misfortune of poets

August 3, 2017

The poet Stephen Dobyns, who is also the novelist Stephen Dobyns, once remarked with just irritation that the narrative, as a poetic strategy, is usually misread, or not taken for what in his opinion it is: a metaphor. As though when the poet couldn’t think of anything interesting, he told a story.

Like Homer. Like the Bible.

Contemporary critics prefer, it appears, the static/rhapsodic, in which the translation of event to art is more literal: what is event in the world becomes, in the poem, luminous image. In fact, narrative is also transformation and recreation, and the use of stories managed in more ways, to more ends, than one. In the old battle to determine the greater form (a subject in itself) poet critics, eschewing the story, seem, like the Puritan fathers, to eschew entertainment, as though having a good time couldn’t happen in the presence of sublime art. But the impulse to use narrative informs the work of some of our best (and certainly most original) poets. Dobyns, obviously, but also, in a quite different way, Robert Pinsky.

It is a standard misfortune of poets (and artists in general) that their work continues to be read according to whatever impressions or verdicts attended its debut. In consequence Robert Pinsky is often regarded as a poet of extensive dispassionate curiosity and wide learning, ethical by disposition, rational in bias, a maker of grids and systems, an organizer – the opposite of the fiery prophetic, the poet claimed by, overtaken by, emotion – and, in his calm, somehow disguised or withholding. Even when, as now, he is regularly and perceptively admired, he tends to be admired for his masterful interweavings of public and private, for his formal brilliance, for the extraordinary variety of his gifts (even passionately reverential notices sometimes digress with odd eagerness into Pinsky’s work as a translator, his explorations of high-tech forms like computer games).

It is difficult to account exactly for the tone of this approbation. Pinsky is neither a poet of lyric compression nor a rhapsodist – the two forms to which readers habitually ascribe warmth, or intense feeling. And readers are, often, genuinely overwhelmed by the breadth of his erudition. But neither that erudition nor the poems’ virtuosity completely explains the curious reticences and demurrals of even his most impassioned reviewers. It has sometimes seemed to me that he is read as though he were a cultural historian, in whose mind individual agony and enterprise are subsumed into, or emblematic of, panoramic history. Readers are, I suppose, distracted by Pinsky’s considerable memory, his grasp of (and fascination with) data. But they mistake, I believe, the background for the foreground.

LOUISE GLÜCK
Story Tellers
PN Review 117 Volume 24 Number 1, September – October 1997

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