Book Review | A Jewish Kid Who Loved Yeats

Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet
By Robert Pinsky
W.W. Norton. 236 pp. $26.95

Robert Pinsky’s father, an Orthodox Jewish optician in Long Branch, New Jersey, liked to sum up success stories with a favorite phrase: “It all worked out okay.” If he could look down at his
82-year-old son today, he’d doubtless invoke the same expression. After all, Ruveyn Nachman ben Moshe (“I have a Hebrew name,” Robert Pinsky tells us) became poet laureate of the United States; the author and editor of more than 20 books; a professor of creative writing at Wellesley, Berkeley and Boston University; and enough of an attentive Jew—he wrote The Life of David, and his autobiographical writings draw on the kosher household where he “heard Yiddish every day”—that Dad would certainly be pleased.

Pinsky doesn’t disagree. “I’ve had a long, and as the saying goes, charmed life,” he writes.

Throughout his books of poetry and nonfiction reflections on the art—notably The Sounds of Poetry (1998) and Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry (2003)—Pinsky has always evoked his Jewish background and Jewish themes without getting too close to them. He never wanted to be a Jewish-American poet, just as Bellow, Malamud and Roth never wanted to be “Jewish-American” novelists.

In both his poetry and his criticism, Pinsky argues for a rich, expansive grasp of the world in its wonderful concreteness, its enormous multicultural breadth, its musicality, its unavoidable bond between body and mind. “I would like to write a poetry,” Pinsky once said, that “would contain every kind of thing, while keeping all the excitement of poetry.” As poet laureate, he vicariously achieved that ecumenical hope by launching the Favorite Poem Project, soliciting choices from the public that led to three successful anthologies boasting a wide variety of subjects and aesthetic choices.

In his ninth decade, Pinsky still writes vulnerably of his “confusions about Jews.”

Perhaps understandably, then, Pinsky always gives far greater weight to his love of poetry in general than to any narrower tradition. He nonetheless reveres traditional American and British poetry, which is the canon in which he prefers to be situated. When a national organization sending poets into high schools wanted him to speak about the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, it’s no surprise that he replied he’d rather talk about Emily Dickinson.

In his ninth decade, Pinsky still writes vulnerably of his “confusions about Jews” and his early turn toward “the larger, secular world.” Even as he acknowledges worrying, as a young writer, whether others might see him as “bending my neck to the yoke of a majority Christian culture” because of his enthusiasm for the standard American and British poetic canon, he declares that William Butler Yeats helped him resist “two entities that once threatened to form me: Christianity and Judaism.” The great Irish poet’s “artifice of eternity” in “Sailing to Byzantium,” Pinsky recalls, “stunned me with its final assurance to include everything: ‘what is past, or passing, or to come,’ not just the world of art, but the entire, actual world where art is the supreme element.”

The poem, Pinsky continues, “embodied a spiritual power—a secular spiritual power” that preserved him from obeisance to either Judaism or Christianity. “Those religions were trying to tell me who I was,” he explains. He preferred “Yeats’s crazy, homemade religion of art,” with its “happy authority, a grace beyond anything I found in the two great religions.”

Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet, Pinsky’s first full-length memoir, displays him performing that career-long balancing act between wholesale cosmopolitanism and the Jewishness to which he was born. Nostalgic memories are mixed with critical opinions on his art form.

Old-time Long Branch characters such as junkyard owner Izzy Ash and the town’s Reform rabbi, Dr. Tartufkovich, appear in these pages, as do writerly luminaries such as Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, urging Pinsky to translate the whole of Dante’s Inferno, and Heaney’s fellow Nobelist Czeslaw Milosz, on Pinsky’s couch in Berkeley, asking him if he likes a new Milosz poem. Pinsky lovingly evokes his mother Sylvia throughout the book, especially her sharp wisecracks: how she’d pinch a bit of her long dark hair in a familiar routine and place it under her husband’s nose to tease him, saying, “Everybody’s looking for Hitler, and all the time here he is in Long Branch.”

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There’s undeniable pleasure in Pinsky’s ruminating, rambling and endless self-referencing toward the end of a much-rewarded literary career. His portrait of a beloved teacher at Rutgers, literary scholar Paul Fussell (a longtime friend of this reviewer) beautifully brings Fussell back to life. Pinsky nicely captures the droll snobbery of the former U.S. Army lieutenant, wounded in harsh World War II combat in France, who rose to academic and intellectual fame. Pinsky loved his mentor’s wry skeptical take on all things. He recalls Fussell’s standard reply when anyone told him, “Have a nice day.” “Thank you,” Fussell would respond, “but I have other plans.”

Pinsky’s tale of voicing a “self-centered, yellow-headed version of myself” in a Simpsons episode reveals that he’s equally aware of how his own ego sometimes looks to others. Both the astute, thoughtful Pinsky and the one often looking in the mirror are everywhere in this book.

Pinsky’s autobiographical stories contain little personal drama but much appealing color and detail. Born and raised in a “historic, perpetually declining American resort town,” a multicultural melting pot that also gave the world Dorothy Parker (née Rothschild), he admires his tough-guy bootlegger grandfather, “Zaydee Pop” Dave, and loves his modest parents.

“I talk about the town too much,” he admits, but it soon becomes apparent why we’re reading about President Garfield being shot on his way to vacation there, and celebrity gambler Diamond Jim Brady parading about town. He wants you to know that “I came from somewhere.”

Young Pinsky played the saxophone in a jazz band in high school and college and loved it, but then shifted toward poetry. Eventually, despite seeing himself as a “C student,” he attended graduate school at Stanford. Armed with a PhD and a praised first book of poems, he went on to teach at distinguished institutions and enjoy one of the most successful careers in American poetry.

Pinsky’s thoughts on poetry in this volume, intermixed with tales of Pinsky in North Korea, Pinsky at the White House, and so on, remain consistent with his two midcareer manifestos The Sounds of Poetry and Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry. “I just write poems,” he explains. “I am an expert on nothing except the sounds of sentences in the English language.” And poetry itself is “that peculiar form of musical composition in speakable words, an ancient bodily and imaginative art.”

He elevates the physicality of poetry above semantics, writing, “I sometimes think with my ears and voice, putting music above meaning. It’s a habit that has been my failing and my calling.” And indeed, in some respects, Pinsky’s work accorded with the greater opaqueness acceptable in American poetry of his time—the movement from Robert Frost to John Ashbery—so long as the lines rang. Even in discussing his well-received translation of the Inferno, Pinsky emphasizes the “watchmaker’s precision” with which he tried to perform his form of metrical engineering while remaining “respectful of Dante’s meaning.”

Pinsky’s thoughts on his Jewishness tumble out less coherently. At times he seems obsessed with Jews who prudently changed their names to succeed: Issur Danielovich to Kirk Douglas, the Goldwasser family to Goldwater, his own uncle Morton Pinsky to Martin Penn. Pinsky resisted that. At the same time, he observes, “I never think of myself as Ruveyn, but there it is.”

About his bar mitzvah, he admits, as many Jewish teenagers would, “The only part of the words I didn’t know was their meaning.” He’s a tad snippy about that, calling understanding one’s haftarah “a deferred luxury” as one rehearses it “phrase by phonetic phrase.” Later, when he expands on the source of his own haftarah, Isaiah 66, with its condemnation of hollow worship, Pinsky’s visceral identification with his Jewishness and his cerebral critique of the ironies and paradoxes of American Jewish life both come through. He questions why both his father and grandfather took saying Kaddish for 11 months so seriously: Of his father, he writes, “I can’t recall a single word about religion from him, ever.” Remembering the post-service Sabbath feasts at his Orthodox shul, he quips, “I have disliked buffets ever since.”

Some absences counterbalance the significant pleasures of this memoir. Remarkably, Pinsky writes almost nothing about his wife of 61 years, psychologist Ellen Jane Bailey, or his three children. Also, in a memoir that repeats thoughts he’s published before about Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Milosz, Yeats and other mighty poets who preceded him—a memoir that includes the White House event for “notable American Jews” where he schmoozed with pitching great Sandy Koufax—Pinsky, despite decades of teaching poetry to young people, pays no attention to younger poets.

One leaves Jersey Breaks pleased that the author got his share of those breaks along the way, but wondering whether the self-regard that grew with them blocked his ability to bear witness to some parts of his life. Perhaps that’s no big deal. As his dad used to say, “It all worked out okay.” And no less than Bruce Springsteen declares on the cover of this memoir that Pinsky is “Truly the voice of the Jersey Shore.” Next to a blurb from the Atlantic Ocean, that’s the best you can get.

Carlin Romano is Moment’s critic-at-large.

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