Book Review: Singing School by Robert Pinsky

Pinsky 002

Anytime is a good time to read poetry, but winter is the
best time–because

“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
poems mean.

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.

my old lit book©booksandbuttons

my old lit book©booksandbuttons

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
the poem.

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
learn more.

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.




Share Button
This entry was posted in book review, books, poetry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Singing School by Robert Pinsky

  1. LadyFancifull says:

    I really like the instruction to write out the poem by hand. There is something divorced from your own presence, and presentness in this immediate moment, in the mechanics of how type appears on the screen.

    Handwiritng is some sort of mind map, I assume the act which takes place with the dominant hand sets up different neural pathways from the very repetitive act of typing. The fine control of a pen and the individual visuals and style of each person’s writing must I think connect with that less logical, more imaginative way of thinking, more imagistic, more a whole ‘grasp’

    WRITING a poem down feels more like speaking a poem aloud, somehow the poem seems as if it will enter into the physical life of the reader, be bound in with the muscular movements needed to form particular letters, whereas typing is just a matter of shifting the fingers across the keys, otherwise the act is the same whichever combination of letters is produced

    • booksandbuttons says:

      I love your description of writing. I have house company
      currently, and was just talking about copying poems to one of
      our guests—and trying to explain the sensation of writing a
      poem, making it your own. You said it in just the
      right words.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I was only so-so on this book. I really liked the parts where Pinsky talked about poetry and reading poetry. I too started a personal poetry anthology because of this book. What I was disappointed in was that most of the book was poems without comment or analysis. I wanted more of his prose sections and less of his poetry selection.

    • booksandbuttons says:

      It’s true, you’re right. I think I *wanted* to like the book more.
      I liked the idea of it. The important thing (heh) is that I’m going
      to use my new fountain pen that I bought in Montreal to write out
      the poems in my “anthology”. And maybe use my old high school
      Esterbrook pen, too. I’ll let you all know how that goes along.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *