from The Yale Review, January 2014
Is it possible that the antonym of "forgetting" is not
"remembering" but justice?
—Yusef Hayim Yerushalmi
John Ashbery once wrote of Frank O'Hara that he was too hip for the square and too square for the hip. The same might go for Robert Pinsky, who, in spite of his achievements and reputation, has not received the kind of scholarly attention one might expect. Of course, I would not want to claim that Pinsky is particularly hip. In spite of the fact that his fierceness increases with age, he is still the master of the Horatian middle style, and his work is still marked by the rigors of his early formalism. But for all that, Pinsky has indeed become somewhat unruly, and his poems range onto unexpected terrain. Though he does not belong to any avant-garde, living or dead, his work does not belong to any traditional school, either. While he is a deeply intellectual writer, his career displays an endearing and committed old-style populism. He just does not fit.
I want to argue that Pinsky has set himself the task of remembering the present. In a famous letter to Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno reminds his friend that reification—the reduction of collective labor and shared history to atomized, isolated, and seemingly "natural" facts—is a kind of forgetting. Objects, he claims, become dead things to our perception and memory once we forget the nexus from which they come, the web of human relations and endeavors that inhere in them. One of the jobs of thinking, then, would be to reconstitute that nexus, to make it visible again. That, I will maintain, is the point of Pinsky's signature poem, "Shirt." Further, although Pinsky never resorts to Adorno's language, the drive to overcome reified forgetting has become the project of Pinsky's work in poetry and prose.
I'll begin in mid-course, with Pinsky's discussion of William Carlos Williams's iconic "The pure products of America / go crazy" in his 1999 essay "Poetry and American Memory." The stakes of Pinsky's overall argument in the article are clear and high. We Americans might make up a great nation but we have not yet decided to be a great people, in part because we have not agreed on what it is we will remember. As he puts it, "A people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory."
A lot, then, is riding on memory and on Williams's poem. Elsie, the young woman who worked for the Williams family, serves as the exemplary pure American product gone crazy:
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us—
ungainly hips and flopping breasts
addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes
as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth
while the imagination strains
going by fields of goldenrod in
the stifling heat of September.
Williams pits Elsie's "broken brain," her lack of taste, and adamantly unrefined body against her sexualized desire for social mobility, and he takes the pathos of the impossibility of her situation as an expression of the "truth about us." We are misguided materialists who live as if appetite were all, even though our stunted imaginations yearn for beauty. Williams, whose social criticism here is aesthetic, tropes transcendence as a form of everyday pastoralism, as nature softened by distance.
I am not making any new claims about this well-known passage here. Rather, I want to underscore how idiosyncratic Pinsky's own reading is. Pinsky argues that the poem points "toward a sharper, more candid form of American historical memory." The frustrated imagination, which seeks deer in the goldenrod, is damaged by a dearth of history. Pinsky does not care much about the deer or about the goldenrod. Picking up on Williams's assertion that poor young women are the victims of impoverished imaginations "which have no / peasant traditions to give them / character," Pinsky writes that
the failure of memory, the absence of peasant traditions or some adequate substitute for them, does entail a triumph of madness ... the land becoming to us nothing more than "an excrement of some sky." If the landscape is not haunted, Williams implies, then it is a meaningless excrement, frustrating the hunger of the imagination, and we are "degraded prisoners."
Pinsky does not share Williams's revulsion against a particularly American form of numb materialism, but asserts an all-important contrast between historical memory and madness. To be haunted, to live in an uncanny landscape inhabited by the shades of one's ancestors, is, Pinsky implies, to be imaginatively sane.
Pinsky's interpretation of the poem turns on his gloss of the term "pure," which he takes to mean "pure of history," that is, living in a "terrifyingly temporal isolation or silence." He argues that America has been driven mad by its illusory sense that the present has sprung full grown from the very ground it lives on. Pinsky argues in his discussion of Mark Twain in Thousands of Broadways that American provinciality is not based on a hidebound adherence to tradition, but on "a denial of memory," an ignorance that "presents itself as though pure, immemorial, and untainted by ancestral prejudice." The prejudice is there, to be sure. It just remains unacknowledged, and its secret ministry leads to the sheer craziness of American racism, which believes that it is somehow rational. According to "Poetry and American Memory," then, "The pure products of America / go crazy" counters this provincial blindness by "remembering Elsie," and "trying to trace the stream of her personal and extended history" as well as the other streams of history that flow into it. Pinsky therefore reads "The pure products of America / go crazy" as a principled reaction against the willed and willful amnesia that we adopt out of a spurious pride in some kind of ahistorical "purity."
In order to "remember" Elsie this way, the poem must take her as a product, not a person. It sees her as the concretion of natural and social processes. It places her in a series of possible narratives and contexts by casting her as the spawn of either a rather joyless roll under the viburnum or a cross-racial marriage (Elsie's dash of Indian blood), as the creature of a rather specific geography and as the client of more or less fumbling, paternalistic social services. (The poet, too, figures as a type in this story, as "some" doctor.)
You could argue that such remembering diminishes Elsie's dignity, that it reifies her, and indeed the poem's somewhat condescending distaste for the slatterns it describes is both dated and itself distasteful. But to spend too much time on our fastidiousness would be to miss "To Elsie's" normative power for Pinsky. To look at Elsie and pay no mind to her origins—why she comes specifically from the "ribbed North End of / Jersey," rather than from the slums of New York—is to forget who she is and why she is there.
To stretch my point to make it clear: to "remember" Elsie is to recognize her and the world in which she must live. If you forget all that, you sanction the kinds of violence—sexual and otherwise—and poverty that have "hemmed" her in in the first place. The problem as Pinsky sees it is not that we reduce Elsie to a product, for she is a product like the rest of us. The problem comes from fetishizing an ahistorical purity that does not see the production in the first place.
In Pinsky's personal glossary, the antonym for purity is creole and his recent poem of that name could well serve as his less despairing version of Williams's "The pure products of America / go crazy." "Creole" serves as a meditation on the simple, improvisational acts of creativity that we perform every day in the face of stupid, impersonal forces. Thinking of the people the Romans sent to the hinterlands to keep the empire running, he writes,
As I get it, the Roman colonizing and mixing, the intricate Imperial
Processes of enslaving and freeing, involved not just the inevitable
Fucking in all senses of the word, but also marriages and births
As developers and barbers, scribes and thugs mingled and coupled
With the native people and peoples. Begetting and trading, they
Needed to swap, blend and improvise languages—couples
Especially needed to invent French, Spanish, German: and I
Roman, barbarian—I find that Creole work more glorious than God.
For Pinsky, then, the bartering and swapping of words, money, and seed means that the modernist imperative of making it new is as old as power itself. There is not much justice in the process. Pinsky is clear that people are getting fucked as much as they are getting laid, but most important they are making it up as they go along in order to keep getting along. (Pinsky's ability to switch linguistic registers—his ability to use the word fucking and make it stick, has everything to do with his vision of creole.) There is a toughminded, daily heroism in this form of improvisation, and he takes it as one of the glories of American culture, like a good solo by Charlie Parker.
Such improvisation does not entail a break with the past. It marks a line of continuity, as long as you know how to follow it. The mongrel language of everyday life contains sufficient traces of its own history, if you listen carefully:
Optician comes from a Greek word that has to do with seeing.
Banker comes from an Italian word for a bench, where people sat,
I imagine, and made loans or change. Pinsky like "Tex" or "Brooklyn"
Is a name nobody would have if they were still in that same place:
Those names all signify someone who's been away from home a
Pinsky seems to imagine civilization as a permanent state of emigration, if not of exile, a constant state of creolization, "meaning to breed or to create, in a place." If the pure products of America—like Elsie—go crazy, its Creole products—abstract expressionism, rock and roll, the fortune cookie—make it sane, in the etymological sense of "healthy."
We should take seriously Pinsky's attempt to juggle therapeutic and moral terminology in the essay on American memory, his worrying about whether we are a nation of nuts or an ethically great people. In the end, the reason to remember Elsie—or the fact that Milford Pinsky became an optician by mistake and ended up making a good living in spite of that fact—has little to do with sanity. A perfectly sane people could forget the story in "Creole" of how the elder Pinsky got fired ("The year was 1947 and his boss, planning to run for mayor, / Wanted to hire an Italian veteran, he explained, putting it / In plain English.") just as it could forget that he got a loan from the WASP banker he knew in high school and then went on to make good. But what would that forgetting finally cost?
Here is Pinsky on a form of "forgetting" that he sees as a form of memory: the oblivion into which fall so many of the things that he, as an older man, (half-) remembers, the stuff that younger people no longer know:
Memory of so much crap, jumbled with so much that seems to
Lieutenant Calley. Captain Easy. Mayling Soong. Sibby Sisti.
And all the forgettings that preceded my own: Baghdad, Egypt, Greece,
The Plains, centuries of lootings of antiquities. Obscure atrocities.
A jumble, yes, but not a meaningless one. The associative jumps that are the poetry of memory bring together the now "obscure atrocity" of My Lai (in the name of Lieutenant Calley) with the maiden name of Madame Chiang and the long-running comic strip dedicated to Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune. The history of the Cold War draws a straight line from the Sunday funnies to a massacre in Vietnam. More to Pinsky's point: these are the things that the poet remembers, not the things he has forgotten. But they have been forgotten by others, just as he has "forgotten" the centuries of looting, destruction, and violence.
So perhaps forgetting is the wrong word. Can you forget what you have never known? Of course you can. The discarding of one generation's news by the next is an inevitable part of cultural transmission. There is, to use Pinsky's terms, only so much crap you can pass on. There is no reason for me—I am not quite twenty years Pinsky's junior—to remember what team Sibby Sisti played for, just as there is no reason for my daughters to be interested in the enthusiasms of my own retrospectively sweet adolescence.
Even so, the present's necessary fascination with itself and its own interests (here understood in the broadest of senses) can lead to terrifying results. Pinsky remembers being "there in New Jersey at the famous poetry show" when Amiri Baraka read his scurrilous poem accusing the Jews of complicity in the attacks of 11 September 2001. But Pinsky does not pay attention to Baraka. He zeroes in on the audience's response:
The crowd was applauding and screaming, they were happy—it isn't
That they were anti-Semitic, or anything. They just weren't listening.
No, they were listening, but that certain way. In it comes, you hear it,
Self-same second you swallow it or expel it: an ecstasy of forgetting.
Pinsky is describing a poetry circus here, complete with "a big tent" (both literally and figuratively), and "the crowd's" raucous appreciation is in keeping with the carnival feel of the event. It is hard for me to take the colloquialism of "or anything" straight. I hear Pinsky ventriloquizing the audience by mimicking rather baldly its flaccid language. Such flabbiness is important here. As Pinsky makes clear, the crowd's opinion of Jews isn't the issue. The audience isn't anti-Semitic in any conscious way. In fact, it isn't really conscious at all, and that is the problem. The hooting and hollering over Baraka's silliness ("Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day / Why did Sharon stay away?") betrays a kind of elemental narcissism, one that is embodied in Pinsky's key word: "Self-same."
Pinsky is describing less a pathology of memory than a brittle, vulnerable, sense of self, one that cannot maintain any critical distance. It cannot think about things. It has to eat them or spit them out in an orgy of incorporation. He sees such narcissism as a form of madness that involves memory only to the extent that under its shadow everything alien is forgotten. It gets quite literally swallowed up or vomited forth by an unstable and constantly avid self that seeks to escape from the demands of the world. I say this because Pinsky is describing what is ultimately an evasion of responsibility, and the language of therapy quite legitimately shades over into the language of ethics here. In the pathological new dispensation, we are not to hold Baraka responsible for the vicious silliness of his claims, just as the audience can go scot free for the fervor of its reaction.
On the one hand, Pinsky presents his poem as an alter kocker's cranky response to youth. (The moment when he calls his readers "you little young jerks" is a fine piece of self-mocking aggression.) And his complaint is therefore timeless. Some ancient Babylonian could have felt the same way. Nevertheless, there is something new about the big poetry show, something particularly (post) modern about this ecstasy of forgetting. After all, isn't poetry superintended at some point by the muse of memory? Poems shout "Siste, viator!" and we are supposed to stop and remember. But that is not the way it works under the new big tent. There we do not get the chastening of memory but the ecstasy of forgetting.
So, yes, Babylon might well have had its share of crotchety old guys, but Pinsky clearly thinks that the situation he describes is modern and particularly American. He has claimed that it is a particularly American form of madness to live without history. Just as modernity draws its norms from itself and not from tradition, so the United States (which Gertrude Stein claimed was the oldest modern country because it invented trench warfare) harbors that ignorance which prides itself on being immemorial.
Furthermore, the kind of forgetting that Pinsky is most worried about is willful: its ecstasy is sought after. I think that this concern provides the satiric force behind his poem "Louie Louie." The speaker of the poem claims never to have heard of a number of people and things, all of which are strung together in a metonymical chain of association:
I have heard of Kwanzaa but I have
Never heard of Bert Williams.
I have never heard of Will
Rogers or Roger Williams
Or Buck Rogers or Pearl Buck
Or Frank Buck or Frank
Merriwell At Yale.
It seems fair—at least at the start—to assume that the speaker of the poem is truly ignorant. Perhaps the speaker is young and has not heard of any of these old-timers. Bert Williams, the great African American blackface entertainer, died in 1922. Will Rogers died in 1935, and the actor and animal collector Frank Buck passed away in 1950. Pearl Buck published The Good Earth in 1931. Buck Rogers's first serial kicked off in the early twenties and, apart from a video game or two, disappeared from sight in the early eighties. Frank Merriwell is of an even earlier vintage. He was created in the 1890s (though he was the subject of a radio serial in the 1950s). The outlier in this series is of course Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and a defender of religious tolerance; while a young person might be given a pass for not having read Frank Merriwell at Yale, not to have heard of Roger Williams is perhaps a little less forgivable.
But such a passive ignorance is not really the issue. The poem goes on:
I have heard of Yale but I never
Heard of George W. Bush.
I have heard of Harvard but I
Never heard of Numerus Clausus
Which sounds to me like
Some kind of Pig Latin.
Yale, yes: Bush no. Maybe this is magical thinking. How many people wish they had never heard of President Bush or that nobody had? Or maybe it is a sign not of ignorance but of ignoring what is there to seen, heard, or remembered. Hence the forgetting of the Numerus Clausus, the long-standing restrictive quota against Jews in Poland, Russia, and then the United States. It is piggish, to be sure and it is Latin, but hardly Pig Latin. It might sound like it to the speaker, but that is only because the speaker does not care to find out what it actually means. With that, the subject—both the topic of discussion and the speaker him- or herself—is closed.
This lack of curiosity about injustices both historical and contemporary (if you identify President Bush with his administration's high-profile defense of torture and its policy of extraordinary rendition) is matched by a lack of interest in its historical aspirations:
I have never heard America
Singing but I have heard of I
Hear America Singing, I think
It must have been a book
We had in school, I forget.
The book in question seems to be Ruth Barnes's 1937 collection of American folk ballads and could well have been a book "we had in school." Even having heard of it—having read it—is not proof against forgetting it. More to the point, the title of the book brings us back to Walt Whitman's specific, idealized vision of America and his dream of being able to hear the songs of all the different occupations in their particularity: "Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else / The day what belongs to the day." The speaker has not heard what Whitman hears, this chorus of individual voices in the full dignity of their apparently unalienated labor. Nor does he or she recall the way the poems in Barnes's book hew, in Carl Van Doren's words, "close to the affairs of common life, and ... the common language of those who know about them." The speaker has not heard either the "e pluribus," or—we have to suppose—the "unum" that American pluralism is supposed ultimately to create. The speaker has forgotten this country's higher aspirations.
Although Pinsky was born in 1940 and therefore came too late for the Popular Front, there is more than a hint of thirties populism to his poetry. I am thinking here of the kind of solidarity that enlivens Stephen Vincent Benét's "Ode to the Austrian Socialists," which was published in 1936 at a moment when Benét was devoting his time to "writing material for both private and government agencies and sitting with almost every anti-fascist committee in New York." While there is a clear difference of occasion between Pinsky's satire and Benét's ode, their impetus is similar. Who remembers the February Uprising of 1934, when the military shelled working-class housing estates in Vienna? In the face of atrocities to come, this failed revolution barely rates. But Benét did not want those four days of struggle—or the fifteen hundred victims of the government's actions—to fall into oblivion and so writes a recognizably traditional elegy in his "Ode to the Austrian Socialists":
Bring no flowers here,
Neither of mountain nor valley,
Nor even the common flowers of the waste field
That still are free to the poor;
No wreaths upon these graves, these houseless graves;
But bring alone the powder-blackened brass
Of the shell-case, the slag of bullets, the ripped steel
And the bone-spattering lead,
Infertile, smelling acridly of death,
And heap them here, till the rusting of guns, for remembrance.
Benét's anger stems from his commitment to the sheer ordinariness of the socialists:
These were ordinary people.
The kind that go to the movies and watch parades,
Have children, take them to parks, ride in trolley cars,
The workmen at the next bench, the old, skillful foreman;
You have seen the backs of their necks a million times
In any crowd and forgotten ....
Benét's poem, originally published two years after the uprising, is aimed point-blank at an American audience that has indeed forgotten those everyday people and their courage. He assumes that his readers cannot imagine the government bombarding its own civilians in their homes and that they will therefore look the other way when in fact the government—another person's government—does just that. Justice demands that they remember until "the rusting of guns" forever. It demands memory and action.
Pinsky is a much better and subtler poet than Benét, to be sure (although Benét is more historically interesting than his negligible reputation indicates). But like Benét, Pinsky inherits from Whitman something of a sense that poetry should tender a brief for the dignity of common American life, and he shares with Benét the sense that memory and justice implicate each other. His poems therefore attempt to remind us of that dignity and that life. The drive to remember what reification has forgotten generates Pinsky's most famous poem, "Shirt," where the poet tallies up the unexpected excellences and hidden costs of the most everyday commodity. He thinks of all the people whose work has gone into making it:
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields.
Among the descendants of those slaves is a "Black / Lady," named Irma, who inspected the very shirt he is going to put on. But she is not only the grandchild or great-grandchild of slaves. According to Pinsky, she really is a lady in the old, feudal sense of that word, because he casts her as the heir of the great seventeenth-century poet George Herbert. She has poetry in her blood or, more to the point, her powers of discrimination and judgment have the dignity of a poet's.
Like Pinsky, Irma pays the closest attention to the most common of things. Irma, like Pinsky, probably has a sense of the history of slavery and exploitation—the poem includes a vignette of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—that lies behind this bit of tailored cloth. She definitely understands the skill that goes into it. Pinsky does as well. He revels in the language of shirts, the vocabulary of its details: "The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters / Printed in black on neckband and tail." Whitman hears America singing the workers' songs and Pinsky sings the song of the everyday shirt, which he takes as both a small miracle of ingenuity and the product of hard toil and real suffering. It is complex in its associations and complicities. In a note at the end of Gulf Music, Pinsky claims that "every thing is an invisible assembly." The point of "Shirt" is to make visible that assembly and tally some of its costs.
"Shirt" recollects both the shirt and Irma; calls to mind the history of poetry and slavery, the complex circuits of transportation and commerce that bring it to market. It remembers the actions of navvies and sorters and carters and carders. For Pinsky, there is history and knowledge lodged in the shirt that is waiting to be reconstructed. And literature gains its saliency as the repository of that history and knowledge. This is most visible in Pinsky's increasingly numerous poems of and about memory, but also in his discussion in Thousands of Broadways of books and movies—like Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson and Preston Sturges's Miracle at Morgan's Creek—which remind us, now that the world of Main Street has been transformed into a new, sprawling metropolitan reality, of both the historical limitations and the possibilities of small-town life. For Pinsky, the never-quite-Orthodox Jew and never-orthodox poet, so much depends on the poet's—and reader's—powers of interpretation.
If I am accurate in my view of Pinsky's solidarities and concerns, then we can see why he thinks it is important for us as citizens of the republic to remember the course of Milford Pinsky's career as an optician or the source of Elsie's broken brain and thwarted desires. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, he thinks that we are a great nation, but is not sure that we are a great people. We are a great nation in that we are the most powerful country in the history of the world. But greatness in a people seems to mean something more. He indicates at the start of "Poetry and American Memory" that such greatness rests on "the relation of the well-off to the poor; the meaning and the future of race and ethnicity; the degree to and manner in which we share responsibility for the aged, the sick, the needy; even our mission and place among the world's nations." That is to say, it has to do with our sense of our moral selves and not with our ability to use guns or consume butter. It has to do with the kinds of connections and improvisations that got the elder Pinsky his job, lost him that job, and then snagged him both a loan and success. It has to do with the poverty, backwardness, and violence that made Elsie who she is. It has to do with the real cost of a shirt. It has to do with the position we take in relation to these things.
Even so, Pinsky remains a peculiar kind of public poet in that he is so resolutely personal in his references and, apart from the occasional swipe, does not take prescriptive stands in the manner of Benét or, in a different register, Robert Lowell. He might hint at such stands in his essays and he might nod at them in his poems, but that is as far as he goes. He is perhaps too good a modernist, too committed a pluralist—a creolist, for want of a more precise word—for that. (Alternatively, one could say that, good modernist that he is, he is too ambivalent, too interested in ambiguity to be an out-and-out nostalgist.)
Trying to figure just what kind of poet Pinsky is, David Wojahn writes: "The temples of the ancient Sumerians employed various priests and functionaries, but one of the most important occupations was that of 'chief lamenter,' the reciter and singer of hymns. The chief lamenters' function and artistry were civic, but the best of them must have had voices and individual styles comparable to the idiosyncratic majesty of Robert Pinsky." Fair enough, but although Pinsky has written his share of elegies, his poems of and about memory are not laments as such. In this he differs from Adorno and Benjamin because he is anything but a melancholiac. He is concerned not with the past but with the present. It is worth bearing in mind that Pinsky claims that Williams remembers Elsie even while Elsie is right there, helping out in the good doctor's house. Pinsky can propose this odd paradox because he is fond of quoting Faulkner's quip that the past is never past. Along the same lines, so much of Pinsky's recent work shows how the present is never really present. Rather, it describes an invisible assembly that the past is always preparing, constructing, and reconstructing. Pinsky wants us to remember this receding and advancing present, to remember Elsie, so that we don't take her for granted, so that we don't forget who we might yet become.
* * *
About the Author
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University. He is most recently the author of Telling Stories: Philip Guston's Later Works (California, 2010) and is presently working on a book on the New York School and its aftermath.
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