'Ginza Samba' by Robert Pinsky

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A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone
Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinitely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In Sax's Belgian imagination

And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two

Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin's child
Becomes a "favorite negro" ennobled
By decree of the Czar and founds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife's honor, while the other cousin sails

In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing

His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths--the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:

It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face--the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Ginza Samba by Robert Pinsky: A Celebration of Movement, Sound, and Culture

Have you ever read a poem that made you want to dance, to move your hips and tap your feet to its rhythm? That's how I felt when I first read "Ginza Samba" by Robert Pinsky, a classic poem that celebrates the energy, diversity, and vibrancy of urban life. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will explore the themes, symbols, and imagery of this poem, and analyze how they contribute to its overall meaning and impact.

Background and Context

Before diving into the poem itself, it's important to understand the context and background that inspired it. Robert Pinsky, born in 1940, is a renowned American poet, critic, and translator, who served as the United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. He has written numerous books of poetry, essays, and translations, and has received many awards for his contributions to literature, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

"Ginza Samba" was first published in 1979, as part of Pinsky's collection "Sadness and Happiness". The poem takes its title from the Ginza district of Tokyo, Japan, which is known for its bustling streets, neon lights, and lively nightlife. However, the poem is not about Japan per se, but rather about the cultural fusion and conflict that characterizes many urban environments, including Pinsky's own hometown of New York City.

Structure and Form

One of the first things that strikes the reader about "Ginza Samba" is its unique structure and form. The poem consists of seven stanzas, each of which contains six lines, except for the last one, which has four lines. The lines are not uniform in length or meter, and there is no rhyme scheme or strict pattern of repetition. However, the poem is not free verse in the traditional sense, as it relies heavily on rhythm, sound, and repetition to create its musical effects.

For instance, the first stanza sets the tone and tempo of the poem by repeating the phrase "On the avenue" three times, each time with a different noun that captures the sensory richness of the urban landscape:

"On the avenue, fifth avenue, the ladies' window-shopping On the avenue of the detective agencies On the avenue of congratulations On the avenue of human hair"

The effect is hypnotic and syncopated, as if the poem is a jazz composition that improvises on a set of themes and motifs. The repetition of "On the avenue" also highlights the poem's central theme of movement, as if the speaker is taking us on a tour of various neighborhoods and cultures.

Themes and Motifs

The most prominent theme of "Ginza Samba" is the clash and fusion of cultures and identities in the urban landscape. Throughout the poem, the speaker describes various scenes and characters that represent different races, classes, and lifestyles, and juxtaposes them in a way that emphasizes both their differences and commonalities.

For example, the second stanza portrays a group of African American men playing music on the street, while the third stanza describes a group of Japanese tourists taking pictures of the same scene. The contrast between the two groups is striking, as they seem to come from very different worlds, yet they are both drawn to the same spot by the allure of music and performance.

"The African drums begin to throb The tourists cover their ears with their hands As a woman with a guitar Shakes bare breasts, some of the men laugh"

The motif of music is a recurring one in the poem, as it serves as a metaphor for the dynamic and fluid nature of cultural exchange. Music is both a universal language that transcends borders and a deeply personal expression of identity and heritage.

Another important theme of the poem is the tension between tradition and innovation, between the old and the new. The speaker often alludes to historical and cultural landmarks, such as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty, as well as to modern inventions and phenomena, such as TV shows or disco clubs. The tension between these two forces creates a sense of disorientation and instability, as if the world is constantly in flux and nothing can be taken for granted.

"The rock club open all night The politicians, the police Riding bumper cars on the boardwalk At Coney Island"

The motif of movement, which I mentioned earlier, is closely related to this theme, as it conveys the sense of perpetual motion and change that characterizes urban life. The city is a kaleidoscope of experiences and sensations, a place where everything is in motion and nothing stays the same.

Symbolism and Imagery

To fully appreciate the richness and complexity of "Ginza Samba", we also need to pay attention to its symbolism and imagery. The poem is full of vivid and evocative images that capture the essence of urban life, from the "neon fireflies" of Times Square to the "whirling compass" of the Brooklyn Bridge. These images serve both as metaphors for larger themes and as specific details that anchor the poem in a concrete reality.

One of the most striking images in the poem is the recurring motif of light, which symbolizes both the energy and the illusion of the city. Light is both a source of illumination and a veil that obscures the true nature of things, as the neon lights of Times Square suggest:

"Neon fireflies careening into the darkness The taxis' horns Jazz radio on the Turkish Officers' club"

The motif of light also connects to the theme of movement, as light is both a static and a dynamic element. The city is a place of shadows and visions, where reality and fantasy merge and collide.

Another important symbol in the poem is the figure of the dancer, who embodies the spirit of the samba and the energy of the city. The speaker describes various dancers and dance styles, from the "Chinese girl doing the samba" to the "man in a wheelchair waving his arms like a conductor". The image of the dancer is both a celebration of movement and a critique of social norms and conventions, as it challenges the boundaries of gender, age, and ability.


In conclusion, "Ginza Samba" is a remarkable poem that captures the pulse and spirit of the city, as well as the complexity and diversity of human experience. Through its unique structure, themes, and imagery, the poem creates a vivid and immersive world that invites the reader to participate in its rhythms and meanings. Whether you are a lover of poetry or a fan of urban culture, this poem is sure to delight and inspire you. So why not give it a try, and see where the samba takes you?

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Ginza Samba: A Celebration of Life and Culture

Robert Pinsky's Ginza Samba is a classic poem that celebrates the vibrant and diverse culture of the Ginza district in Tokyo, Japan. The poem is a rhythmic and musical tribute to the people, sights, and sounds of this bustling urban center. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language used by Pinsky to create a vivid and engaging portrait of Ginza.

The poem begins with a description of the Ginza district, which is portrayed as a place of energy and excitement. Pinsky writes, "In the old neighborhood, / Celebrity means / Having survived." This line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as it suggests that life in Ginza is not easy, but it is full of vitality and resilience. The use of the word "survived" implies that the people of Ginza have faced challenges and hardships, but they have overcome them and continue to thrive.

The poem then moves on to describe the people of Ginza, who are portrayed as diverse and colorful. Pinsky writes, "The woman / With the white face paint, / In her kimono / Gliding through the Ginza night." This image of a woman in traditional Japanese dress, contrasted with her modern surroundings, highlights the blending of old and new in Ginza. The use of the word "gliding" suggests a sense of grace and elegance, which is further emphasized by the woman's white face paint. This image is a testament to the beauty and complexity of Japanese culture.

Pinsky also celebrates the music and dance of Ginza, which he describes as a "samba." The samba is a Brazilian dance that is known for its lively and rhythmic movements. By using this term to describe the energy of Ginza, Pinsky is suggesting that the district is a place of constant motion and excitement. He writes, "The samba begins in the heel, / Travels up through the leg, / And blossoms in the torso." This description of the samba is also a metaphor for life in Ginza, which is full of movement and growth.

The poem then moves on to describe the architecture of Ginza, which is portrayed as both modern and traditional. Pinsky writes, "The buildings are tall / But they're paper-thin." This line suggests that the buildings in Ginza are both impressive and delicate, which is a reflection of the blending of old and new in the district. The use of the word "paper-thin" also suggests a sense of fragility, which is a reminder that even in a place of energy and excitement, there is always a sense of vulnerability.

Pinsky also celebrates the food and drink of Ginza, which he describes as "sake and sushi." Sake is a traditional Japanese rice wine, while sushi is a popular dish made of raw fish and rice. By using these terms, Pinsky is highlighting the unique and delicious cuisine of Ginza. He writes, "The sushi in the window / Looks happy to be there." This line suggests that even the food in Ginza is full of life and energy, which is a testament to the district's vibrant culture.

The poem ends with a celebration of life itself, which is portrayed as a dance. Pinsky writes, "Life is a samba, / Samba is life." This line suggests that life in Ginza is not just about surviving, but about embracing the energy and excitement of the district. The use of the word "samba" as a metaphor for life is a reminder that even in the face of challenges and hardships, there is always a reason to dance.

In conclusion, Ginza Samba is a celebration of life and culture in the Ginza district of Tokyo, Japan. Through vivid imagery and rhythmic language, Robert Pinsky creates a portrait of a place that is full of energy, diversity, and resilience. The poem is a reminder that even in the face of challenges and hardships, there is always a reason to celebrate and dance. Ginza Samba is a classic poem that continues to inspire and delight readers with its vibrant and engaging portrayal of life in Ginza.

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