Robert Pinsky and Edoardo Sanguineti: Freedom in Poetry

Read the original article by Robert Pinsky here.

Who is Robert Pinsky to tell us all about freedom in poetry?  Here’s a bio from the poetry foundation, but suffice to say that he has been a professor in the humanities, English, and Creative Writing since 1967, and was elected Poet Laureate in 1997, serving until 2000.  His bio is a fascinating read; I recommend reading a little more about him and his projects.  His ‘Favourite Poem Project’ gives me hope for the arts in America, and I am nothing but impressed by the critics’ reception of his translation of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’

In the article Pinsky asserts that there are either no rules in poetry, or perhaps only the rules that the piece itself generates.  Of course, he makes mention of “reigning styles” becoming “tyrannical,” and dives headfirst into how he thinks rules are created, bypassed, and circumvented in poetry.  He spends some time on (relatively) modern-day poets rebelling against soft romantic images by rereading and mimicking the sharper, more ordered lines of Donne and Marvell, as well as the use of “form and idiom” instead of “grooving on images” before moving on to older works, and where one could benefit from imitating them.  After all, he says “You can learn from the past with little risk of merely aping it as you might ape your contemporaries.”

From there, he springboards from a sixteenth century ballad’s comedy to its usage of words, comparing it to Carrol’s ‘Jabberwocky.’  One needn’t know the meanings of the words to understand the feel of the poem, but looking up words – especially ones one thinks they already know – can be enlightening.  Old meanings, double meanings, carefully glossed over double entendres – these words, he says, can reveal much about the author or speaker and their intention.  Or, he readily admits, they are “possibly useless . . . they express the freedom of poetry” to use the lexical meanings of the words, or abandon all for nonsensical ramblings and grunts.

Pinsky debates humour with Kay Ryan at the 2009 Poets Forum.  Source.

Pinsky debates humour with Kay Ryan at the 2009 Poets Forum.  Source.

Mimicking his own points, he then brings us to the idea of movement and “sometimes sudden” change with little transition, showing us a poem by Ralegh and remarking on the contrast between the first half and the second.  Here he examines things more familiar to literature students: accents, end-stops, syllable counts of individual words.  It is a technical, scientific way to analyze poetry, much different from the organic, intuitive first half of the article.  Timing and subject are once again brought up to be analyzed a little more organically and intuitively, but for the most part he focuses on meter.  Then the use of repeated words: how an anonymous author creates a sense of suspense from title to the penultimate line with pairings, and a sense of finality echoing that of the subject matter with a ringing, meter-stopping use of a triple.

Pinsky closes with a short recapitulation on how all this connects back to the freedom of poetry, and how this freedom is useful.  Poetry establishes its own rules, much like the first few pages of Tolkien establish the world, and these rules can be carried throughout with cautious verisimilitude so as to see the familiar in a new way.

It is the fact that he translated ‘Inferno’ so carefully, with such regard to meter and natural-sounding English rhymes that I am inclined to apply his ideas to Edoardo Sanguineti’s “The Best of Me,” translated by Robert Hahn and Michela Martini in our summer issue.  It’s a beautiful piece of poetry that I’d like to send a hand-lettered copy of to my partner, short, sweet, and dense.  Reading it gave me a knot in my chest and some sand in my eyes.  “if I tear myself away from you, I get torn up: / but the best of me (or the worst) / stays attached to you” indeed.

Edoardo Sanguineti.  Source.

Edoardo Sanguineti.  Source.

Though there are no free uses of babbles and grunts – or at least not to the extent of my knowledge, I’m no student of Italian, and read only the translation – it is a lovely piece of work from an important figure in the Italian avant-garde or Gruppo ’63 movement.  Described as late futurists, the vanguard eschewed the tendency towards intimism that Italian poetry had of late (for them) moved towards. Instead, they tried to abjure all neo-capitalist language, resulting in almost nonsensical verses.  The poem is a prime candidate, therefore, to be analyzed with Pinsky’s ideas: it moves from a sweet lover’s note to a remark on others, and their senseless babble and hysteria, before moving back to the lover’s sentiment: “I still live for you, if I’m still alive,” he closes, the poem suddenly taking a much darker tone to a lover wanting to be with the beloved forever.

You can read more about Sanguineti in an obituary from The Guardian here.


This article written by Julianne Kimm Park Bellin