Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

Poetry Reading
Mohr Visiting Poet Series

Campbell Recital Hall,
Braun Music Center, Stanford University

Wednesday, February 28, 2007, 8:00 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: I got to the Braun Music Center at 7:40 pm with my friend Jack. The first two rows of the center aisle were reserved, so I sat on the second row of the left aisle. Soon Campbell Recital Hall was packed and many were turned away. Eavan Boland, Director of the Creative Writing Program, introduced the Mohr Poet, Robert Pinsky, saying that Stanford is a treasure of history. This is especially true of the English Department under Yvor Winters, a magical time when Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, and Kenneth Fields all studied here. She then gave the podium to Ken Fields who made a longer introduction of Pinsky, recounting the times they were at Stanford. When Pinsky read his "Shirt Poem", he looked at me while reading the lines— "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." I never told him that this was my favorite stanza in the poem, and was ecstatic when he glanced my way. After his reading, many went to chat with Pinsky and have books autographed. I was surprised that my colleague Bill Morrison is here. I gave him a Pinsky flyer last week. Often I'd tell Bill about Stanford lectures on science and cosmology, Buddhism, free film screenings, but he was always too busy to attend. So it was a surprise that he came to the Pinsky reading. I introduced Bill to Pinsky, and Bill said I got him interested in poetry recently. I told Pinsky that Bill is a Computer Science Professor at Foothill College and teaches Java programming, and that he gives me a ride home on Mondays. Pinsky was surprised that I don't have a car. I told him that I don't have a computer or TV home either. Pinsky said "I'm even more impressed." Pinsky's reading from the last Canto of Dante's Paradiso was an added treat. The new poems that Pinsky read from his forthcoming book Gulf Stream were hard to track down on the web. Here are my eight pages of notes of that splendid evening with Pinsky reading his poetry which ended at 9:07 pm. I went back to Green Library to work on the Poetry Anthology which Pinsky assigned as a final project for his Stanford Poetry Workshop.

Ken Fields: I can't tell you how much joy that Robert Pinsky is reading tonight.
His Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems received critical acclaim and was awarded
the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and nominated for the Pulitzer. Pinsky was only U.S. Poet
Laureate asked to serve for three terms (1997-2000). Robert just returned from Doha, Qatar,
invited to participate in an Arab Poetry Conference. He's in an international figure.
When my wife said "He's such a handsome man", I could only reply "Ellen Pinsky,
by the way is a beautiful woman." We were both Stegner Fellows in the English Department
at Stanford [1964-66]. Our teacher was Yvor Winters, who wouldn't let us read Whitman.
Here's a poem from Pinsky's Sadness and Happiness [1975]:


    Waking up over the candy store together
    We hear birds waking up below the sill
    And slowly recognize ourselves, the weather,
    The time, and the birds that rustle there until

    Down to the street as fog and quiet lift
    The pigeons from the wrinkled awning flutter
    To reconnoiter, mutter, stare and shift
    Pecking by ones or twos the rainbowed gutter.

Robert writes with much tenderness. In his poem "Tennis" from the same book,
he outlines the game of tennis in five parts: Service, Forehand, Backhand,
Strategy, Winning. The last three stanzas of the poem:

    Walk, never run, between points: it will save
    Your breath, and hy pnotize him, and be may think
    That you are tired, until your terrible

    Swift sword amazes him. By understanding
    Your body, you will conquer your fatigue.
    By understanding your desire to win

    And all your other desires, you will conquer
    Discouragement. And you will conquer distraction
    By understanding the world, and all its parts.

For more than 30 years, Pinsky has influenced the poetry landscape.
His "Essay on Psychiatrists" (1975) and "An Explanation of America" (1979)
are epic poems spanning history. His poem "Shirt" (1990) starts with
looking at his own shirt and weaves an entire history in the process.
In the '60s, this poem does it better than anything I know.
David Thorburn asked me, "Have you read Pinsky's
"The Figured Wheel"? The Beatles are a great band. "The Figured Wheel"
keeps on turning. That wheel rotates "that sweet self." We both played
B-flat instruments, jazz improvisation, loving the music of Charilie Parker
and Stan Getz. It's time Robert to come back to the raft.

Robert Pinsky: Thank you Ken! I'm ready to go home. I'm overwhelmed by the generosity
of Ken Fields. When I came to Stanford, I didn't feel at home. I was from the East Coast,
I was Jewish, and this place was called "The Farm". I felt alienated, and wrote about my
hometown based on the idea that I didn't belong here. Jim McMichael said, "That human
phenomenon of feeling quite different from someone and quite like someone at the same
time is what life is made of and it's what art is made of." How fulfilling it is for Ken
to quote lines of mine. Thank you all my old friends and new friends, how I treasure
all of you. Now I'll start off with a poem whose theme is I don't need you all.
I'm all by myself. It's called "Samurai Song".

(1) SAMURAI SONG (Video)

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

Jersey Rain (2000), p. 3

(2) ABC

Anybody can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,

Knowledge, love, Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Quickest respite.

Sweet time unafflicted,
Various world:

X = your zenith.

Jersey Rain (2000), p. 10


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 up 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 patern 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.

The Want Bone (1990), pp. 53-54

I got interested in disconnection. I'd like to write about politics that are not sermons
but elegies. Love poems say I'm burning, I'm freezing. I wish I didn't have this thing.
When I think about political matters, when reading newspapers I wish I don't have to think
about this. The best I can tell you is a feeling of turmoil and confusion.


At Robben Island the political prisoners studied.
They coined the motto Each one Teach one.

In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as "Profesor."

Many of my friends are moved by guilt, but I
Am a creature of shame, I am ashamed to say.

Culture the lock, culture the key. Imagination
That calls boiled sheep heads "Smileys."

The first year at Guantánamo, Abdul Rahim Dost
Incised his Pashto poems into styrofoam cups.

"The Sangomo says in our Zulu culture we do not
Worship our ancestors: we consult them."

Becky is abandoned in 1902 and Rose dies giving
Birth in 1924 and Sylvia falls in 1951.

Still falling still dying still abandoned in 2005
Still nothing finished among the descendants.

I support the War, says the comic, it's just the Troops
I'm against: can't stand those Young People.

Proud of the fallen, proud of her son the bomber.
Ashamed of the government. Skeptical.

After the Klansman was found Not Guilty one juror
Said she just couldn't vote to convict a pastor.

Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather.

"The Ancestors say the problem with your Knees
Began in your Feet. It could move up your Back."

But later the Americans gave Dost not only paper
And pen but books. Hemingway, Dickens.

Old Aegyptius said Whoever has called this Assembly,
For whatever reason‹it is a good in itself.

O thirsty shades who regard the offering, O stained earth.
There are many fake Sangomos. This one is real.

Coloured prisoners got different meals and could wear
Long pants and underwear, Blacks got only shorts.

No he says he cannot regret the three years in prison:
Otherwise he would not have written those poems.

I have a small-town mind. Like the Greeks and Trojans.
Shame. Pride. Importance of looking bad or good.

Did he see anything like the prisoner on a leash? Yes,
In Afghanistan. In Guantánamo he was isolated.

Our enemies "disassemble" says the President.
Not that anyone at all couldn't mis-speak.

The profesores created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.

Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don't also write poetry.

Guilts, metaphors, traditions. Hunger strikes.
Culture the penalty. Culture the escape.

What could your children boast about you? What
Will your father say, down among the shades?

The Sangomo told Marvin, "You are crushed by some
Weight. Only your own Ancestors can help you."

Poetry, Vol. 187, No. 5 (February 2006)

(5) IMMATURE SONG (Gulf Stream)

I have heard that adolescence is a recent invention,
A by-product of progress, one of Capitalism's

Suspended transitions between one state and another,
Like refugee camps, internment camps, like the Fields

Of Concentration in a campus catalogue. Summer
Camps for teenagers. When I was quite young

My miscomprehension was that "Concentration Camp"
Meant where the scorned were admonished to concentrate,

Humiliated: forbidden to let the mind wander away.
"Concentration" seemed just the kind of punitive euphemism

The adult world used to coerce, like the word "Citizenship"
On the report cards, graded along with disciplines like History,

English, Mathematics. Citizenship was a field or
Discipline in which for certain years I was awarded every

Marking period a "D" meaning Poor. Possibly my first political
Emotion was wishing they would call it Conduct, or Deportment.

The indefinitely suspended transition of the refugee camps
Must be a poor kind of refuge­subjected to capricious

Kindness and requirements and brutality, the unchampioned
Refugees kept between childhood and adulthood, having neither.

In the Holy Land for example, or in Mother Africa.
At that same time of my life when I heard the abbreviation

"DP" for Displaced Person I somehow mixed it up with
"DT's" for Delirium Tremens, both a kind of stumbling called

By a childish nickname. And you my poem, you are like
An adolescent: confused, awkward, self-preoccupied, vaguely

Rebellious in a way that lacks practical focus, moving without
Discipline from thing to thing. Do you disrespect Authority merely

Because it speaks so badly, because it deploys the lethal bromides
With a clumsy conviction that offends your delicate senses?— but if

Called on to argue such matters as the refugees you mumble and
Stammer, poor citizen, you get sullen, you sigh and you look away.

The Three Penny Review, Issue 92, Winter 2003

I was in the "Dumb class" in the 8th grade. It was also known as the bad class.
Kids in the dumb class were not alllowed to enroll in French. In Spanish, apple
is green. Next week it'll be ripe. This poem makes use of incoherent response.
It expresses my fury of those days as a teenager in school.

(6) El burro es un animal (Gulf Stream) [incomplete]

All the misunderstanding...
I was earning free tickets...
There are two limbs of being...
The young swallows...
When Salvatore Allende was elected President of Chile...

The apple is green.
The apple is still green.
The story is long.

Ploughshares, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter 2006-2007


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.

The Figured Wheel (1996), pp. 5-6

I talked to my friends at dinner about jokes. And by jokes, I don't mean witty remarks.
I mean the Pope and an optometrist and a zebra go into a bar. And there's the punch line.
Elliot Gilbert was a friend who love jokes. He died unnecessarily young at 50 because
his doctor made a blunder in the operation. My friend Bob Hass would read haikus to me
in awe, tried to explain the meanings of haiku and renga (season poems) to me
but I never got the meaning of them. Often I'd phone Bob Hass and leave a
message on his answering machine telling a joke but leaving out the punch line.
This way, he'd call me back to get the joke. This poem is dedicated to Robert Hass
and to our mutual friend Elliot Gilbert.


To Robert Hass and in Memory of Elliot Gilbert
Slow dulcimer, gavotte and bow, in autumn,
Basho and his friends go out to view the moon;
In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter,

The secret courtesy that courses like ichor
Through the old form of the rude, full-scale joke,
Impossible to tell in writing. "Basho"

He named himself, "Banana Tree": banana
After the plant some grateful students gave him,
Maybe in appreciation of his guidance

Threading a long night through the rules and channels
Of their collaborative linking-poem
Scored in their teacher's heart: live, rigid, fluid

Like passages etched in a microscopic cicuit.
Elliot had in his memory so many jokes
They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture

Inside his brain, one so much making another
It was impossible to tell them all:
In the court-culture of jokes, a top banana.

Imagine a court of one: the queen a young mother,
Unhappy, alone all day with her firstborn child
And her new baby in a squalid apartment

Of too few rooms, a different race from her neighbors.
She tells the child she's going to kill herself.
She broods, she rages. Hoping to distract her,

The child cuts capers, he sings, he does imitations
Of different people in the building, he jokes,
He feels if he keeps her alive until the father

Gets home from work, they'll be okay till morning.
It's laughter versus the bedroom and the pills.
What is he in his efforts but a courtier?

Impossible to tell his whole delusion.
In the first months when I had moved back East
From California and had to leave a message

On Bob's machine, I used to make a habit
Of telling the tape a joke; and part-way through,
I would pretend that I forgot the punchline,

Or make believe that I was interrupted—
As though he'd be so eager to hear the end
He'd have to call me back. The joke was Elliot's,

More often than not. The doctors made the blunder
That killed him some time later that same year.
One day when I got home I found a message

On my machine from Bob. He had a story
About two rabbis, one of them tall, one short,
One day while walking along the street together

They see the corpse of a Chinese man before them,
And Bob said, sorry, he forgot the rest.
Of course he thought that his joke was a dummy,

Impossible to tell— a dead-end challenge.
But here it is, as Elliot told it to me:
The dead man's widow came to the rabbis weeping,

Begging them, if they could, to resurrect him.
Shocked, the tall rabbi said absolutely not.
But the short rabbi told her to bring the body

Into the study house, and ordered the shutters
Closed so the room was night-dark. Then he prayed
Over the body, chanting a secret blessing

Out of Kabala. "Arise and breathe," he shouted;
But nothing happened. The body lay still. So then
The little rabbi called for hundreds of candles

And danced around the body, chanting and praying
In Hebrew, then Yiddish, then Aramaic. He prayed
In Turkish and Egyptian and Old Galician

For nearly three hours, leaping about the coffin
In the candlelight so that his tiny black shoes
Seemed not to touch the floor. With one last prayer

Sobbed in the Spanish of before the Inquisition
He stopped, exhausted, and looked in the dead man's face.
Panting, he raised both arms in a mystic gesture

And said, "Arise and breathe!" And still the body
Lay as before. Impossible to tell
In words how Elliot's eyebrows flailed and snorted

Like shaggy mammoths as— the Chinese widow
Granting permission— the little rabbi sang
The blessing for performing a circumcision

And removed the dead man's foreskin, chanting blessings
In Finnish and Swahili, and bathed the corpse
From head to foot, and with a final prayer

In Babylonian, gasping with exhaustion,
He seized the dead man's head and kissed the lips
And dropped it again and leaping back commanded,

"Arise and breathe!" The corpse lay still as ever.
At this, as when Bashð's disciples wind
Along the curving spine that links the renga

Across the different voices, each one adding
A transformation according to the rules
Of stasis and repetition, all in order

And yet impossible to tell beforehand,
Elliot changes for the punchline: the wee
Rabbi, still panting, like a startled boxer,

Looks at the dead one, then up at all those watching,
A kind of Mel Brooks gesture: "Hoo boy!" he says,
"Now that's what I call really dead." O mortal

Powers and princes of earth, and you immortal
Lords of the underground and afterlife,
Jehovah, Raa, Bol-Morah, Hecate, Pluto,

What has a brilliant, living soul to do with
Your harps and fires and boats, your bric-a-brac
And troughs of smoking blood? Provincial stinkers,

Our languages don't touch you, you're like that mother
Whose small child entertained her to beg her life.
Possibly he grew up to be the tall rabbi,

The one who washed his hands of all those capers
Right at the outset. Or maybe he became
The author of these lines, a one-man renga

The one for whom it seems to be impossible
To tell a story straight. It was a routine
Procedure. When it was finished the physicians

Told Sandra and the kids it had succeeded,
But Elliot wouldn't wake up for maybe an hour,
They should go eat. The two of them loved to bicker

In a way that on his side went back to Yiddish,
On Sandra's to some Sicilian dialect.
He used to scold her endlessly for smoking.

When she got back from dinner with their children
The doctors had to tell them about the mistake.
Oh swirling petals, falling leaves! The movement

Of linking renga coursing from moment to moment
Is meaning, Bob says in his Haiku book.
Oh swirling petals, all living things are contingent,

Falling leaves, and transient, and they suffer.
But the Universal is the goal of jokes,
Especially certain ethnic jokes, which taper

Down through the swirling funnel of tongues and gestures
Toward their preposterous Ithaca. There's one
A journalist told me. He heard it while a hero

Of the South African freedom movement was speaking
To elderly Jews. The speaker's own right arm
Had been blown off by right-wing letter-bombers.

He told his listeners they had to cast their ballots
For the ANC— a group the old Jews feared
As "in with the Arabs." But they started weeping

As the old one-armed fighter told them their country
Needed them to vote for what was right, their vote
Could make a country their children could return to

From London and Chicago. The moved old people
Applauded wildly, and the speaker's friend
Whispered to the journalist, "It's the Belgian Army

Joke come to life." I wish I could tell it
To Elliot. In the Belgian Army, the feud
Between the Flemings and Walloons grew vicious,

So out of hand the army could barely function.
Finally one commander assembled his men
In one great room, to deal with things directly.

They stood before him at attention. "All Flemings,"
He ordered, "to the left wall." Half the men
Clustered to the left. "Now all Walloons," he ordered,

"Move to the right." An equal number crowded
Against the right wall. Only one man remained
At attention in the middle: "What are you, soldier?"

Saluting, the man said, "Sir, I am a Belgian."
"Why, that's astonishing, Corporal— what's your name?"
Saluting again, "Rabinowitz," he answered:

A joke that seems at first to be a story
About the Jews. But as the renga describes
Religious meaning by moving in drifting petals

And brittle leaves that touch and die and suffer
The changing winds that riffle the gutter swirl,
So in the joke, just under the raucous music

Of Fleming, Jew, Walloon, a courtly allegiance
Moves to the dulcimer, gavotte and bow,
Over the banana tree the moon in autumn—

Allegiance to a state impossible to tell.

The Figured Wheel (1996), pp. 33-38


I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned
In the river of not having you, we lived
Together for hours in a house of thousand rooms
And we were parted for a thousand years.
Ten minutes ago we raised our children who cover
The earth and have forgotten that we existed

It was not maya, it was not a ladder to perfection,
It was this cold sunlight falling on this warm earth.

When I turned you went to Hell. When your ship
Fled the battle I followed you and lost the world
Without regret but with stormy recriminations.
Someday far down that corridor of horror the future
Someone who buys this picture of you for the frame
At a stall in a dwindled city will study your face
And decide to harbor it for a little while longer
From the waters of anonymity, the acids of breath.

New Yorker, Sept. 15, 2003

My concluding poem tonight is from the last Canto of
Dante's Paradiso [ XXXIII.46-48, 52-66]. I've left out
one tercet [lines 49-51] where St. Bernard was signaling
to Dante to look upward, and Dante was already doing it.

Note: I just caught the ending of Pinsky's translation:
"the way the sun dissolves the snow,
the oracle that the Sibyl wrote was lost."
Until I find Pinsky's version of this passage,
I'm using Allen Mandelbaum's translation below:

(10) DANTE'S PARADISO, XXXIII.46-48, 52-66

  And I, who now was nearing Him who is
the end of all desires, as I ought,
lifted my longing to its ardent limit.

  because my sight, becoming pure, was able
to penetrate the ray of Light more deeply-
that Light, sublime, which in Itself is true.

  From that point on, what I could see was greater
than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails-
and memory fails when faced with such excess.

  As one who sees within a dream, and, later,
the passion that had been imprinted stays,
but nothing of the rest returns to mind,

  such am I, for my vision almost fades
completely, yet it still distills within
my heart the sweetness that was born of it.

  So is the snow, beneath the sun, unsealed;
and so, on the light leaves, beneath the wind,
the oracles the Sibyl wrote were lost.

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email: (3-29-2007)