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  • Pinsky and Forgetting
  • Mark Halliday (bio)

Like you and me, Robert Pinsky is scared by the destructions of time. Everything we’ve cared about is dissolving—and we let it happen! No, wait—it has to happen—time equals change equals loss—but we still seem guilty—because we forget, we let go. . . . Yet also many of us (including most poets, arguably all poets) scheme to counteract the passage of time or at least to hang on heroically to traces, traces. . . . But the keepable traces are not the original realities, and anyway they amount to one percent of one percent of one percent of what you cared about.

Pinsky’s poem “The Garden” (History of My Heart, 1984) is one of his efforts to acknowledge the inescapability of letting go. Persons known long ago—and even not so long ago—are led into a shady garden in the mind:

  And like statuary of dark metal

Or pale stone around the pond, the living and the dead, Young and old, gather where they are brought: some nameless; Some victims and some brazen conquerors; the shamed and the haunters;

The harrowed; the cherished; the banished—or mere background   figures, Old men from a bench, girl with glasses from school—all brought   beyond Even memory’s noises and rages, here in the quiet garden.

Although “the cherished” comprise only one of the many categories cited there, the whole poem is shadowed by the sense that as you live [End Page 388] your life, you cherish the perceiving self who notices various other persons, and to lose so many individuals who once focused your attention is to lose some of your life, some of your self. This losing is involuntary—and necessary for sanity (since your mind can’t function if it tries to retain every impression in accessible files). If so, then obsessing about this losing tilts toward neurosis, perhaps. Robert Pinsky’s poetry has helped me think about this, again and again, in poems that I’ve wanted never to forget.

Memory and forgetting are adversaries in an endless contest that forgetting is always winning, by monstrous margins, though memory keeps achieving tiny brief local victories.

Throughout his career Pinsky has wanted to be a poet of heroic unsurrendering memory—not just memory of one’s own personal life, which is the terrain of innumerable good and bad autobiographical poets, but memory of the story of a community, a society, a culture, and even of our entire species. The ambition is consciously superhuman, pressing beyond the capacity of any individual mind—as Walt Whitman had to forget and realize and re-forget and re-realize throughout his decades of adding to Leaves of Grass, that giant work that ultimately could not escape being finite. Like Whitman, though with more ironic coolness than Whitman could tolerate, Pinsky has felt that the effort to see everything, to register everything insightfully, while guaranteed (from a rational vantage point) to fail, is nevertheless a beneficial and needful effort, an effort that may bring to readers some kinds of understanding and relief not provided by poetry that stays within one individual’s experience.

Sustaining this godlike synoptic project through many poems requires (though it need not mushroom into Pound-like madness) a brazen, brash confidence; this spirit is floridly charming in Whitman (for those of us who love him), and is charming in a cooler, less ingratiating way in Pinsky. Whitman, when he was “afoot with his vision,” felt beamingly sure of his huge power to see and appreciate. Pinsky [End Page 389] may often have felt something like that sense of power, but in him it is always shadowed by awareness of the foolish hubris into which any visionary is apt to slide. In Pinsky there is a deep and central desire to be nobody’s fool, including a desire not to be duped by the seeming authority of his own connective evocations of patterns in human experience. So the crucial energy in many—maybe most—of Pinsky’s poems flows from the tension between the craving for transpersonal or suprapersonal seeing and the awareness of ways in which that seeing may be mistaken and will...


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pp. 388-407
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