I was so excited to read Robert Pinsky’s new book Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. I expected it would be filled with good poems supported by much close analysis from Pinsky who would act as a wise and kindly friend, encouraging, supportive, pointing out things I might miss, and of course revealing to me the secrets of poetry from the position of an accomplished practitioner of the art.
And it begins so very well with a preface talking about how, if you want to learn to sing you must study singing. Poetry is no different. Pinsky suggests creating a “personal anthology” of poetry either in the form of a notebook or a computer file it does not matter. The goal is to collect together poems that speak to you, that move you that you want to return to again and again. It just so happened that a few days before I read this I began my own personal poetry anthology. I have so many poetry books on my shelves at this point that I have begun forgetting which book had that really good poem in it about a hat. Or that poem with the great image of the sea that brought tears to my eyes. I decided I couldn’t bear not being able to find favorite poems any longer so I was going to begin writing them in a big notebook I had among my collection of notebooks. When Pinsky started talking about a personal anthology I wanted to hug him. It ramped up my excitement even more about the book.
But then it all went flat. The rest of the book is broken up into four sections each with a short 3-5 page introduction and then it is poem after poem from Pinksy’s own personal anthology. He has a sentence or two before each poem but nothing really extraordinary. The brief bit before each poem is intended more for those who want to write poetry and often suggests a writing exercise — try to write a poem of your own that does this.
The introduction to each section is good. The section called “Freedom” has Pinsky explaining that there are no rules for poetry. Or rather, the rules are generated by the poem itself. He also explains that in learning to write poetry one should study historical poems because one is less likely to imitate Gerard Manley Hopkins than Billy Collins.
In the section “Listening” Pinsky looks briefly at a Walter Savage Landor poem:
On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.
Pinsky notes the fricatives in the first line and the w’s in the second and asks the kind of question I often wonder about poems and writing in general, was Landor actually thinking about those sounds when he was writing the poem and did he put them there on purpose? Pinsky says he probably was not thinking about them but because he was well practiced they end up there without too much conscious effort.
There is also a section on form in which Pinsky asserts that form “should be transformative and original.” Form, he says, “concentrates force” and the poetic line is “a means of performing energy and balance in writing.”
The final section is “Dreaming Things Up,” or about the imagination. Imagination is important because it is a way of seeing reality and also the source of new realities, it is “seeing what is and making what was not.”
And the rest of the book is all poems. To be sure, they are very good poems, Dickinson, Keats, Yeats, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Herrick, Sappho and many others you are likely to recognize. I wanted more Pinsky and less of everyone else. I wanted to know more about seeing and creating. I would have like more on form, perhaps even going so far as to take a poem in the original and then break the lines differently and examining how it changes the poem and why. Sure I could do this but I wanted Pinsky, the expert, as my guide. It would have been nice to have more about sound too, how does Pinsky work with it, what does he think about, how does he see/hear sound and the way it affects a poem?
Singing School is good for what it is but I wanted it to be something different. Don’t let my disappointment get in the way of your enjoyment if you are thinking about reading this one. Just know what to expect and you will be fine.