn’t appeal to you, turn the page and let that one await your possible return in a different mood. By reading the short (and thus more frequently recurring) lines first, you will improve your ability to hear lines. By reading aloud things you like, and discovering more of them, you will enhance your confidence in your own taste and understanding.

Moving from relatively short lines to longer lines will be instructive about form. Moving to the ballad will suggest some things about the interaction of form and meaning. My advice is to keep moving through the book, leaving for another time anything that doesn’t appeal and reading aloud any poem or lines you like, or feel moved by, or find memorable.

By the time you are reading love poems and stories, you will have a sense of how such categories are interesting, but a bit arbitrary. By the time you have progressed through the entire volume, all 488 pages, you will be ready to begin again, possibly with a different or expanded roster of favorites.

And that (I hope) will be an introduction to poetry, by means of poetry.

Editor’s Note: Readers who want to continue dialogue with Robert Pinsky should know that once a month, as poetry editor of the online magazine Slate, he posts a “Classic Poem” and enters the forum of Slate’s “Fray” to discuss the poem with readers.

topics: Essential Pleasures


Gabriel Friesen said on 4.29.09 at 3:22pm:

Mr. Pinsky, thank you for writing this month. It was a pleasure to read. So much so, that I went to hear you read at the Los Angeles library on the 22nd. I hope to see more in the future!

P. S. Have you translated Purgatorio and Paradiso yet? Your Inferno is marvelous!

Robert Pinsky's avatar

Robert Pinsky said on 4.30.09 at 9:47am:

Thank you, Gabriel. I enjoyed the visit to LA.

Sarabande will be publishing a book of Michael Mazur’s spectacular monotype illustrations, in dazzling color, for Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso— with my very brief translations of appropriate passages as captions.

No plans to do either of those cantiche entire right now, though. Making the Inferno a rapid, graceful read in English was an attractive goal, and the ways I approached it felt right to me. As with writing a poem, one sometimes has that feeling-right, and sometimes not. So far, it hasn’t happened with the different challenges of those other two . . . challenges I learned a little about while doing those captions for Mike.