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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page BW12

Poetry makes something happen. The eloquence, the brilliant language, the musical sounds turn out to be going somewhere, toward some discovery or action -- sometimes even toward the action of tossing the eloquence or images aside, like a raft that has served its purpose.

I notice the same thing in daily life. The powerful part of a conversation, or the thinking through of a problem, happens late in the process, with an ambush that changes everything. The path toward the ambush is needed, but not exactly in the way I anticipated. What I thought was large or general or objective turns out to have roots close to home.

Poems sometimes follow that same structure. Here are two examples, one from a contemporary poet and one from the 16th century. Jack Gilbert begins with large, vivid images -- "barrels of chains" -- of heaviness, then of violence and fracture, industrial harshness. Then, more than halfway through, the personal loss at the center emerges. The intimate grief acquires more force by becoming explicit only toward the end -- and even then, conveyed first by what "people" say:

Measuring the Tyger

Barrels of chains. Sides of beef stacked in vans.

Water buffalo dragging logs of teak in the river mud

outside Mandalay. Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome.

The mammoth overhead crane bringing slabs of steel

through the dingy light and roar to the giant shear

that cuts the adamantine three-quarter-inch plates

and they flop down. The weight of the mind fractures

the girders and piers of the spirit, spilling out

the heart's melt. Incandescent ingots big as cars

trundling out of titanic mills, red slag scaling off

the brighter metal in the dark. The Monongahela River


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