His first collection, Sadness and Happiness, was published in 1975 and was singled out for praise by Robert Lowell for its combination of intellectual ambition and technical brilliance. These have continued to be hallmarks of Pinsky's wide-ranging poems. Pinsky has been the recipient of many prizes and awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams award and nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the Pulitzer Prize for The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996. He is an important critic and translator, his 1995 version of Dante's Inferno remains the benchmark by which subsequent translations are judged. In 1997 he began an unprecedented 3-year term as US Poet Laureate. He used this role to found the America's Favourite Poem project, a programme dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry's role in Americans' lives. The project spawned an anthology and a decade later is still running, via a popular website. His most recent collection, Gulf Music: Poems (2007) responds to recent political events, struggling to move from despair to purposeful anger. Pinsky currently lives in Massachusetts and teaches on the graduate writing programme at Boston University.
The title of the Pinsky interview in Guernica magazine quoted from earlier, is 'Thrilling Difficulty', an apt description of Pinsky's poems with their broad and deep frame of reference and their unapologetic debt to modernism. The artists Pinsky most admires - John Coltrane, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce - he describes as generating "a simultaneous clarity and smokiness." These are qualities evident in these poems, with their restless enquiry and refusal to accept neat endings. Even in a relatively short poem like 'Antique' Pinsky travels a huge distance through time and space, from the mythical past of Orpheus, through the classical history of Rome into the present moment and a particular "you" to whom the poem's addressed. This agility within a single poem is even more marked in the longer pieces. 'The Shirt' is a tour de force in this respect, combining lyrical descriptions of the shirt's appearance and construction with the complex political and historical contexts of its manufacture. This technique has a moral force, the poems' fragmented narratives ultimately emphasising how everything does connect, no matter how much political forces may seek to emphasise difference. As one critic puts it, Pinsky's poems remind us that "history has its own rhymes and chords."
As this quote suggests, while fragmentation is often his subject, Pinsky's mastery of form keeps the poems intact, connecting their seemingly disparate parts through a spine of sound as in the last lines of 'The Shirt':
"...The shape, / The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt."
Pinsky has always emphasised the importance of music in his poetry and has written an acclaimed book on the subject, The Sounds of Poetry (1998). Nowhere is this complex music more apparent than in his elegy to his friend, Elliot Gilbert, 'Impossible to Tell'. The poem's weaving of voices and traditions is like the interlocking, multi-authored renga of Japanese lyric poetry which is the poem's central metaphor. It's a remarkable vocal performance, the patterns of sound, anecdote, joke and accent a means of staving off the dark.
His recording was made on 6 June 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts.