Robert Pinsky is one of the most famous living poets in America — he once even appeared on an episode of “The Simpsons.” He was the U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, and he more or less defined the job for everyone who came after him, starting an enormously popular national poetry program and turning himself into a much coveted speaker and public intellectual.
Though it’s been 20 years since he was at the height of his celebrity, it can still be hard to see the poems through the scrim of the persona: Pinsky is a public figure, but his poetry is nonetheless esoteric, particular and strange. He’s skeptical of religion, but interested in a Jewish vision of history; he’s a proponent of high culture; and he likes to make wide associative leaps between lines. Pinsky is not a prolific poet: he has only published two books since his time as a poet laureate. His poems are methodical, carefully built, heady, perhaps sometimes off-putting, gently sarcastic, and very good.