Gulf Music Poems

Robert Pinsky

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

96 Pages



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Robert Pinsky's poems have long been celebrated for their imaginative abundance, the uniqueness of their music, their originality and audacity. Gulf Music is his most daring, most politically impassioned book. In the first line, political prisoners are studying in their cells. In its last line, an oracle is lost. Between this labor of knowledge and this chasm of forgetfulness, between the political and the personal, from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico, Pinsky has created a poetic universe that encompasses the familial, the cultural, the tribal, the national, and the spiritual. This is a haunting, bold, and savage work by a major American poet.

From a vast array of experience and things—songs, the objects that furnish a desk, the architecture of small towns, war and love—these poems embody a sensibility more fiercely and urgently engaged than ever before. In the section called "First Things to Hand," objects like "Book," "Jar of Pens," and "Door" enact the way in which each part of life, each moment of perception or history, can be a portal into the universe. In the title poem, Pinsky plumbs the limits of the logic of ordinary language, instilling his lines with an order that includes an apparent near-chaos, but which resolves into a poignant, fierce, and utterly unprecedented vision of time, of music, of attachment and loss, of broken love and spiritual triumph.


Praise for Gulf Music

"In Gulf Music Pinsky offers us his most valuable contribution yet: not just an argument for but a demonstration of contemporary poetry's necessity and vitality in our democracy."—Joel Brouwer, The New York Times Book Review

"Nothing less than the recovery for language of a whole domain of mute and familiar experience."—Hugh Kenner, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Anyone who knows Pinsky simply as a public figure is missing the real deal. I mean the sheer vitality of his own poems . . . [He] builds a field of reference so panoramic that most novels and movies look rinky-dink by comparison . . . No living poet has greater reach of imagination."—Peter Campion, The Boston Globe

"[Pinksy] makes wild, almost allegorical leaps into another realm of imagination . . . In 'The Figured Wheel,' the bizarre juggernaut of the title rolls unstoppably over the world, gathering all times, places, persons, mythologies, religions and literature into its gorgeous hangings and inscriptions . . . Pinsky imagines ironic-marvelous tableaux vivants filled with grim enchantment."—Elizabeth Frank, The Nation

"With lavish technical gifts, a discriminating civic intelligence, and an impish relish for what goes against the solemnities of a lot of contemporary verse, Pinsky has given us one of the outstanding bodies of work in the English-language poetry."—Justin Quinn, The Boston Book Review

"Among the many writers who have come of age in our fin de siecle, none have succeeded more completely as a poet, critic and translator than Robert Pinsky."—James Longenbach, The Nation

"No poet has defined his work more clearly than Robert Pinsky . . . Pinsky's new collection, Gulf Music, shows all his characteristic skills: a tonal and lexical range that seems as large as the language's, an ability to write in both a pliant metric and a textured free verse, and a deft knack for getting seemingly disparate facets of experience to fit within the larger mosaics of the poems themselves. But one of the strengths of Gulf Music lies in Pinsky's readiness to explore the less evident aspects of his own work, to act as Trilling to his own Frost. In addition to the virtues that these new poems reveal by themselves, they also deepen and nuance our sense of the poet's already assured place in our literature. The very title of the volume, Gulf Music, conveys the urge to examine gaps, lacks, and disconnection. This often shows in the forms of individual poems . . . The wonder of reading Pinsky's poems comes, I think, from the dual perspective, his ability to maintain both sweep and detail. The experience is something like flying over America. The shapes of highway cloverleafs and baseball diamonds, of rivers, industrial yards, and state parks appear with refreshed particularity. Jarred from habit, you begin to see the forms that these things make as they angle against one another, fanning out into a mosaic of plan and accident. But in Pinsky's poems you are also down inside the texture of life's experience. There is the street where, in typical American style, a turreted Queen Anne might be standing just around the corner from a row of prefab corrugated trailers. There are also the people who inhabit these structures, the people with their historically created yet resistant inner lives. In Gulf Music, more than in any of his other superb books, Pinsky has worked to dignify such individuality."—Peter Campion, The Yale Review

"Pinsky has perfected a kind of multicultural poetic shorthand . . . [These poems are] epigrammatically brilliant, narratively compelling, and elliptical . . . [Gulf Music] is an assertion of community and a musical event."—Karl Kirchwey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"The best public poets, Pinsky among them, know how to mix truth with spectacle . . . The best personal poets, Pinsky among them, know how to keep poems from becoming pandering 'ads' for interiority . . . To have made a scabrous, unforgettable music out of all these gulfs, as Pinsky has done, feels like one real way of starting to bridge them."—Dan Chiasson, The Threepenny Review

"[Pinsky's] meditations about what binds us together are passionate, nuanced, full of insight and unexpected connections . . . [He] offers us a vision of our world poignant, precise, and paradoxical enough to be convincing . . . Pinsky is one of our best living American poets . . . Gulf Music shows [him] at the top of his form—not just lively, but also noble."—Tony Hoagland, Tikkun

"Robert Pinksy has what I think Shakespeare must have had: dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician's dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions. Like the Elizabethans, he is in his practice a tinkerer: restless, daring, endlessly curious; these qualities have produced an art whose scope and complexity and grandeur are rarely equaled by any of his contemporaries."—Louise Glück

"Pinsky's music throughout the book is of comparable size and weight. All that there is to marvel at and be compelled by in these poems is inseparable from the ways they both do and do not hold together. 'Poems of Disconnected Parts and 'Poem with Lines in Any Order' are strategically placed as near bookends. Their titles warn accurately that the poems they're fronting for will need some readerly looking-after. The first of the two is twenty-five sentences and twenty-one fragments. Immediately following it, the title poem has more fragments than sentences. As the grammar moves me again and again from the partial to the complete and then back, I continue to find 'In everything// A ghostly gesture toward some other' ('In Defense of Allusion'), 'and what deep/ Comes churning up from the bottom' ('The Wave'). Moved thus by the poems' syntax, I'm also moved by their lines to participate as entirely as I can in finding that they track. I become their Midrash. Informed by reading and rereading of all the rest of them, I am won over by each poem's audacity, import, and grace. Integral to the structure of every poem in the book is a stretching that's at the root of the words attention and intensity. Stretching is also at the root of the word obtain. Nothing could be more interesting to me than what I obtain from the time I spend with these poems. In its entirety, Gulf Music brings within the reach of my brain and heart an irresistible range of feelings, as Pinsky puts it in the translation from Dante that concludes the book, 'too large for speech, which fails at a sight/ Beyond all boundaries.'"—James McMichael, The Cincinnati Review

"From the very beginning of Gulf Music, readers are drinking from a cup filled with political overtones. References to the detainee camp in Guantanamo Bay and allusions to Hurricane Katrina and the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11 are the main settings and events that permeate the first part of the book. With such a political arsenal, readers might be led to think that Pinsky's theme is 21st century disaster or terror, but this is not so. Instead, Gulf Music is more of an exploration into cultural memory and forgetting . . . Known for his love of music and history, Pinsky's poems are still riddled with song titles, singers, anecdotes and allusions. Both of these areas serve Pinsky's theme well and add to the exploration of collective memory that pervades in the book—and helps to prove a larger point: culture chooses what moves forward with it not the individual . . . In Pinsky's words, 'the power of such a history is (not that the word has changed meaning rather) that it is forgotten. The very word 'thing' itself is an artifact, with a secret shroud or aura.' This etymological exploration adds another dimension to Pinsky's cultural musings. The poems unconsciously alludes to William Carlos Williams' famous quote 'no ideas but in things.' By re-evaluating certain things in separate poems—a photograph, a jar of pens, a book—Pinsky is re-visiting the territory of Williams and, perhaps, Neruda and his odes. The playing field of Gulf Music is wide, and Pinsky is stylistically at the top of his craft. If you've read Pinsky before, you are familiar with his love of lists (I'm immediately thinking of his poem 'The Shirt'), but he also has a certain way of setting up phrases that lends itself to a jazz-like association of ideas . . . If readers are either moderately intrigued by etymology, current affairs or cultural dynamics, then Gulf Music is a book they should visit for insight and wonder, for, to quote Pinsky himself, it is 'In the system / Of privilege and deprivation, the employed, the avid: / Fraught in the works, turning the gear of custom.'"—Douglas Korb, Brattleboro Reformer (Vermont)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Robert Pinsky

  • Robert Pinsky was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000. Creator and director of the Favorite Poem Project and poetry editor at Slate, he also teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

  • Robert Pinsky Juliet van Otteren
    Robert Pinsky