Robert Pinsky grew up in the fading resort town of Long Branch, New Jersey, among an earthy mix of Irish, Italians, Jews, and Black and white Protestants; add to this his bootlegger grandfather, his straight-arrow father, his wisecracking mother, and his distrust of privilege, and you have the makings of an American poet.
Pinsky was drawn to poetry by a full range of American voices — Emily Dickinson and Duke Ellington, Mark Twain and Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, and Marianne Moore — which necessarily included the music he heard during his childhood. An unenthusiastic and somewhat recalcitrant high school student, Pinsky was rescued from total failure by music, playing his saxophone at high school and fraternity dances and local events. But by the time he entered college, Pinsky was undergoing a gradual conversion from music to poetry, rocked by Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and its celebration of the eternity of art. Pinsky says that he hopes to do in poems what he had wanted to do with his horn: return “to a theme with more emotion each time” and reach, like a great jazz player, a “specific heaven.”
Among the pleasures of Jersey Breaks are Pinsky’s thoughts on how melodies and words work, how the energy of a poem — “the propulsive spoken tune” — transcends the formal limits of meter and rhyme, how music and poetry fuse, and how poetry takes the reader beyond specific feelings and ideas. Pinsky’s poems do not begin on paper; they begin when he speaks or hums to himself, because for him, poetry is a vocal art. It is meant to be read aloud. Another pleasure of Jersey Breaks is Pinsky’s generous embrace of poetry from the sixteenth century onward and his interesting relationship to the work of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.
“Hum a few bars, and we’ll fake it” is often Pinsky‘s response to unlikely opportunities. Asked to translate a canto of Dante’s Inferno, Pinsky was so captivated by the technical challenge of rendering terza rima in English that he took on a translation of the entire poem, to admiring reviews. Knowing nothing about computers, he accepted the invitation of a software company to create an interactive computer game; a similar invitation led him to write a libretto for an opera featuring singing robots. As the American poet laureate from 1997 through 2000, he was called upon on 9/11 to find the words for the unspeakable — even as he was stranded in California after a star turn in a Simpsons episode.
During his tenure as poet laureate, Pinsky launched the Favorite Poem Project to demonstrate his belief in the prevalence of poetry in American life and its significance to Americans everywhere. Volunteers were sought to read their favorite poems and discuss its importance to them. Two senators and a third-grader, a construction worker and a Cuban-American Marine, among others, read their poems in places they chose. The project launched in the White House in 2000 with Bill Clinton reading Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” and culminated with a vigorous video portrait of American culture and a number of Norton Anthologies. Videos from the Favorite Poem Project are available online. The project is ongoing.
Jersey Breaks is not a memoir in the usual sense of the word. In each chapter, Pinsky recalls a person or event that marked a significant step on his road to his becoming an American poet. Candid, invigorating, personal, and humane, Jersey Breaks sums up the experiences of a dedicated public poet. It is also a tribute to how a truly American life — a Jewish-American experience shaped by the down-to-earth sensibilities of New Jersey — can inspire a national culture founded on a love for poetry.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.