Pinsky: 3 poems in Dove’s Penguin anthology and favored to advance to Sweet 16

Mary Oliver and Robert Pinsky look to advance against each other with poems that pander to the ‘little people.’ 

Rita Dove reprinted both of these disasters in her Penguin anthology.


Perhaps because these poems pass as some kind of honest exploration of class consciousness?  


Oliver and Pinsky’s poems are ‘holier-than-thou’ and tell the reader exactly how they should feel about what they are feeling as the poet, in fact, feels nothing.

Which is worse?  You be the judge:

Mary Oliver goes first:


In Singapore, in the airport,
a darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something
     in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain
     rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
     neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
     which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
     hubcaps, with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop
     and fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Why can’t this woman I am big enough to pity be a bird?  

Thank you, Mary Oliver, on the verge of advancing to Sweet 16.

Robert Pinsky counters with this reminiscence:


What about the people who came to my father’s office
For hearing aids and glasses—chatting with him sometimes

A few extra minutes while I swept up in the back,
Addressed packages, cleaned the machines; if he were busy

I might sell them batteries, or tend to their questions;
The tall overloud old man with a tilted, ironic smirk

To cover the gaps in his hearing; a woman who hummed one
Prolonged note constantly, we called her “the hummer” —how

Could her white fat husband (he looked like Rev. Peale)
Bear hearing it day and night? And others: a coquettish old lady

In a bandeau, a European. She worked for refugees who ran
Gift shops or booths on the boardwalk in the summer;

She must have lived in winter on Social Security. One man
Always greeted my father in Masonic gestures and codes.

Why do I want them to be treated tenderly by the world, now
Long after they must have slipped from it one way or another,

While I was dawdling through school at that moment—or driving,
Reading, talking to Ellen. Why this new superfluous caring?

I want for them not to have died in awful pain, friendless.
Though many of the living are starving, I still pray for these,

Dead, mostly anonymous (but Mr. Monk, Mrs. Rose Vogel)
And barely remembered: that they had a little extra, something

For pleasure, a good meal, a book or a decent television set.
Of whom do I pray this rubbery, low-class charity? I saw

An expert today, a nun—wearing a regular skirt and blouse,
But the hood or headdress navy and white around her plain

Probably Irish face, older than me by five or ten years.
The Post Office clerk told her he couldn’t break a twenty

So she got change next door and came back to send her package.
As I came out she was driving off—with an air, it seemed to me,

Of annoying, demure good cheer, as if the reasonableness
Of change, mail, cars, clothes was a pleasure in itself: veiled

And dumb like the girls I thought enjoyed the rules too much
In grade school. She might have been a grade school teacher;

But she reminded me of being there, aside from that—as a name
And person there, a Mary or John who learns that the janitor

Is Mr. Woodhouse; the principal is Mr. Ringleven; the secretary
In the office is Mrs. Apostolacos; the bus driver is Ray.

We like the “driving, reading, talking to Ellen,” in particular.

Oliver’s poem is more ridiculous, but Pinsky’s is boring—which is the worse offense.

Oliver 57 Pinksy 56

We now have our 4 Sweet 16 winners in the East: Ben Mazer, Billy Collins, Franz Wright, and Mary Oliver!



  1. noochinator said,

    May 6, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Mary Oliver got upset
    (Or so it seems to me)
    Because the washing was being done
    In the only stall that was free—
    And Mary really had to pee.

    The question is (I just have one):
    How the hell could her poem have won?

  2. thomasbrady said,

    May 9, 2012 at 12:39 am

    Oliver crashed and burned,
    Flying too close to the sun—
    Pinsky merely made shallow
    Observations about everyone.

    • noochinator said,

      May 9, 2012 at 6:44 pm

      Not only Brady’s culpable,
      For Dove fell for it too:
      The downtrodden! The Third World!
      (Singapore?) A loo!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: