Columns by Robert Pinsky

A Secret Mission


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.

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Whitman Celebrates Himself


I strongly recommend this brief video of lines from “Song of Myself” read by John Doherty, construction worker for Boston Gas.

Whitman was a devotee of opera, and in scale, tone and inclusiveness his work has operatic qualities. Also, melody, as of the consonants of lines like: “I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.”

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Ben Jonson Speaks His Mind


No one has ever written English verses sweeter to the ear than those of Ben Jonson: the way he stretches the last sentence of this poem, the speaking quality extended as though just naturally over the demanding meter, has an acrobatic grace, or the thrill of a long phrase by Charlie Parker that reaches over several bars. Writing four centuries ago, Jonson puts his words in an order that still feels a bit as if he is simply speaking his mind—all the while in the meter of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”! To me it seems clear that William Butler Yeats studied Jonson (as we are told he did), and learned something about making lines and sentences dance.

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Old Tiney. Gone, but not Forgotten.


Cowper’s sweet, eerie poem about his pet rabbit—and about life in general—might just as well have gone into my section of “Love Poems,” or into “Odes, Complaints, and Celebrations” (being all three) or “Stories.” Like many excellent works, this poem in ballad stanza (its ultimate category within the book Essential Pleasures) straddles many categories.

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No Sympathy for Lucretia Borgia


The story is that the poet Leigh Hunt showed Landor a long, blonde strand of hair—said to be stolen from an Italian museum by Byron—of the glamorous, powerful, nefarious Lucretia Borgia. (It is tempting to think that the Italians who ran the museum were accustomed to English gentlemen stealing the purported hair several times a month, and that the museum replaced it each time from an ample supply.)

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With Friends Like These…


A famous insult, perfect in its way.

Raleigh’s technique here includes a wit-pattern, the contradiction in each of the first two lines, that the poem then abandons: the third line is kind of bland and noncommittal, seems to relax the derisory paradoxes, then the fourth line, unlike those first two rapier-stokes, is a blunt punch in the nose.

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Keats Looks on the Bright Side of Death


A numbness that pains; a happiness that is too happy; feeling half in love with death; an exile that is familiar: the conflicted feeling Keats evokes is no mere verbal paradox, but a profound reality of human consciousness: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird.”

The bird’s ancestors sing the same song, says Keats, all the way back to Biblical times; no hungry generations of descendants, eager to make their own songs, avid for their own consciousness, tread down the nightingale.

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Of Waxen Lights and Honey Love


Campion celebrates, with utmost relish, scenes and diversions that he also puts in their proper place. This can seem superficially a charming song about hardly anything at all; but the poem is partly about that proper place: the idea of decorum. That potentially stuffy idea of decorum is treated with energy and ebullience, an omnivorous verve extending its appetite to flirtations, poems, riddles, dance-steps, wine cups, the miniature honey-comb of lights and the massive, fantastic storm.

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A Portrait of Love In Its Early Stages


A sophisticated artist making an elegant version of naivete: lines that could be spoken by a well-attired and delicately made-up porcelain shepherd. (In fact Sidney uses a sonnet version of this poem in his pastoral narrative “Arcadia.”) The artful simplicity successfully evokes the simultaneous play-acting and sincerity that can characterize love in its early stages.

Sidney gives his young high-class shepherdess a tranquil confidence, lightened by effervescence. The deft play with whose-heart-is-whose has a perfectly equivalent bubbliness in the figures of sound, such as the rhyme on “given driven.”

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Philips to Married People: “Suckers”


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


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


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


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.


“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


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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The Hyper-Ballad and Edwin Robinson


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?


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.


“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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A Poem, An Execution


As I say in the introduction to the “Stories” section of Essential Pleasures, the idea that young Tichborne wrote this poem “with his own hand in the tower before his execution” may be a fiction. If so, it is a very effective fiction, well suited to the relentless, kettle-drum quality of these formal patterns, rhymes, repetitions—all emphasizing the theme that this life is just beginning and at the same time ending.

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My Mountain Belly and My Rocky Face


Cupid is traditionally blind, but the woman Ben Jonson is courting in this poem makes him think Love sees well but is deaf, since she notices his unattractive body while ignoring the supremely attractive verses he displays here.

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On Barnabe Googe and Billie Holiday


There’s a fascinating similarity between Googe’s poem and the lyrics Billie Holiday wrote for her great jazz song, “God Bless The Child”. The way Googe slows up his line with the four words “Fair face show friends” then releases that strain with the accelerating “when money doth abound” reminds me of Holiday, too. And the sentiment expressed is pretty much the same, with pretty much the same terms. I don’t mean that Billie Holiday had been reading Barnabe Googe, but that two great artists were akin, finding ways for that language to express a bitter, harsh experience.

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America’s First Poet: Anne Bradstreet


Bradstreet. Sometimes described as America’s first poet, also wrote the first book of poems to be published by a woman in England. A careless reading of this poem might condescend to it, or even dismiss it, as naive: a mistake. This kind of plainness and directness demand great skill, and Bradstreet knows what she is doing. As in Philip Sidney’s poems, “My True Love Hath My Heart and I Have His” (Essential Pleasures, page 230), the singing quality of the rhymes is never sing-song, and the unadorned quality of the language conveys sincerity.

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