It is hard to explain how much of an impact former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky has had on my literary life. I was again fortunate in getting to see him read at my local library around 1998, during his national tenure. This was the period when I was just discovering poetry and he was a passionate, engaged reader. I remember him saying some encouraging words to me when signing my copy of his most recent book, and that act cemented him in my good graces at a formative time in my life.

He will pop up again on this list before the end with one of the most meaningful poems in my life, but today I wanted to focus elsewhere in his body of work. Being the end of Passover, and also so close to Easter, I was tempted to go with “Paschal”, which is certainly worth your reading this time of year. Instead, I opted for a piece that shows his talent for simplicity.

“Samurai Song” is plain and unassuming. In this guise it lures you into thinking that maybe everything is there on the surface. The straightforward structuring and repetitive style would, in the voice of another, embody laziness or unoriginality. Pinsky knows this, and he uses it to draw you in, let you settle into a rhythm, and begin to believe that you are two steps ahead of him. Only when you accelerate towards the end, do you realize that you are exactly where he wants you. And that is when he drops the subtlest of commas, and you are his. The rhythm changes ever so slightly, and it is time to go back and read again from the beginning, but this time, for the deeper meaning of the words.


Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.


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