Poetry: Robert Pinsky, Three Poems

Hear the former U.S. Poet Laureate read "Jersey Rain," "Biography," and "Vessel," published in the April 2000 Atlantic.

originally published April 2000

Audio: Hear Robert Pinsky read "Jersey Rain" (1:53)

Also by Robert Pinsky:
XYZ (2007)
Jar of Pens (2002)
from The Inferno of Dante (1994)
The Tuning (1995)

From the archives:
Pudd'nheads (2007)
The American Idea

Poetry and American Memory (October 1999)

What Makes Poetry "Poetic"? (March 1999): Robert Pinsky's Sounds of Poetry, reviewed by David Barber

Ben Jonson, "My Picture Left in Scotland" with an introduction by Robert Pinsky

Poetry, Computers, and Dante's Inferno: An online conference with Robert Pinsky (April 19, 1995)


Now near the end of the middle stretch of road
What have I learned? Some earthly wiles. An art.
That often I cannot tell good fortune from bad,
That once had seemed so easy to tell apart.

The source of art and woe aslant in wind
Dissolves or nourishes everything it touches.
What roadbank gullies and ruts it doesn't mend
It carves the deeper, boiling tawny in ditches.

It spends itself regardless into the ocean.
It stains and scours and makes things dark or bright:
Sweat of the moon, a shroud of benediction,
The chilly liquefaction of day to night,

The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather

To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
In ripples of heat the August drought still feeds
Vapors in the sky that swell to smite the state --
The Jersey rain, my rain, in streams and beads

Of indissoluble grudge and aspiration:
Original milk, replenisher of grief,
Descending destroyer, arrowed source of passion,
Silver and black, executioner, font of life.

Audio: Hear Robert Pinsky read "Biography" (1:29)


Stone wheel that sharpens the blade that mows the grain,
Wheel of the sunflower turning, wheel that turns
The spiral press that squeezes the oil expressed
From shale or olives. Particles that turn to mud
On the potter's wheel that spins to form the vessel
That holds the oil that drips to cool the blade.

My mother's dreadful fall. Her mother's dread
Of all things: death, life, birth. My brother's birth
Just before the fall, his birth again in Jesus.
Wobble and blur of my soul, born only once,
That cleaves to circles. The moon, the eye, the year,
Circle of causes or chaos or turns of chance.

The line of a tune as it cycles back to the root,
Arc of the changes. The line from there to here
Of Ellen speaking, thread of my circle of friends,
The art of lines, chord of the circle of work.
Radius. Lives of children growing away,
The plant radiant in air, its root in dark.

Audio: Hear Robert Pinsky read "Vessel" (1:08)


What is this body as I fall asleep again?
What I pretended it was when I was small --

A crowded vessel, a starship or submarine
Dark in its dark element, a breathing hull,

Arms at the flanks, the engine heart and brain
Pulsing, feet pointed like a diver's, the whole

Resolutely diving through the oblivion
Of night with living cargo. O carrier shell

That keeps your trusting passengers from All:
Some twenty thousand times now you have gone

Out into blackness tireless as a seal,
Blind always as a log, but plunging on

Across the reefs of coral that scrape the keel --
O veteran immersed from toe to crown,

Buoy the population of the soul
Toward their destination before they drown.

Robert Pinsky's recent books include Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town (2009) and the poetry collection Gulf Music (2007). He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000 and currently directs the graduate writing program at Boston University.