Robert Pinsky was one of the first “contemporary” poets heard read. I remember it very clearly; I was a senior in high school on a trip to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and he was reading in the big tent just before the bus was scheduled to go. We waited to hear him and then hit the road for the long drive back home. I was always glad we waited, and I’m sure that that was a defining moment in my love of poetry. Pinsky was spell-binding. He was serious and silly at the same time, and he read with such passion and grace that I was sure the guy was the greatest writer who ever lived.
Yet despite that experience, I have never been a big fan of Pinsky’s writing. I wanted to love him. I really did. I read through one of his books while in college and was bored to tears. Every now and again, I look up a poem or two of his and go through it, hoping to capture some of the magic of that day 12 years ago, but it’s never been the same. I’ve actually seen him read since then, and again was fascinated by him. So I have been left to think that he’s the type of person who is just better in person and doesn’t translate well into reading.
And then I read this:
Now near the end of the middle stretch of road
What have I learned? Some earthly wiles. An art.
That often I cannot tell good fortune from bad,
That once had seemed so easy to tell apart.
The source of art and woe aslant in the wind
Dissolves or nourishes everything it touches.
What roadbank gullies and ruts it doesn't mend
It carves the deeper, boiling tawny in ditches.
It spends itself regardless into the ocean.
It stains and scours and makes things dark or bright:
Sweat of the moon, a shroud of benediction,
The chilly liquefaction of day to night,
The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather
To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
In ripples of heat the August drought still feeds
Vapors in the sky that swell to drench my state -
Of indissoluble grudge and aspiration:
Original milk, replenisher of grief,
Descending destroyer, arrowed source of passion,
Silver and black, executioner, source of life.
Man, was I missing something! This poem actually took my breath away. I read it late last night and have had it on my mind since. (I recently discovered the joy of the Amazon Marketplace, where you can buy “used” books for next to nothing, and I’ve purchased a dozen poetry books in the last month. Jersey Rain by Robert Pinsky was one of them.)
Pinsky creates a vivid image of a dull reality. I knew that he was a NJ native, but so few people not named Bruce Springsteen have been able to capture that sense of tough vulnerability that so defines this state. “The chilly liquefaction of day to night,/ The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:/ It smites Metuchen,
Now, after reading this poem, I am looking back over the rest of the poem in this book and realizing that, one-by-one, I have been wrong. I’ve gone through the first six or seven poems in the book and loving each of them.
Mr. Pinsky, I apologize. I have been wrong about you for years and I regret wasting this time. What can I say? I wasn’t ready, I guess.