Analysis of Robert Pinsky's "Poem About People"

Updated on September 17, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky | Source

Robert Pinsky and Poem About People

Poem About People focuses initially on ordinary folk going about their business on any town or city street anywhere. The speaker is people watching, describing the clothes and mannerisms of the humans that pass before his eyes.

There's great detail provided as the scanning continues and it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary kind of casual observation. The language and focus starts to shift; the emphasis is now on the relationship between those same people and the speaker, who is studying and then judging each unique person as he looks into their eyes.

  • The poem leaps and moves around. From the street to the truck, to Jesus, to the speaker's internal thoughts, to a friend's apartment, to a movie clip - the speaker keeps trying to put humanity into perspective, he seeks a theory of the whole and wants to know how love works in and for society.

Robert Pinsky, a former poet laureate, is well known for his lyrical and culturally astute poetry and public broadcasting. He's even appeared on the Simpsons t.v. show, as himself, reciting his own verse to Lisa, no less.

Over the years he has initiated many poetic projects and set off lively debates about the nature of poetry, how it can be both a civic necessity and a private passion. Known for his keen technical ability and textured language, he explains that for him, the details of a poem are important:

'Even just the cadence of pauses. I stop. I think. I wait. I wait a little longer. Then less...something like that generates the poem. And for me, if anything I do is any good, it's carried by that kind of cadence or melody.'

Poem About People was first published in the 1975 book Sadness and Happiness, so its an early insight into the poetic workings of an accomplished poet and critic.

Poem About People

The jaunty crop-haired graying
Women in grocery stores,
Their clothes boyish and neat,
New mittens or clean sneakers,

Clean hands, hips not bad still,
Buying ice cream, steaks, soda,
Fresh melons and soap—or the big
Balding young men in work shoes

And green work pants, beer belly
And white T-shirt, the porky walk
Back to the truck, polite; possible
To feel briefly like Jesus,

A gust of diffuse tenderness
Crossing the dark spaces
To where the dry self burrows
Or nests, something that stirs,

Watching the kinds of people
On the street for a while—
But how love falters and flags
When anyone’s difficult eyes come

Into focus, terrible gaze of a unique
Soul, its need unlovable: my friend
In his divorced schoolteacher
Apartment, his own unsuspected

Paintings hung everywhere,
Which his wife kept in a closet—
Not, he says, that she wasn’t
Perfectly right; or me, mis-hearing

My rock radio sing my self-pity:
“The Angels Wished Him Dead”—all
The hideous, sudden stare of self,
Soul showing through like the lizard

Ancestry showing in the frontal gaze
Of a robin busy on the lawn.
In the movies, when the sensitive
Young Jewish soldier nearly drowns

Trying to rescue the thrashing
Anti-semitic bully, swimming across
The river raked by nazi fire,
The awful part is the part truth:

Hate my whole kind, but me,
Love me for myself. The weather
Changes in the black of night,
And the dream-wind, bowling across

The sopping open spaces
Of roads, golf courses, parking lots,
Flails a commotion
In the dripping treetops,

Tries a half-rotten shingle
Or a down-hung branch, and we
All dream it, the dark wind crossing
The wide spaces between us.

Analysis of Poem About People

Poem About People is a thoughtful, brooding, dark kind of pensive and personal poem. The speaker could well be a young man out on the street observing passers by and those out shopping.

  • Reading through it is to take a short psychological journey that starts off ordinarily enough, with descriptive portrayals of people, but which then takes some twists and turns into deeper spiritual states of the self.

The speaker gradually leaves the street scene behind, alluding to iconic figures in life (Jesus) and his personal friend, before introducing ideas about love and how people relate to one another.

This journey of self discovery goes on from stanza to stanza, the narrative internal and switching from place to place.

The wide use of enjambment - lines without punctuation or caesura - helps keep the reader engaged with the flow of thought but it's not always straightforward. There is a threat that it could all get out of hand and that 13 stanzas could be unlucky for some.

At first there is an affectionate distance as the people-watching goes on (note the language of the visual...watching, eyes, focus, gaze, stare, gaze) but in the fourth stanza that first mention of dark spaces hints at something not quite in tune. Is the speaker experiencing some disharmony, despite the gust of diffuse tenderness - there is a need for love to exist between people but it is never consistent.

The speaker is looking closely into the eyes of those who are around him and finds only unlovable Soul - is this the materialistic aspect of human need?

Divorce is mentioned, some friend and an argument over art? The narrative is getting close-up and personal. In stanza 7 the speaker starts to bear his soul. He's relating a minor cultural event - a song on the radio - to his own emotional state, one which he relates to nature, which is slightly disturbing to him, because it has to do with instinct and his own family.

There is self doubt. To help put things into context the narrative shifts to a movie scene where an anti-Semite is being rescued by a young Jewish soldier, presumably in word war two.

The eleventh stanza has the quote Hate my whole kind which comes directly from the movie scene, the Jewish soldier perhaps yelling to the anti-Semite whose life he is saving OR is this the thought of the speaker himself, hating his own people but having to selfishly admit he loves himself?

The awful part - of the movie, of life? - is not being able to fully grasp the truth.

  • This is a dark place the reader has been taken to. The last two stanzas deal with the present environment the speaker is in, an almost dream-like dimension with wind and rain.

This wind, unreal, because it lives in the mind of the speaker, seems to be the only thing that connects everyone, that crosses the wide spaces - the unbridgeable gaps? - that exist between people in peace and in war.

This poem is a search for love, for a personal vision of humankind. The speaker is sensitive to those around yet experiences them as too wrapped up in their own egos which leads to profound differences that affect the spirituality.

Meter in Poem About People

Poem About People has varied metrics, the stresses changing from line to line so that there is no familiar or plodding set pattern that might prove monotonous.

This variety produces an interesting challenge for the reader and reflects the changing perspectives of the speaker. Even though the initial street scene is of ordinary life the lack of consistent metrical beat could be said to instil extraordinary energy.

Let's look at three separate stanzas,1, 4 and 10 for a clearer picture. Stressed syllables are in bold type:

The jaun / ty crop / -haired gray / ing
Women / in gro / cery stores,
Their clothes / boyish / and neat,
New mit / tens or clean / sneakers,

A gust / of dif / fuse ten / derness
Crossing / the dark / spaces
To where / the dry self / burrows
Or nests, / something / that stirs,

Trying / to res / cue the / thrashing
Anti- / semit / ic bul / ly, swim / ming across
The riv / er raked / by naz / i fire,
The awf / ul part / is the / part truth:

Stanza 1

The opening line has three steady iambic feet plus an extra unstressed beat (feminine) which gives a feeling of familiarity, the enjambment leading into an opening trochee which is a bit of a shock. The low key pyrrhic - no stresses - at the end of line 2 reflects the ordinariness of this scene. Midway through line three the trochee again causes the reader to slightly pause after clothes in readiness for boyish. The last line of this opening stanza has a mix of iambic, anapaestic and trochaic.

Stanza 4

The opening line could be scanned as a four foot tetrameter, a pyrrhic and spondee enveloped by two iambs, or three foot trimeter with anapaest. Two trochees give the next line a hard edge, whilst the third is a mix of iamb, anapaest and trochee (repeat of fourth line in first stanza) and the last line sees a trochee midway, extra emphasis on something.

Stanza 10

An unusual opening line has two trochees, start and end, with a soft pyrrhic in between. This use of trochees causes the voice to initially rise then fall (opposite to the iambic beat which falls then rises) so lots of contrast is gained. In the second line, with eleven syllables the longest, is iambic, the anapaest ending strongly. Enjambment into the third line and one of the rare ones - pure iambic tetrameter - before the last line brings a shock pyrrhic followed by spondee, whisper next to loud shout.

What Are The Literary/Poetic Devices in Poem About People?

There are several devices used:

Alliteration

When two or more words are close together in a line and begin with consonants, they are said to alliterate. This helps with sound texture and brings interest for the reader.

Clean hands, hips...steaks, soda...beer belly...polite; possible...something that stirs...falters and flags...Which his wife...me, mis-hearing...rock radio...sing my self-pity...sudden stare of self...like the lizard...river raked...me for myself...sopping open spaces...dream it, the dark

Allusion

References to a person or idea in passing.

To feel briefly like Jesus (line 12)

"The Angels Wished Him Dead" (line 30)

Assonance

When two or more words are close together in a line and begin with vowels, assonance occurs. This adds to the sound profile:

clothes boyish...clean sneakers...hands/bad...hips/still...green/beer...porky walk...feel briefly/Jesus...Which his/in...sing/self-pity...Soul showing...Anti-Semitic/swimming...golf/lots...in/dripping

Enjambment

If a line has no punctuation at the end and continues on into the next line it is said to be enjambed. The flow of sense is unbroken and the reader is challenged to keep that flow going, without pause.

In this poem it plays a big role in the ebb and flow of rhythm, occurring in every stanza and between stanzas 2, 5, 6,7,8,9 and 11.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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