Robert Pinsky Reads "Jar of Pens"

April 19, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROBERT PINSKY: In this little room at Boston University, Robert Lowell taught a remarkable poetry class. The students included Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck.

I wonder, has there ever been a more impressive group of poets gathered as teacher and students? The room itself is not so impressive. I work here, and I know that the chairs creak, the radiator is erratic, and the noise from outside can be annoying. But poetry is an art for the voice and the soul.

The physical tools don’t need to be splendid. Here is my poem, “Jar of Pens.”

Sometimes the sight of them
Huddled in their cylindrical formation
Repels me: humble, erect, 
Mute and expectant in their
Rinsed-out honey crock: my quiver 
Of detached stingers. (Or, a bouquet
Of lies and intentions unspent.)

Pilots, drones, workers-the Queen is
Cross. Upright lodge 
Of the toilworthy-gathered 
At attention though they know 
All the ink in the world couldn’t 
Cover the first syllable 
Of a heart’s confusion.

This fat fountain pen wishes 
In its elastic heart 
That I were the farm boy
Whose illiterate father 
Rescued it out of the privy 
After it fell from the boy’s pants:
The man digging in boots 
By lanternlight, down in the pit.

Another is straining to call back
The characters of the five thousand
World languages dead since 1900,
Curlicues, fiddleheads, brushstroke
Splashes and arabesques,
Footprints of extinct species.

The father hosed down his boots 
And leaving them in the barn
With his pants and shirt
Came into the kitchen,
Holding the little retrieved
Symbol of symbol-making.

O brood of line-scratchers, plastic
Scabbards of the soul, you have
Outlived the sword-talons and
Wingfeathers for the hand.