Chiasson on Pinsky: Meeting Poetry with More Poetry

Reviews of poets and poetry can often be tedious: the poet is sometimes trampled by the reviewer’s exegesis and analysis; sometimes we wish merely to be pointed toward the poem. But sometimes the reviewer can, in his responses, show his own poetic instinct. In his review of Robert Pinsky‘s Selected Poems (New York Review of Books, January 12 2012, Volume LIX, Number 1), Dan Chiasson pulls off this rather neat trick. He writes sympathetically on Pinsky, and in his responses finds a poetic register of his own.

In writing on Pinsky’s “The Green Piano” which includes the line “Ivory and umber, so you stood half done, a throbbing mistreated noble”, Chiasson responds:

This thing is doomed, a sacrificial beast; but also poignant, precisely because it is so cruelly and excessively disembodied. Its body gets budged, bonged, dinged, cracked, swabbed, antiqued, painted green, painted pink, and finally junked. It then goes out of existence, until Pinsky writes a poem named for it, that replaces it, the “iron and brass, ten kinds of hardwood and felt” reconstituted by, and therefore trumped by, language. You can memorize “The Green Piano”; to carry the green piano with you would be a much more cumbersome proposition.

Then, writing of Pinsky’s “Rhyme”, whichconcludes with the stanza:

In a room, a rhyme, a song.
In the box, in books: each element
An instrument, the body
Still straining to parrot
The spirit, a being of air.

Chiasson responds:

 The crucial moment here is when the word “parrot” becomes a verb; by “parroting” we become stuffed parrots, taxidermy versions of ourselves, suspended forever in the art we leave behind. It’s a brilliant trick, used to deliver the news, both good and bad, that our artifacts…outlast us. New, future souls, assemble inside them.

Later, Chiasson continues, in speaking more generally of Pinsky’s work:

The vision of poetry as a cross-temporal congregation of souls is something Pinsky wants his poems to represent, rather than just imply. It is not easy in poetry–a medium that favors compression and symbolic substitution–to devise a style that honors the actuality of individual persons while also suggesting their cosmic inconsequence, as well as one’s own. This problem impels all of Pinsky’s writing; his imagination toggles constantly between panorama and detail, big picture and individual pixel. Both scales have a moral justification; both imply one sort of truth; but neither one is in itself a complete assessment of human reality and the one tends to negate the other.

Chiasson’s essay is a good example of how to find the right sort of pitch in responding critically to a poem; show us the poems; let us read them; and make your responses poetic as well. Stay away from theory; if it is the power of language that is to be gloried in, then do so not by burying it in stultifying, exegetical indulgences, but rather, by providing, in the critical response. ever more examples of poetic skill and facility. In his essay, Chiasson comes close to seizing on a truth we often feel but rarely articulate: we  approach the poetic heart only by the poem.

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