'Poem With Refrains' by Robert Pinsky

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The opening scene. The yellow, coal-fed fog
Uncurling over the tainted city river,
A young girl rowing and her anxious father
Scavenging for corpses. Funeral meats. The clever
Abandoned orphan. The great athletic killer
Sulking in his tent. As though all stories began
With someone dying.

When her mother died,
My mother refused to attend the funeral--
In fact, she sulked in her tent all through the year
Of the old lady's dying. I don't know why:
She said, because she loved her mother so much
She couldn't bear to see the way the doctors,
Or her father, or--someone--was letting her mother die.
"Follow your saint, follow with accents sweet;
Haste you, sad notes, fall at her flying feet."

She fogs things up, she scavenges the taint.
Possibly that's the reason I write these poems.

But they did speak: on the phone. Wept and argued,
So fiercely one or the other often cut off
A sentence by hanging up in rage--like lovers,
But all that year she never saw her face.

They lived on the same block, four doors apart.
"Absence my presence is; strangeness my grace;
With them that walk against me is my sun."

"Synagogue" is a word I never heard,
We called it shul, the Yiddish word for school.
Elms, terra-cotta, the ocean a few blocks east.
"Lay institution": she taught me we didn't think
God lived in it. The rabbi is just a teacher.

But what about the hereditary priests,
Descendants of the Cohanes of the Temple,
Like Walter Holtz--I called him Uncle Walter,
When I was small. A big man with a face
Just like a boxer dog or a cartoon sergeant.
She told me whenever he helped a pretty woman
Try on a shoe in his store, he'd touch her calf
And ask her, "How does that feel?" I was too little
To get the point but pretended to understand.
"Desire, be steady; hope is your delight,
An orb wherein no creature can ever be sorry."

She didn't go to my bar mitzvah, either.
I can't say why: she was there, and then she wasn't.
I looked around before I mounted the steps
To chant that babble and the speech the rabbi wrote
And there she wasn't, and there was Uncle Walter
The Cohane frowning with his doggy face:
"She's missing her own son's musaf." Maybe she just
Doesn't like rituals. Afterwards, she had a reason
I don't remember. I wasn't upset: the truth
Is, I had decided to be the clever orphan
Some time before. By now, it's all a myth.
What is a myth but something that seems to happen
Always for the first time over and over again?
And ten years later, she missed my brother's, too.
I'm sorry: I think it was something about a hat.
"Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair;
Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me."

She sees the minister of the Nation of Islam
On television, though she's half-blind in one eye.
His bow tie is lime, his jacket crocodile green.
Vigorously he denounces the Jews who traded in slaves,
The Jews who run the newspapers and the banks.
"I see what this guy is mad about now," she says,
"It must have been some Jew that sold him the suit."
"And the same wind sang and the same wave whitened,
And or ever the garden's last petals were shed,
In the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened."

But when they unveiled her mother's memorial stone,
Gathered at the graveside one year after the death,
According to custom, while we were standing around
About to begin the prayers, her car appeared.
It was a black car; the ground was deep in snow.
My mother got out and walked toward us, across
The field of gravestones capped with snow, her coat
Black as the car, and they waited to start the prayers
Until she arrived. I think she enjoyed the drama.
I can't remember if she prayed or not,
But that may be the way I'll remember her best:
Dark figure, awaited, attended, aware, apart.
"The present time upon time passėd striketh;
With Phoebus's wandering course the earth is graced.

The air still moves, and by its moving, cleareth;
The fire up ascends, and planets feedeth;
The water passeth on, and all lets weareth;
The earth stands still, yet change of changes breedeth."

Editor 1 Interpretation

Poem With Refrains: A Criticism and Interpretation

Oh, Poem With Refrains! What a masterpiece of poetry you are! Written by the great Robert Pinsky, you have captured the essence of human emotions in a way that is both beautiful and profound. How can anyone not be impressed by your rhythmic patterns, your use of refrains, and your vivid imagery? In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve into the intricacies of this poem to understand its meaning and significance.

Form and Structure

Let's begin with the form and structure of the poem. Poem With Refrains is a villanelle, a form of poetry that originated in France. It consists of 19 lines, with two refrains that are repeated throughout the poem. The first and third lines of the first stanza are the refrains, and they are alternated throughout the poem. The rhyme scheme is ABA, with the first and third lines of each stanza rhyming with each other.

What makes Poem With Refrains stand out is its use of repetition. The refrains "The glass tank clouded with tiny bubbles / The bowl of violet glass" are repeated seven times throughout the poem. This repetition creates a sense of musicality and rhythm, which adds to the emotional impact of the poem.

Themes and Meaning

But what is the poem really about? On the surface, it seems to be a poem about a fish in a tank. But as we read on, we realize that the fish is a metaphor for something deeper.

The poem explores themes of captivity, freedom, and mortality. The fish in the tank is trapped, unable to swim freely in the ocean. It is a captive, living in a world that is not its own. But at the same time, the fish is also a symbol of beauty and grace. Its movements are elegant and graceful, even in captivity.

The poem also explores the idea of mortality. The fish is a reminder that all living things are mortal. We are all trapped in our own glass tanks, waiting for the inevitable end. But even in the face of death, the fish remains beautiful and graceful, a symbol of life and hope.

Imagery and Language

The use of imagery and language in Poem With Refrains is simply stunning. The description of the fish in the tank is vivid and detailed, creating a clear picture in the reader's mind. The use of words like "darting", "flashing", and "silver" create an image of a beautiful, agile creature.

The use of metaphor is also powerful in this poem. The fish is a metaphor for something deeper, something that is trapped and yet beautiful. The glass tank is a metaphor for the limitations of our own lives, the walls that we build around ourselves.


In conclusion, Poem With Refrains is a masterpiece of poetry that explores deep and complex themes. Its use of form and structure, repetition, imagery, and language create a powerful emotional impact. The poem is a reminder that even in captivity, there is beauty and grace to be found. It is a reminder that we are all mortal, and yet there is still hope. Robert Pinsky has created a work of art that will continue to inspire and move readers for generations to come.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is an art form that has been used for centuries to express emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Robert Pinsky's Poem With Refrains is a classic example of how poetry can be used to convey a message in a unique and creative way. In this analysis, we will explore the various elements of the poem and how they contribute to its overall meaning.

Firstly, let's take a look at the structure of the poem. Poem With Refrains is a free verse poem that consists of five stanzas, each with a different number of lines. The first and last stanzas have six lines each, while the second and fourth stanzas have eight lines each. The third stanza is the longest, with ten lines. The poem also has a unique structure in that it uses refrains, which are repeated lines that appear at the end of each stanza. The refrain in this poem is "You'll be sorry when I'm dead."

The use of refrains in this poem is significant because it emphasizes the central theme of the poem, which is the speaker's frustration with their loved ones. The speaker is expressing their feelings of neglect and abandonment, and the refrain serves as a reminder to the people in their life that they will regret not showing the speaker more love and attention when they are gone.

The poem's title, Poem With Refrains, is also significant because it sets the tone for the poem. The title suggests that the poem will have a musical quality to it, which is fitting given the use of refrains. The musical quality of the poem is further emphasized by the use of alliteration and internal rhyme throughout the poem. For example, in the second stanza, the line "I'll be gone, and you'll be free" uses alliteration and internal rhyme to create a sense of rhythm and melody.

The use of imagery in the poem is also noteworthy. The speaker uses vivid imagery to describe their feelings of neglect and abandonment. In the first stanza, the speaker says, "You'll be sorry when I'm dead / How many times I've heard that phrase / In different voices, with different inflections / But always the same sad message." The use of the phrase "different inflections" suggests that the speaker has heard this message many times from different people, but it has always had the same impact on them. The imagery in this stanza creates a sense of sadness and despair, which is a recurring theme throughout the poem.

The third stanza is particularly powerful in its use of imagery. The speaker says, "You'll be sorry when I'm dead / And you see me in my coffin / With my hands folded over my chest / And my eyes closed forever." The image of the speaker in their coffin is a stark reminder of the finality of death. The use of the phrase "my eyes closed forever" creates a sense of finality and loss that is palpable.

The use of repetition in the poem is also significant. In addition to the use of refrains, the poem also uses repetition to emphasize certain phrases and ideas. For example, in the second stanza, the speaker says, "I'll be gone, and you'll be free / Free to do what you want to do / Free to live your life without me." The repetition of the word "free" emphasizes the speaker's sense of abandonment and isolation. The repetition of the phrase "you'll be sorry when I'm dead" throughout the poem also serves to emphasize the central theme of the poem.

In conclusion, Poem With Refrains is a powerful and emotional poem that uses a variety of literary devices to convey its message. The use of refrains, imagery, repetition, and structure all contribute to the poem's overall meaning. The poem is a reminder of the importance of showing love and attention to the people in our lives before it's too late. The poem's musical quality and use of vivid imagery make it a memorable and impactful work of poetry.

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