Jer­sey Breaks: Becom­ing an Amer­i­can Poet

  • Review
By – October 10, 2022

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.

Discussion Questions