Anytime is a good time to read poetry, but winter is the
“Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine.” Thomas Campion
Robert Pinsky’s new book is a comfortable bedside
addition during the long winter we’ve had this
year. Its subtitle suggests learning to write (and read)
poetry, but I found it more a journey of appreciation.
“There are no rules.” is the first line of the book.
Pinsky begins with the agreeable premise that poetry —
good poetry– is in the mind of the reader, to what appeals
or has a ring of truth to it for the reader. This dispels a
worrisome factor that maybe I wouldn’t “get” what all the
When I was in college, in Introduction to Lit with Dr. P, I
would read the assigned poem–The Lotos-Eaters (Tennyson),
or whatever, and cogitate on its meaning, write a brief essay
and go into class the next day to hand it in.
What? That’s what it was about? Most of the time I
was clueless. Poetry was a mystery as far as I was
concerned. I soon learned that the theme often dealt
with the role of art, phallic symbolism, mythology or death.
Well, sometimes a reader wants to just enjoy the poetry and
Pinsky says that’s OK.
Freedom, Listening, Form and Dreaming Things Up are
the unit headings in this book. Seems straightforward.
He suggests that we read what we like, and then make it
our own—by memorizing, and especially, by copying
the poem, by hand, in a journal–to start our own
anthology of poetry we like. So I’ve started one.
(That’s the Freedom part.)
I also liked the Listening section–“A certain kind of knowledge
comes from following the dance between sentences and lines as
they coincide or pull against one another, in a shifting multitude
of ways and degrees.” Read that again and then read the two line
poem below by Walter Savage Landor.
“On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.”
You have to really slow down to read aloud that mouthful
of words–and that eased pace brings out the meaning of
For the last unit, Dreaming Things Up, Pinsky opens with “Part of
making a poem–does this need saying?–is a process of daydreaming.”
That makes sense. He says there is no “Singing School”–no school
where poets learn to “sing”, as dancers learn to dance. Poetry has
no “singing school”. But this book makes one want to dream and
Pinsky has cherry-picked poetry selections and talks
briefly about each. It’s a nice little course to while away your time,
and you won’t be graded at the end of the term.
Robert Pinsky was born in 1940 and was Poet Laureate of the United
States from 1997 to 2000. He currently teaches at Boston University.
This review, I hope, serves to introduce a guided tour of selected poems,
and is not meant to indicate a thoroughness of the subject. I found Pinsky
an easy advocate for poetry appreciation.