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–Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, Associate Professor 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 a small book about poems and poetry, Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry (2002).

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.

This review originally ran on the A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library Center Web site. Read more reviews at www.southwestern.edu/library/reviews/what-reading.html.