Lifesaving Poems: Robert Pinsky’s ‘Song of Reasons’

It is nearly twenty years since I bought Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems. Among that wonderful book’s many delights I found recommendations of poets, their poems, books and anthologies. Somewhere near the back is a long list of the latter, among which features Helen Vendler’s The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (Faber, 1986) -which I note you can now by on Amazon for 1p.

If you don’t know it, get it. It’s a great introduction to American poetry in the twentieth century. It is not perfect (why it does not include Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler is beyond me), but it does remain one of my favourites for the simple reason that it came into my life at the time when I most needed it.

Not least among my reasons for loving and returning to it is my discovery in its pages of the work of Robert Pinsky. He is represented by a mere four poems in the book, but I would argue they are the ones which most knocked me sideways, not having come across his work before. The final poem in Vendler’s selection is the poem you see below, ‘Song of Reasons’.

Some years after discovering it I took it to the writers’ group I belonged to at the time. There followed quite a long disquisition into and explication of its features, I seem to recall. Was it the Modernist lyric being reinvented or something altogether more alluring? Interesting though this was, something about the discussion troubled me. Nowhere among our eloquent responses did any of us say how close to the pulse of actual thought the poem appears to be.

Reading it again today I am struck how the poem carefully balances out the twin impulses hinted at in its title, the human need for ‘song’ cantilevered by the rational mind of ‘reasons’. Thus the poem presents ‘arcane’ and ‘forgotten’ facts about a French aristocratic family, their religions and customs. Humming around it is the trivia of everyday life,  ‘the change of key midway in “Come Back to Sorrento”‘, ‘people in magazines and on television’, a newspaper quiz and those cars with their  ‘throaty music’. I’m tempted to read a domestic scene into these details, of an ‘ordinary’ family breakfast perhaps.

In this way the poem contains what Les Murray once said all poetry had to have in order to be alive: the three elements of body, mind and dream. The latter is hinted at only in the poem’s very final words, appearing as it were from behind ‘gates’ we are never admitted behind, a ‘bedtime story in reverse’ which is no less suggestive, or gorgeous, for that.

Song of Reasons


Because of the change of key midway in “Come Back to Sorrento”

The little tune comes back higher, and everyone feels


A sad smile beginning. Also customary is the forgotten reason

Why the Dukes of Levis-Mirepoix are permitted to ride horseback


Into the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Their family is so old

They killed heretics in Languedoc seven centuries ago;


Yet they are somehow Jewish, and therefore the Dukes claim

Collateral descent from the family of the Virgin Mary.


And the people in magazines and on television are made

To look exactly the way they do for some reason, too:


Every angle of their furniture, every nuance of their doors

And the shapes of their eyebrows and shirts has it history


Or purpose arcane as the remote Jewishness of those far Dukes,

In the great half-crazy tune of the song of reasons.


A child has learned to read, and each morning before leaving

For school she likes to be helped through The Question Man


In the daily paper: Your Most Romantic Moment? Your family Hero?

Your Worst Vacation? Your Favourite Ethnic Group? –and pictures


Of the five or six people, next to their answers. She likes it;

The exact forms of the ordinary each morning seem to show


An indomitable charm to her; even the names and occupations.

It is like a bedtime story in reverse, the unfabulous doorway


Of the day that she canters out into, businesslike as a dog

That trots down the street. The street: sunny pavement, plane trees,


The flow of cars that come guided by with a throaty music

Like the animal shapes that sing at the gates of sleep.


Robert Pinsky, from The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 (Carcanet, 1996)

Lifesaving Poems

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