by Hugh Blanton
Memoirists love to write of their hardscrabble upbringings and they take great pains with their wordy prose to establish their street cred and bona fides as a full-fledged member of the oppressed underclass. On the back cover of this newly released book is an effusive blurb stating ‘this is a chronicle of the working class’ and ‘real work is essential to the creation of poetry.’ None other than Bruce Springsteen himself says this memoir is ‘Truly the voice of the Jersey Shore.’ Only problem is that this is the memoir of an academic whose greatest challenges in life are making flight connections to cities where he’s to read poetry and sip champagne with America’s elite politicians. It’s not a chronicle of the working class—it’s a log of baloney from a dissembler with delusions of trouble and strife.
Jersey Breaks is Robert Pinsky’s latest book. He’s a three-term US poet laureate and currently teaches graduate writing at Boston University. In the prologue of this book he starts off with a question from an unnamed friend asking him how it is he became a poet rather than a criminal, considering Pinsky’s background. It’s part of his nearly comical effort to establish with the reader a reputation of bad-boy swagger and derring-do as if he’s a character straight out of a Scorsese movie. Comical I say because in the first chapter of the book he’s name dropping New Jersey politicians (and wealthy patrons of the arts) that he’s hob nobbed with.
It’s not surprising that as he hearkens back to the street he spent part of his childhood on that he mentions the people there ‘were nearly all Black.’ (Monmouth Avenue in Long Branch, New Jersey.) However, as the book progresses he brings up the race, ethnicity, and/or religion of nearly every person he describes. Pinsky himself is Jewish, mentioning it several times throughout the book and blaming it for much of the discrimination he allegedly faced, such as being unable to delight in the sound of Christmas carols he hears emanating from his neighbor’s homes, ‘a sweetness forbidden to us Jews.’ He makes the absurdly pompous accusation ‘although we are a great nation, we in the United States had not yet become a great people—still an ongoing effort, with the racial divide only the largest, clearest fracture.’
Pinsky was a music lover and saxophone player long before he ever decided to become a poet. (He claims he doesn’t like to be called a ‘poet’ even though the book is subtitled Becoming an American Poet.) He was quite proud of his horn playing ability although it’s a bit of a mystery where he found the time for sax playing while fighting for his very survival in his rough neighborhood. His parents also got him a baby grand piano (for free, he said—all they had to do was haul it away from its previous owner) but it makes one wonder how they fit it into the tiny cramped apartment Pinsky says they lived in. Pinsky couldn’t resist throwing in a story where he’s at a dance with a bunch of rich girls. He says he doesn’t remember how he, a kid of the gritty streets, ended up there—somebody must have recruited him. A music teacher, he speculates.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone more proud of his hometown than Pinsky. He even tries a few times throughout the book to make comparisons between Pinsky/Long Branch and Joyce/Dublin. Mentions of Long Branch notables are frequently peppered in, including Dorothy Parker who was born in Long Branch in 1893. If Pinsky is aware that Dorothy Parker wrote an essay titled ‘My Home Town’ where she states her parents moved her to Manhattan immediately after her birth so that she could be called a real New Yorker, he doesn’t bring it up here.
There are several mentions of his (spurious) links to the criminal underworld. When famous crime boss Vito Genovese was giving testimony in 1950 to the Senator Kefauver committee, he was wearing a pair of distinctive tinted glasses—made by Milford S. Pinsky, Optician—Robert Pinsky’s dad. (Pinsky more than once details the differences in opticians and optometrists to ensure the reader knows that opticians do not make as much money as optometrists, furthering the false impression of his impoverished upbringing.) Pinsky’s grandfather ran a Long Branch speakeasy and, Pinsky claims, was a foot soldier for Newark crime kingpin Longie Zwillman. The grandfather once tried to kill a doctor with a pistol, but an underling at the last second convinced him not to pull the trigger. An underling? Maybe it’s possible that mooks in Long Branch had underlings. Pinsky says his grandfather would visit his home unannounced from time to time and tell his mother that he was taking little Robert on a business trip to New York. Pinsky doesn’t, however, tell us what the business was or why his grandfather needed to take the tyke along with him. ‘I don’t mean to exaggerate,’ Pinksy demurs. ‘It was not a lowlife TV show or a gangster series or movie. But The Godfather expresses a social idea I recognize.’ Memoirists have rarely been slier or more absurd in their gasconades.
Without fear of contradicting claims of an impoverished upbringing, he boasts of his family knowing a congressman’s (Frank Pollone) family for three generations. Poets of course can’t speak of themselves without interjecting politics, and Pinsky runs the gamut from Long Branch politics to the White House. He even thinks it possible that President U.S. Grant (‘who defeated the forces of evil in the Civil War’) might have bought prohibited whiskey from Pinsky’s wise guy grandfather. And as is the trend with poets today, Pinsky takes no less than five pot shots at Donald Trump throughout the book. His crowning achievement in politics is schmoozing with Bill Clinton in the White House as Pinsky put together the Favorite Poem Project. People selected by Pinsky were recorded reading their favorite poems at the White House, and not too shockingly, both Bill and Hillary Clinton got to read one poem each. (Bill’s was Emerson’s ‘Concord Hymn’ and Hillary’s was Howard Nemerov’s ‘The Makers.’)
Pinsky says it was not modesty that drove him away from using the term ‘poet’ to describe himself, but a ‘stubborn and provincial pride in what you are and shame at the very idea of pretending to be anything you might not be.’ Just a tough old Jersey boy from the streets is what he’d like us to believe he is. ‘Where I grew up,’ Pinsky bloviates, ‘what was not acceptable was vaunting bullshit about yourself.’ And then he proceeds to do exactly that ad nauseam for 232 pages.
by Robert Pinsky, 232 pages
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