April 21, 2011

Poets for April 21, 2011 - Robert Pinsky

The first poet for today is Robert Pinsky. Early on, I always somehow got confused between Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky; hence am pairing them together today. Both are contemporaries, born within six months of each other and Collins (2001-2003) followed Pinsky's stint (1997-2000) as Poet Laureate of the US. (Stanley Kunitz, at age 95, was Poet Laureate for a year in between the two of them.) Like Collins' Poetry 180 project (more about it in my post about Collins), Pinsky championed a very popular project to make poetry more popular in the US with the Favorite Poem Project, which allows people to submit their favorite poems along with a personal story about how it affected or influenced them.

Robert Pinsky (Born: October 20 1940, Long Branch, NJ) 

I think poetry is a vital part of our intelligence, our ability to learn, our ability to remember, the relationship between our bodies and minds." - Robert Pinsky

 The poet's need to "find a language for presenting the role of a conscious soul in an unconscious world.”- Robert Pinsky (in his 1976 book, The Situation of Poetry)

And now onto a few of his poems:

Ginza Samba
by Billy Collins

A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone
Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinitely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In Sax's Belgian imagination

And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two

Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin's child
Becomes a "favorite negro" ennobled
By decree of the Czar and founds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife's honor, while the other cousin sails

In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing

His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths--the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:

It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face--the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.

by Robert Pinsky

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms   
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

by Robert Pinsky

Nothing to be said about it, and everything ---
The change of changes, closer or further away:
The Golden Retriever next door, Gussie, is dead,

Like Sandy, the Cocker Spaniel from three doors down
Who died when I was small; and every day
Things that were in my memory fade and die.

Phrases die out: first, everyone forgets
What doornails are; then after certain decades
As a dead metaphor, "dead as a doornail" flickers

And fades away. But someone I know is dying ---
And though one might say glibly, "everyone is,"
The different pace make the difference absolute.

The tiny invisible spores in the air we breathe,
That settle harmlessly on our drinking water
And on our skin, happen to come together

With certain conditions on the forest floor,
Or even a shady corner of the lawn ---
And overnight the fleshy, pale stalks gather,

The colorless growth without a leaf or flower;
And around the stalks, the summer grass keeps growing
With steady pressure, like the insistent whiskers

That grow between shaves on a face, the nails
Growing and dying from the toes and fingers
At their own humble pace, oblivious

As the nerveless moths, that live their night or two ---
Though like a moth a bright soul keeps on beating,
Bored and impatient in the monster's mouth. 
Also read his poem, City Elegies, which I am not cutting-and-pasting here. I'll leave you instead with a link to an essay by Pinsky on Poetry and American Memory and his 1999 Commencement Speech at Stanford University and this short video via Big Think of Pinsky on the topic of aging and the passage of time, something I have been musing about a lot lately.

"getting older so far has a serious of discoveries to it. ...The time doesn’t only fly, it accelerates. ......Why time accelerates as you get older I suppose because the reality of the end becomes practically closer. I don’t know if that explains it completely, but I believe I am not alone in this perception. It’s like some physical process. It’s like when the arrow glass is going to sand seems to go very quickly at the very end and the water ---- at the bathtub. It’s something like that."

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