cover image Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet

Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet

Robert Pinsky. Norton, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-88204-9

In this vivid work, former U.S. poet laureate Pinsky (The Figured Wheel) catalogs his life in letters and reflects on the words and relationships that shaped him as a writer. He acts as his family’s historian, tracing his father’s life as the son of a Prohibition-era liquor distiller turned bar owner, and the life of his mother, the daughter of a nomadic family. Weaving through the past and present, Pinsky pauses on the formative moments that brought him toward poetry, such as chanting a haftorah at his shul in Long Branch, N.J., and forming a band in junior high, where he found respite from his struggles in the classroom through music. Soon, Pinsky exchanged his saxophone for a pen, honing his poetic craft among such luminaries as Henry Dumas and Peter Najarian at Rutgers in the early 1960s, and later at Stanford with respected writers and thinkers, including the abrasive but influential Yvor Winters. Pinsky’s anecdotes are as humorous and humble (“I heard a critique of how I pronounce words, and inside my armor it made me sweat”) as they are moving and reflective, and his concerns lie with poetry as much as they do the human condition. Pinsky acolytes and the poetry-inclined alike will savor every bit. (Oct.)