Eavan Boland

Robert Pinsky: Prose & Poetry

Eavan Boland's Discussion
Pinsky's Poem "Shirt" & Essay
"Poetry and American Memory"

History Corner, Stanford University
Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007, 3:15-5:30 pm

Notes by Peter Y. Chou

Robert Pinsky

Preface: Robert Pinsky was away for his Wednesday Feb. 7 Poetry Workshop. He told the class that he'll be at Claremont College's Poetry Festival. Prof. Eavan Boland, Chairman of Stanford's Creative Writing Program taught the class in his absence. She sent us an email on Feb. 2 to read Pinsky's essay "Poetry and American Memory" and his poem "Shirt" for class discussion. The essay will frame the discussion. It sets out an agenda for purpose, for commitmeent, for the direction of a poet as he or she goes about defining responsibility and craft. Since this is an essay about memory and poetry, it's well suited to go with the Pinsky poems in the attachment. Pinsky's celebrated pome "Shirt" exercises both memory and historical memory. Also included in the attachment is Pinsky's poem "Impossible to Tell" (dedicated to Robert Hass), an elegiac exercise in memory, and Robert Frost's poem "Directive". Pinsky discusses the Frost poem in his essay: "In this poem, Frost suggests that our destiny as a people may lie in the difficult action of historical recovery— and that the source of wholeness is in memory... Directive should be part of American memory because it is a lyric about the fragile, heroic enterprise of remembering... Who will remember the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence?... Who will remember the poems of Emily Dickinson and the films of Buster Keaton, the music of Charlie Parker and the prose of Mark Twain?... Who will remember the great work of memory itself, that basic human task? Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are." Prof. Boland also covered three additional Pinsky poems in the class— "The Refinery", "Gulf Stream", and "First Things to Hand".

Robert Pinsky, Poetry and American Memory,
Atlantic Monthly (October 1999)

Who do we Americans think we are? This is a cultural question, and it is worth asking: many of the great issues in American public life are ultimately cultural issues. The relation of the well-off to the poor; the meaning and the future of race and ethnicity; the degree to and manner in which we share responsibility for the aged, the sick, the needy; even our mission and place among the world's nations: all these depend on our sense of ourselves as a people -- that is, as a cultural reality. In other words, these social issues depend on how we remember ourselves.

Though the United States assuredly is a great nation, the question remains open whether we are a great people or are still engaged in the undertaking of becoming a great people. A people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory. That fact is possibly clearer in our land than in one where people tend to look more like one another than we do. My purpose in this essay is a kind of experiment in memory: to seek a vision of our future in the poetry of our past, finding some examples of American poetry's relation to the evolution of American memory.

Pinsky's Poem: "Shirt"
(Internet Poetry Archive)

On "Shirt"
(Commentaries on Pinsky's poem "Shirt" from Modern American Poetry)
Roger Gilbert, "No Histories but in Things: Robert Pinsky's Rhizomatic X-Rays."

Abraham Lincoln's Poem "My Childhood Home I See Again" (1846)
In the spring of 1846 Abraham Lincoln sent some poetry to his friend, Andrew Johnston, and on September 6 enclosed additional stanzas with his letter. At Lincoln's request, Johnston published portions of the poetry anonymously in the Quincy, Illinois Whig on May 5, 1847.

Lincoln offered Johnston an explanation of the first poem ("My Childhood Home I See Again"). He made Matthew Gentry the subject of Part II, telling Johnston: "He is three years older than I, and when we were boys we went to school together. He was rather a bright lad, and the son of the rich man of our poor neighborhood. At the age of nineteen he unaccountably became furiously mad, from which condition he gradually settled down into harmless insanity. When, as I told you in my other letter I visited my old home in the fall of 1844, I found him still lingering in this wretched condition. In my poetizing mood I could not forget the impression his case made upon me."

Robert Frost, "Directive" (1937)

Analysis of Frost's "Directive"
(Adequacy: News for Grown-ups)

Pinsky's Poem "Impossible to Tell"
(to Robert Hass and in memory of Elliot Gilbert)

Pinsky's Poem "Gulf Music" (Poetry, October 2006)

Pinsky's Poem "The Refinery" (The Want Bone, Ecco Press, 1990)

Pinsky's Poem "First Things to Hand" (New Yorker, December 2006)

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