Lenny Bruce

Robert Pinsky

I saw him in San Francisco at the Purple OnionWhen I was still at Stanford, a Teaching AssistantGetting the “Ode to a Nightingale” by heart.Out of prison on bail, soon he would die.One of the charges against him was saying “shmuck.”He reminded me of my teacher Irving Howe:The impatience of an improvising spiritHurtling beyond a footnote or a punch lineLike a light-wingëd dryad in the trees.The comic with months to live was only 40.I thought he talked too much about his trials—Forgive me please, I was barely 24.The cover charge, on my tiny fellowship,A tender gesture menaced by hornets and grackles.“Is money all you people think about?”Being a lizard I’m not sure what to say.John Keats in a letter says that now he’s ready“To cheat as well as any literary Jew”—One more example, ho hum, how could it matterTo me as a secret reptile from outer spaceCharmed by your human poetry and music?Howe happened to be at Stanford that one year.My poetry teacher Yvor Winters deploredThe “awful mess” of Keats’s mind. I didGet him to concede the “Ode” was beautiful.He seemed surprised and happy when I told himHowe had assigned his essay on Henry James.“Alright, it’s true! We killed him. What a bad scene,It was us, my family did it, we found a note IKilled Jesus in the basement, signed Cousin Morty.”I’m grateful to Lenny Bruce for saying that.I pardon Keats for being a shmuck— the wordA homey metaphor meaning a bangle, a gem,Diminutive for a child is schmeckel, a spokenPrecious ornament weighed and appreciatedIn the jazzy sacred scales of appropriation.

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Headshot of Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky’s autobiography Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet, appeared in October, 2022. His books of poetry include Selected Poems, The Want Bone, At the Foundling Hospital, and The Figured Wheel, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His Tanner Lectures at Princeton University were published in book form as Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry. He has appeared on The Colbert Report and in The Simpsons. As Poet Laureate of the United States, he conceived the videos at www.favoritepoem.org. His next book of poetry, to appear in Winter, 2024, will be Proverbs of Limbo.


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