File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 35

Date: Sat, 4 Oct 1997 10:14:35 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: M-I: Robert Pinsky

Last night I went to a poetry reading mainly to hear Carolyn Forche, one
of the two featured readers, who has written socially conscious poems
about a variety of topics, most especially Central America. She is the
author of the new anthology "Against Forgetting", which brings together
topical poetry of the 20th century, ranging from the Spanish Civil War to

The other poet was Robert Pinsky, who I had never heard of. I was knocked
off my feet by his reading and strongly recommend his recently published
anthology "The Figured Wheel", which I purchased immediately after his
reading. Pinsky, like Forche, identifies with the left, although his
identification is more muted than hers. While Forche is an activist, who
spent time in El Salvador and South Africa on behalf of human rights
organizations, Pinsky's sympathies emerge only through his writing, which
is more than sufficient, given their quality.

Pinsky has recently become recognized as a major talent. "Figured Wheel"
was nominated for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and he is currently the Poet
Laureate and Consultant in Poetry of the United States. Pinsky's closest
kin in terms of thematic material would appear to be Alan Ginsberg. Pinsky
is preoccupied with family and religious motifs, which are set against the
backdrop of class-divided American society. There is a strong prophetic
aspect as well. The big difference between Ginsberg and Pinsky is that
Pinsky operates within the stylistic parameters of the post-TS Eliot
school. His biggest influence stylistically appears to be the late Robert
Lowell. Kathe Pollitt captured the interesting synthesis between his
rather visionary themes and the conventional forms they are expressed in a
NY Times review: "Pinsky's extraordinarily accomplished and beautiful
volume of collected poems...will remind readers that here is a poet who,
without forming a mini-movement or setting himself loudly at odds with the
dominant tendencies of American poetry, has brought it into something

"Shirt", 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 waist. 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 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 planer, 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.

Louis Proyect

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