Liberate Poetry, Robert Pinsky’s Manifesto

Liberate Poetry! Robert Pinsky’s Manifesto for Readers

Aug 26, 2013 10:06 AM EDT


Poetry has been taken hostage by the academy and its obsession with “meaning,” but former poet laureate Robert Pinsky rides to the rescue with his new book celebrating language and sound. Daniel Bosch on a call to bring music back to poetry.

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Was there church wedding? An elopement in Reno, with the Department Chair as witness? Was a shotgun necessary? Did it happen all at once, en masse, as in the ceremonies held in Shea Stadium by the Reverend Moon, five thousand couples joined at a go? Are poetry and the academy long-term “friends with benefits”? Maybe they just live together.



However it was, and is, several generations of their offspring have gone forth and multiplied, and the union of age-old poetry and young upstart academy has altered how and what we talk about when we talk about poems. Time was, a poem stood the test of time because one person after another stood up and spoke that poem aloud, and their speaking gave him or her pleasure, or terror, or grief, or wonder. Nowadays people stand for timed tests on a poem and are compelled to establish that they have “understood” it, but they are rarely asked to account for what and how that poem made them feel physically, while and just after it was coordinating their breath and the movements of their lips and tongues. Nowadays almost any talk about a poem begins naming its topic: people love to tell you what a poem is “about.” Many readers today evaluate a poet according to whether or not his or her body of work can or cannot be said to be “about” an idea which is of interest aside from the quality of their experience of saying it aloud. Perhaps these relatively new ways of regarding poetry have not cost it too dearly. But if its relationship with the academy has come with perks—nice real estate, the chance of employment, a (contested) degree of respectability—it can seem, taking a long view, that the public life of poetry today is “about” the needs of the academy, and not the experience of poetry.

Perhaps it is time to update their relationship status. Robert Pinsky’s new anthology with commentary, Singing School, argues that the medium of the poet is the reader’s body, that words and punctuation and tonal manipulations are means to ends felt not in mind but in the mouth, ears, lungs, and trunk of the oral performer of a poem. What good is served, Pinsky would ask, by so much talk about whether or not we have “understood” a work of art, if what we mean by “understanding” largely ignores our embodied experience of that work? Every word of Singing School is pitched against the decapitation of poetry’s head from its body.

Singing School is so lean and mean, any précis calls for a spoiler alert. Its title is lifted from William Butler Yeats’ 1926 poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” and the infamously negative couplet: “Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.” A brief preface orients the reader to the kinds of attention Pinsky will advocate, and he divides the book into four sections or “courses” of 17 to 25 poems, each deftly-curated to tease out the complexity of an important on artistic theme: “Freedom,” “Listening,” “Form,” and “Dreaming Things Up.”

As you will see below, Pinsky spins his picks concisely: the total pedagogical apparatus amounts to just 35 of 222 pages (and many of these pages are full of verse). A lot of the poems in Singing School are canonical, and this fact will make the book a powerful choice for teachers of any high school or early college survey of principal literary genres. Middle school students would love it, too, but most middle school teachers would wrongly assume the poems too difficult. They are only difficult to explain, not to love. The adjunct faculty who teach with Pinsky include Sappho (“Artfully Adorned Aphrodite”), George Herbert (“Church Monuments”), Andrew Marvell (“Upon Appleton House”—all LXLVII stanzas!), Christopher Smart (from “Jubilate Agno”), John Keats (“Ode to a Nightingale”), Emily Dickinson (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death”), Lewis Carroll (“Jabberwocky”), Edward Arlington Robinson (“Eros Turannos”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“God’s Grandeur”), Thomas Hardy (“During Wind and Rain”), Ezra Pound (“The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”), Robert Frost (“An Old Man’s Winter Night”), Langston Hughes (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”), Marianne Moore (“Poetry”), Allen Ginsberg (from “Howl”), and Frank O’Hara (“Why I Am Not A Painter”). Other hires made by Pinsky are idiosyncratic, and will add to anyone’s cache of strong poems. New to mine, for instance, are Michelangelo Buonarotti’s “On Painting the Sistine Chapel,” the anonymous poems “The Old Cloak” and “The Cruel Mother,” James Shirley’s “The Glories of our Blood and State,” John Wilmot’s “Upon Nothing,” Jorge de Lima’s “The Big Mystical Circus,” and Thom Gunn’s “Tamer and Hawk.” (The lists above are chronological rather than by order of appearance, so you might discover in what sections Pinsky has set his choices.) When a poem appears whole in his commentary, Pinsky prints it again in the body of the anthology—he’s chosen poems he wants us to read over and over again, no matter how subtle the change in context. The volume closes with brief biographies of the poets whose work comprises Singing School. On the whole they come off as a motley crew, more apt to be exiled than ennobled, to be expelled than to make the dean’s list, to die poor than to leave a fortune other than their lines and stanzas. They sound, in other words, like poets.


See original by Daniel Bosch; this is reblogged from the Daily Beast:



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