Liberate Poetry! Robert Pinsky’s Manifesto for Readers
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.
The Greek roots of the word “anthology” are anthos, meaning “flower,” and legein, meaning “to gather,” and the simplicity and directness of this metaphor compel us to remember that anybody can pick flowers. Back in the days before and just after print publishing was invented, it seemed that every reader of poetry was an anthologist, the compiler of a fat commonplace book and folders stuffed with hand-copied verses. Pinsky gets this: practically the first thing he tells the reader to do is to get busy picking their own favorite blooms. “(T)he poems here are examples of examples,” he writes, urging his readers to type out poems that move them and thus to feel strong lines as they seem to come into being at the tips of their fingers. This is wonderful advice, even if it is sort of a half-measure compared to the wonders to be done by writing out one’s selections by hand while one reads them out loud, or by memorizing them and reciting them to the annoyance—or delight—of one’s friends.
Pinsky’s curriculum is the product of more than forty years’ experience. A master teacher invites his pupils to attend to objects that embody irresolvable tensions. Then he stands by—near enough to query, not close enough to crowd. A pupil who accepts such a teacher’s invitation will learn from the qualities of the objects he observes. But he will also learn, if he is willing to take both long and short views, from another irresolvable tension: his teacher’s abiding proximity and useful distance.
Throughout Singing School we see Pinsky the master teacher at work. When he gives the moral theology-obsessed backward-scratcher into copper William Blake a gig in the “Form” section, Pinsky chooses the short poem, “A Question Answered,” which is, mysteriously enough—unless you know poetry, and poetry pedagogy—two questions and two answers:
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of satisfied desire.
What is it women in men require?
The lineaments of satisfied desire.
A less-keen teacher might have belabored here how Blake’s thinking underwrites his whole curriculum. (“Without Contraries there is no Progression,” Blake wrote, in reverse, on the plates use to print The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.) But Pinsky’s intervention is deft: “Almost the same thing twice. The ‘almost’ is crucial.” There are deep tensions in Blake’s poem—take the sonic necessity of “do” in line one, for instance, in contrast to the equally just sonic necessary for “do” not to appear in line 4—but these need not be explained, not if your goal is to grasp what poetry feels like as it makes meaning. The better thing is to memorize the poem so that you might abide with its tensions and they in you.
Any curriculum that seeks to reduce in number or to resolve the irresolvable tensions one encounters in poems and in the pursuit of poetry will set off the smartest students’ bullshit detectors. (I’ve seen such curricula drive brilliant students as far from English and creative writing as neuroscience and engineering.) But a master teacher can use the energy bound in such tensions to hold his curriculum together, as Pinsky does. Here he is playing Janus at the opening bell:
There are no rules.
Or, you can modify that rule by observing that each work of art generates its own unique rules….
In sentence one Pinsky is forward-looking, saying what would-be poets presently most want to hear, something that might be true for them when they have studied the art for a time. Note that Pinsky offers this statement first (he puts the section he calls “Freedom” first, too). In sentence two he’s backward-looking—out of respect for the poems in his anthology, he must qualify, but not take back, what he’s just said. These two sentences confront Ginsberg’s maxim “First thought, best thought,” and by contrast Ginsberg seems the pander. (How many would-be poets have “learned” from Ginsberg’s gobbet not to revise!) Yet the juxtaposition is no bait-and-switch—the promise that self-expression, or “freedom” will lead to poetic accomplishment is bait-and-switch.
Readers of his indispensible invitation to the study of prosody as a bodily art, The Sounds of Poetry (1994), will recognize Pinsky’s opening sentence and appreciate that he’s standing by it twenty years on. “There are no rules” is bedrock. But bedrock is something you build on or push off from. Pinsky’s opening embodies a fundamental tension: if you want to become a poet, no body can tell you exactly how you should proceed—that’s not how poetry works. But look, here, I have gathered some really beautiful flowers for you, in a book called Singing School, why don’t you sing them? The implication that there are at least as many rules as there are beautiful poems points to an abiding mystery of poetic composition.
My favorite part of Singing School is “Dreaming Things Up,” the final course, which is devoted to especially strong cases of a poet having “something special to say.” In his use of “special” Pinsky rightly distinguishes what is said from its occasion, pointing us rather to the character of what is spoken. It is “special,” to be sure, for a couple to celebrate their wedding day, but how often is the best man’s toast a poem? (Even some of the “poems” read at weddings hardly qualify.) For Pinsky, when a poet rises to an occasion, he transforms the ordinary and conventional into the counterfactual, the vivid, the unforgettable. The prose preface to “Dreaming Things Up” emphasizes how often fantastic impossibilities described in poems are granted authority by the reader. In certain cases, this authority may be elicited, in part, by an explicit or implied statement that the odds (or the gods) are against the poet, who ought not or cannot say what he’s about to say, though say it he must. (The same trick sometimes works for a best man, too.) When a poet conjures the opposition of the odds or gods he speaks metonymically of the difficulty of finding words which rise from dead language into permanent life. Dante is Pinsky’s exemplum primum. Watch for the irresolvable tensions in the Florentine’s account of a corridor between sessions at AWP:
I stayed to see more, one sight so incredible
As I should fear to describe, except that conscience,
Being pure in this, encourages me to tell:
I saw—and writing it now, my brain still envisions—
A headless trunk that walked, in sad promenade
Shuffling the dolorous track with its companions,
And the trunk was carrying the severed head,
Gripping its hair like a lantern, letting it swing,
And the head looked up at us: “Oh me!” it cried.
Did I say AWP? I meant the eighth circle of Hell, where Dante makes three poets literarily present (Bertran de Born, the beheaded shade; Dante, himself, as speaker; and Virgil, who stands by;) and a fourth, Robert Pinsky, is figured by his translation. Pinsky calls Dante’s expression of reluctance to describe the scene a “serious joke” about imaginative reality, perhaps because his image of contrapasso, the logical “fitness” of sin and its punishment in hell, is simply too good not to recount. Indeed we listen with amazement to the troubadour’s head, cut off from its rugged soldier’s body, which will spend eternity pulling its hair: an ideal image for how de Born had encouraged young prince Henry to cut himself off from and then aggravate his father. Another punchline has to do with how the head of de Born’s shade may swing lantern-like, but only leads, and cannot enlighten, the trunk it precedes.
Dante’s invention of the posthumous decapitation of de Born, drawn as it is from earlier sources (e.g. the maenad-mutilated yet still-singing head of Orpheus, the minor tradition of cephalophore, and discussions of contrapasso in Aquinas), is precisely the kind of poetic transfiguration of what is already known that Pinsky promotes in “Dreaming Things Up.”
And of course Dante’s joke rhymes with indissoluble tenet of both The Sounds of Poetry and Singing School: a poem is a bodily experience. Bertran de Born’s eternal and infernal torment is a figure for that of any would-be poet, whether he was trained by professor or is an auto-didact, whose head is cut off from his trunk, his heart, his lungs, his guts, his sex, his gait-keeper thighs and calves. Dante’s image embodies wisdom held by those who will not assent to the disembodiment of poetry, a long-held wisdom kept alive today by those who can resist academic fashions and abide irresolvable tensions. But forgive me if in Pinsky’s use of it in Singing School I read a caricature of the apotheosis of the current fashion for highly cerebral and dis-embodied almost-poetry and not-really poetry. Of course such reliance on a head cut off from its trunk is just one in a long (not to say tedious) line of infidelities that has helped to bring us to the cusp of the era for which Singing School seems to me to anticipate and to be designed for.
When poetry and the academy break up, we will all say we knew it couldn’t last. The documents, in literary historians’ prose, will indicate the irreconcilable differences, not the irresolvable tensions. And some time not long after they move out, poets trained by universities to teach at a distance, no longer linked to payroll but logged on to PayPal, will post virtual shingles and set up shops of their own, which offer neither credits nor credentials. Pinsky’s book is evidence that even W.W. Norton, his publisher, which has made a lot of money providing phone-book sized anthologies in support of the union of poetry and the academy, has heard the mermaids tweeting.
And what about the “kids”? Singing School makes me feel very optimistic about post-break up poetry pedagogy. His non-academic “school” is perfect for a coming generation of poetry auto-didacts that is ready to exploit rather than to cling to its freedoms—omnivorous readers and writers and sometime course-takers who will cobble together their own paths to mastery in verse composition, or not. Drawing on the diaspora of instructors, the future DIY poets-in-training will design individualized curricula more exciting and more worthy of the art than any MFA program could ever have conceived, if for no other reason than because it was a “program.” And as long as Singing School stays open, the kids will come through fine.