A Brief Guide
WHAT ever happened to poetry's reading public? Almost everyone with a stake in the matter seems to agree that serious cultural interest in poetry isn't what it used to be. The traditional idea that having at least an acquaintance with major poetry, both classical and modern, constitutes a necessary part of any respectable intellectual portfolio appears to have given way to the attitude that an affinity for poetry qualifies one for membership in an insular subculture, if not something closer to a secret society.
Robert Pinsky, who is currently serving his second term as perhaps the most visible U.S. poet laureate to date, has written a short book that should go a long way toward reuniting poetry and the public. It is a manual of proposals on how to read poems -- or, more accurately, how to "hear more of what is going on in poems." That distinction, in Pinsky's view, is vital, and it forms the premise for his succinct and lucid guide to enhancing one's understanding of poetry through a greater awareness of the "vocal nature of the art." The upshot is an achievement for which there is surprisingly little precedent: an authoritative yet accessible introduction to the tools of the poet's trade that can be read with profit by the serious student and the amateur alike.
Over the past thirty years Pinsky has earned distinction as a trenchant critic (The Situation of Poetry), an enterprising translator (Dante's Inferno), and, most notably, a prolific poet of broad scope and many-sided gifts (his volume of collected poems, The Figured Wheel, was published to wide acclaim in 1996). Not incidental to the work at hand, he also had what some would consider the mixed blessing of studying at Stanford University under the late poet and critic Yvor Winters, a brilliant but fabulously truculent figure now best remembered for fiercely attacking poets who in his judgment displayed an imperfect command of traditional verse techniques. An unreconstructed formalist, Winters patrolled the precinct of contemporary poetry like a cop walking a beat; Pinsky, who has written impressive poems in both "received" and "open" forms, is in contrast tolerably liberal-minded regarding issues of aesthetic law and order. That his book owes a certain debt to Winters's severe discipline but is in no way an act of discipleship is a credit to the stoutness of his critical temperament: he has absorbed the soundest aspects of Winters's conservatism without inheriting the least trace of his mentor's punitive disposition.