In the spring of 1997, Robert Pinsky was teaching at Northwestern University outside Chicago as a writer in residence. He also had just been named US poet laureate, a post he would fill with distinction for an unprecedented three years. And “The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996,” a summary of his poetic achievement (and a Pulitzer Prize finalist), was out in paperback.
At a university bookstore reading, which I attended, Pinsky’s audience greeted him like a rock star. When it came time for him to read selections of his work, they called out the names of familiar poems like fans begging for hit songs at a Bruce Springsteen concert.
Pinsky grew up just a few miles from Springsteen’s Asbury Park, in Long Branch, N.J., the grandson of both a Prohibition-era bootlegger and a junk man. And as his new memoir, “Jersey Breaks,” makes clear, his vaguely hardscrabble Jewish roots in “what the ignorant might call the lower middle class” and his affinity for music were both integral to his poetry. “I sometimes think with my ears and voice, putting music above meaning,” Pinsky writes. “It’s a habit that has been my failing and my calling.”
Readers looking for a straightforward autobiographical narrative are unlikely to appreciate “Jersey Breaks.” Full of starts and stops, the volume is less memoir than a series of linked essays, with titles such as “The Aristocratic Principle,” “Naming Names,” and “American Signs.”
The book sheds light on Pinsky’s motivations and poetic development, as the subtitle (“Becoming an American Poet”) promises, but at the cost of some repetition and discursiveness. As one might expect of a poet, Pinsky prizes associative ruminations over linearity or drama. His recollections, embodying what he once called the “coarse sugar of memory,” range freely over time. They take in the impacts of his eclectic reading, his sense of being an outsider, and his outsize achievements.
Pinsky, professor of creative writing at Boston University, describes himself in a prologue as possessing a “bedeviled patriotism,” a “C-student’s distrust of worldly rewards and punishments,” and “an inward voice that spurs me to bring together disparate times, places and things.”
In the first chapter, “A Provincial Sense of Time,” he offers a scene from a Library of Congress luncheon in 2000, at the apogee of his successful stint as poet laureate. In tribute, a congressman has emphasized the poet’s literary debt to their shared hometown. Pinsky agrees, describing Long Branch as a compound of races and ethnicities and “all the other blends, resistances, suspicions, borrowings, intermarriages, rivalries and molten alloys of American cuisine, art and social life….” In prose, as in his poetry, he remains a lover of lists.
Recounting his family life, Pinsky details his optician father’s economic struggles, his mother’s health challenges after a disastrous fall, and their joint desire to escape a crowded apartment in Long Branch in favor of a more spacious suburban dwelling they could never quite afford.
As a child, Pinsky read with delight, but was too precocious to like school or succeed at it, his unruly behavior even landing him at one point in a remedial classroom. In the chapter “Music,” he confesses that his proficiency on the saxophone became his primary refuge.
At Rutgers University, “the show-off rebellion that got me bad grades” mostly subsided. Pinsky credits the tutelage of Paul Fussell, a US military veteran whose 1975 book, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” became a cultural classic. Fussell recognized Pinsky’s affinity for poetry, becoming one of his great teachers.
Robert Lowell was, in a way, another, though Pinsky admits it took him a while to see beyond the aristocratic bent of Lowell’s verse. He found readier loves in Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, W.B. Yeats, and 16th- and 17th-century English poetry. Another influence was Allen Ginsberg, who like Walt Whitman, celebrates the messy contradictions of American life.
To Pinsky, the country’s central issue is “the quest for a democratic culture.” He pursued that quest ardently as poet laureate, a position that cemented his celebrity. His signal accomplishment was founding the Favorite Poem Project, which produced public events, anthologies, and a video collection of Americans from all walks of life reading poems they found meaningful. After the disaster of 9/11, Pinsky soothed audiences with favorites of his own, including Czeslaw Milosz and Edgar Arlington Robinson.
Alongside university teaching on both coasts and serving as a magazine poetry editor, Pinsky’s prodigious literary pursuits have included writing a computer game (“Mindwheel”) and an opera libretto (“Death and the Powers”) and translating writers both living (Milosz) and dead (Dante). In the chapter “Hyper-Adventures,” Pinsky alludes to his “dislike for poetry that presented itself as above all ‘accessible,’ and also for poetry that held itself as too cool for meaning.” His own work — alternately conversational and symbolically dense, but only rarely opaque — stakes out the vast territory in between.
“I am an expert at nothing,” Pinsky writes in “Jersey Breaks,” with typical modesty and arguable accuracy, “except the sounds of sentences in the English language.” For the poet’s fans, that turns out to be more than enough.
JERSEY BREAKS: Becoming an American Poet
By Robert Pinsky
Norton, 240 pages, $26.95
Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaMKlein.