Sounds of Poetry cover


The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide &
Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry by Robert Pinsky

Dr. Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton
Department of English



Most Americans probably go through long stretches of their busy lives without giving a moment’s thought to the role of poetry in our culture and democracy. They assume that if poetry still has any breath remaining in its hoary body, it must be rasping away tethered to an oxygen tank in a musty corner of academia. Robert Pinsky disagrees. And he does so not only in his own copious and stunning corpus of poetry, but most persuasively and eloquently in two small books about poems and poetry, The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (1998) and Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry (2002).

In The Sounds of Poetry, a book about poems and how to read them, Pinsky stresses that poetry is “a bodily art.” “The medium of poetry,” he explains, “is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth.” In this way poetry is always “physical, intimate, vocal, and individual.” With Pinsky’s encouraging and straight-talking guidance, readers will soon find that, yes, they can read and understand poetry, that they can breathe life into a poem by voicing it. Pinsky’s explanations of prosody, rhythm, and rhyme are rich with examples drawn from a range of poets from Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson, and his close readings make old familiar poems come alive and unfamiliar ones approachable. He doesn’t offer a magic decoder ring, nor does he claim to possess secret knowledge himself. Rather he continues to remind us that even his own understanding is sometimes fleeting, partial, and contingent. In a discussion of lines from Macbeth, he confides that he’s drawn to “an audible web of meaning so attractive to me that I feel willing to trust the meaning, even while I can’t quite get it, because the sounds have so much conviction and appeal.” To learn to “trust the meaning when you can’t quite get it” – to practice tolerating uncertainty and appreciating ambiguity – seems to me sufficient reason to read more poetry.

As much as Pinsky honors and encourages the individual’s bodily and intimate experience of poetry, he also makes, in Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, what seems at first blush a contradictory claim: that “poetry may offer ways to inspect characteristic dramas of our national life.” In this volume of compelling essays, originally delivered at Princeton University as the Tanner Lectures, Pinsky makes the case for poetry’s voice in American public life. Making the link between the individual bodily experience of poetry and poetry’s voice in the larger world, Pinsky explains: “Poetry as breath penetrates to where the body recognizes the stirring of meaning. Poetry mediates, on a particular and immensely valuable level, between the inner consciousness of the individual reader and the outer world of other people.” Poetry engages and preserves memory, and offers a remedy to the isolation and alienation of modernity and mass culture. The ways of knowing that poetry opens up to us, Pinsky argues, offer a third way between the sterility of a pure rationality on the one hand, and the seductions of magic and simple belief on the other. It gives us the means to have less faith in reason and more reason in faith: To trust knowledge even when we don’t quite get it, and to believe in pursuing it anyway. As Pinsky concludes toward the end of the book: “The turns of verse, between justified and ragged, the regular and the unique, the spoken and the implied, the private and the social, profoundly embody not a moral, but a cultural quest for life between a barren isolation on one side and an enveloping mass on the other. That quest is the action of poetry’s voice.”


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