Essential Pleasures

Philips to Married People: “Suckers”

By Robert Pinsky on 4.15.09

I can imagine Katherine Philips grinning with pleasure as she makes some of these couplet rhymes; the very first one could be an epigram by itself.

The two words “to please” by themselves evoke a critique of the traditional institution from a woman’s point of view. I detect that implicit social critique and I admire the even-toned, declarative way the argument proceeds and relishes itself. And on the other hand, it is interesting that the force that must be resisted, the power that might lure “Madam” away from the poet’s advice, is not society with its expectations and customs, nor religion with its dictates, but “wild nature.” This acknowledgment of sexual feeling is another interesting element in the poem. And the last line—that image of trying to lead apes in hell—is memorable as well as droll.

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The Pause: An Underestimated Element in Poetry

By Robert Pinsky on 4.14.09

The fact of Milton’s blindness adds weight and meaning to the phrases “my fancied sight” and “she fled, and day brought back my night”—understated, immensely dignified allusions to his condition. They were married for less than two years, and after his blindness. Scholars believe that he never literally saw her.

An underestimated element in poetry, that reading aloud makes clear, is the pause. I mean especially the force of a pause or a couple of pauses close together, contrasted with a longer unit of grammar.

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The Critic and John Keats

By Robert Pinsky on 4.13.09

Many people have memorized this poem. The three stanzas audibly, all but palpably create the feeling of time that is nearly arrested, yet passing, however imperceptibly, as the year’s cycle trembles on a warm autumn day: “the last oozings hours by hours.”

Readers who are impressed by literary criticism, and who admire “Ode to Autumn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” might do well to consider the writing of a quite clever critic named John Wilson Croker.

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A Poem That Speaks For Itself

By Robert Pinsky on 4.10.09

Peele wrote this song, with its hypnotic pauses and haunting cadences for his play The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe. The play is read only by scholars, as far as I know; the poem is not easily forgotten by anyone who reads it aloud once.

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Our Sidney. Our Perfect Man.

By Robert Pinsky on 4.09.09

“Elegy for Philip Sidney” is a poem that accumulates a lot of emotion from its cadences, the alternating lines of six and seven metrical feet. The form is known as “Poulter’s Measure”—the thirteen feet representing the number of eggs sold in a dozen, in case one should be rotten. (A variation on “baker’s dozen.”) Reading the poem aloud, one hears both the rhythmical, expressive force of the form and its capacity to vary with effects of syncopation, contract, and variation.

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The Poets Light But Lamps

By Robert Pinsky on 4.08.09

One theory of Dickinson’s dashes is that they were related to a once-popular system of notation for dramatic recitation or speaking: a system of pauses that rose or fell in pitch. I don’t think the theory has gained a lot of acceptance, but there’s a kind of figurative usefulness to it. The dashes often have the effect of pausing on a rise in pitch: the pressure of meaning gathering itself for a moment, but always headed onward. Together, the short lines and frequent pauses create a feeling of tremendous, volcanic pressure under a taut or stony surface.

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Indie Bookseller, Michele Filgate, reads from Essential Pleasures

By The Editors on 4.07.09

If you are a book lover and aren’t already listening to the Books on the Nightstand podcast I just have one question for you: what are you waiting for? If you caught Episode 27 from March 24th you would have heard the fantastic National Poetry Month extravaganza. Michael and Ann, the hosts of the show, confess right at the start that they aren’t experts on poetry. Lucky for us, they know a few top-notch independent booksellers that know quite a bit about the subject. The show features Michael Schiavo of Northshire Bookstore, Marie Gauthier formerly of Jeffery Amherst Bookshop, and Michele Filgate of RiverRun Bookstore. Here is a clip from the show with Michele telling you all about Essential Pleasures, the new anthology edited by this month’s featured blogger on Poems Out Loud, Robert Pinsky. About a minute in Michele expertly reads “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden:

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The Hyper-Ballad and Edwin Robinson

By Robert Pinsky on 4.07.09

Edwin Robinson works a unique transformation of the ballad form in this poem: it could be called formal exaggeration; the astounding rhymes creating a hyper-ballad. The folk-culture roots of the form, the ballad’s suggestion of traditional community, give force to Robinson’s evocation of tragedy and myth in the final image of “a stairway to the sea / Where down the blind are driven.”

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Was Christopher Smart the First Hippie?

By Robert Pinsky on 4.06.09

It has been said that the eighteenth-century saw the beginning of just about everything—as I remember, pianos, coffee-shops, and the United States. Certainly a lot of things still embedded in the modern world began in this period.

The poems of Christopher Smart, both formally and in feeling, seem to confirm that idea: his writing is capacious, ardent, and reckless in ways we recognize. Like William Blake, Smart has been described as the first hippie. But the term does not apply if “hippie” entails detachment or irony.…

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Love? Death? Whatever.

By Robert Pinsky on 4.03.09

“Song” could be described as an agnostic ballad: “Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget.” The cadence of alternating lines, four feet and three feet, with the rhymes on alternate lines, give a light, ironic, tinkly music to the almost teasing request for “no sad songs.” The lines “And if thou wilt, remember. / And if thou wilt, forget”—lines that are agnostic about the endurance of human emotion, as the later ones are agnostic about an afterlife.

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