American Literature Robert Pinsky
Stephen Mirarchi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0240


Robert Pinsky (b. 1940) is widely considered one of the most important late-20th- and early-21st-century American poets, critics, and translators. Though he apprenticed with Yvor Winters, Pinsky is often compared in his overall aesthetic approach to Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell. Pinsky is still active, and his career can be divided into four stages: the early years, 1968–1984; the intense working years, 1985–1996; the Poet Laureate and after years, 1997–2006; and the dark turn years, 2007–present. Pinsky’s first book, Landor’s Poetry (1968), opened the way for his position as a literary critic, and scholars have often pointed to it as evidence of Pinsky’s foundational interest in Romanticism. To this day, however, scholars recognize An Explanation of America (1979) as the author’s seminal work of the period, which continues to be studied. The publication of History of My Heart (1984) earned Pinsky a national reputation, and his output over the next decade or so was remarkable, culminating in his translation of Dante’s Inferno (1994), hailed by many for its sonic brilliance but criticized by others for its theological shortcomings. Pinsky was named United States Poet Laureate in 1997 and reappointed twice, the first to be so honored. Out of his Laureate came the Favorite Poem Project—everyday people reading and explaining their favorite poems—which produced three increasingly immersive anthologies. The success of the project cemented Pinsky’s reputation as the preeminent civic poet of his time. With the publication of Gulf Music (2007), Pinsky’s verse took on darker themes, such as bald-faced examinations of human cruelty. His following book of poetry, At the Foundling Hospital (2016), uses abandoned children for its central motif, and his most recent anthology of poetry is aptly subtitled Poems at the Extremes of Feeling (2019), with critics acknowledging its “challenging” subject matter. Pinsky once defined poetry as “the art that arranges the sounds of language, a physical reality, to imitate expressively an emotional and intellectual reality.” Scholars seem to have intuited the same, as studies have appeared examining Pinsky’s linguistic structures, Jewish heritage, historical method, and formal aesthetics. In terms of peers, Pinsky is often studied with or compared to Frank Bidart, Louise Glück, Philip Levine, and Robert Hass. Pinsky himself has written or spoken frequently about Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Moore, Thomas Gunn, John Clare, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Freneau, Seamus Heaney, Walter Savage Landor, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and Williams Carlos Williams.

Primary Works

Both the number and variety of Pinsky’s primary sources can be intimidating for researchers, as the poet has been active in criticism, translation, making audio and video recordings, and even writing a video game. In each of the categories that follow, the subsection commentaries briefly point out seminal works or ideal starting points for researchers.

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