Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet (Paperback)

Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet By Robert Pinsky Cover Image
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"Truly the voice of the Jersey Shore." —Bruce Springsteen

“Evocative.”—New York Times Book Review



An alternatingly funny and poignant memoir from three-term poet laureate Robert Pinsky.


In late-1940s Long Branch, a historic but run-down Jersey Shore resort town, in a neighborhood of Italian, Black, and Jewish families, Robert Pinsky began his unlikely journey to becoming a poet. Descended from a bootlegger grandfather, an athletic father, and a rebellious tomboy mother, Pinsky was an unruly but articulate high school C student, whose obsession with the rhythms and melodies of speech inspired him to write.


Pinsky traces the roots of his poetry, with its wide and fearless range, back to the voices of his neighborhood, to music and a distinctly American tradition of improvisation, with influences including Mark Twain and Ray Charles, Marianne Moore and Mel Brooks, Emily Dickinson and Sid Caesar, Dante Alighieri and the Orthodox Jewish liturgy. He reflects on how writing poetry helped him make sense of life’s challenges, such as his mother’s traumatic brain injury, and on his notable public presence, including an unprecedented three terms as United States poet laureate.


Candid, engaging, and wry, Jersey Breaks offers an intimate self-portrait and a unique poetic understanding of American culture.



About the Author


Robert Pinsky is the award-winning author of over twenty volumes of poetry. He served as United States poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, during which time he founded the Favorite Poem Project. He teaches at Boston University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Praise For…


Translating Dante and Czeslaw Milosz, ascending to the poet laureateship, founding the Favorite Poem Project and even appearing on an episode of The Simpsons.… [Pinsky] has remained, in every sense of the word, an American poet.

— Benjamin Shull - Times Literary Supplement

Candid, invigorating, personal, and humane.… [Jersey Breaks] is also a tribute to how a truly American life…can inspire a national culture founded on a love for poetry.

— Maron L. Waxman - Jewish Book Council

‘I am an expert at nothing,’ [Robert] Pinsky writes in Jersey Breaks, with typical modesty and arguable accuracy, ‘except the sounds of sentences in the English language.’ For the poet’s fans, that turns out to be more than enough.

— Julia M. Klein - Boston Globe

There’s undeniable pleasure in Pinsky’s ruminating.… [His] stories contain…much appealing color and detail.
— Carlin Romano, Moment magazine

The narrative’s recursive form, its avoidance of the strictly chronological and the usual memoirist’s ‘arc,’ allowed [Pinsky’s] materials to swirl, settling here and there in felicitous patterns of relation.… [Pinsky] tells his story by way of the sounds which have embodied it. Cesare Pavese wrote in his notebook, ‘The delight of art—perceiving that one’s own way of life can determine a method of expression.’ I hear that delight throughout Jersey Breaks.

— Ron Slate - On the Seawall

[Pinsky’s] conviction about poetry’s abundant presence and democratic distribution animates [his] memoir.… [E]ntertaining.… His episodic and eclectic ‘song of myself,’ like Whitman’s, contains multitudes.
— Evan Carton - Provincetown Independent

Pinsky’s anecdotes are as humorous and humble…as they are moving and reflective, and his concerns lie with poetry as much as they do the human condition. Pinsky acolytes and the poetry-inclined alike will savor every bit.
— Publishers Weekly

[A] judiciously episodic and richly involving memoir.… In musical and transporting prose alive with bemusement, irony, and wonder, Pinsky celebrates the role of poetry in this life and ours.
— Booklist

What makes a great poet? Robert Pinsky provides some of the ingredients to his becoming an American original. We know that a language obsession will feed itself in unlikely places. But what places, exactly? Poetry craves particulars. Pinsky gives us Izzy Ash’s junkyard, the Tally-Ho Tavern, the magazines in the waiting room of his father’s optical shop, the library at Stanford University. He’s too wise to force cohesion. The result is a lyrical coming-of-age story centered around lyricism itself.
— Russell Shorto, author of Smalltime

In his gripping memoir, Robert Pinsky chronicles his Jewish American upbringing in New Jersey and shows how it led him to poetry, vividly illuminating a disappearing time and place in America, and shining a light on what it means to be a poet. At once expansive and lyrical, historically significant and deeply intimate, Jersey Breaks tells an unforgettable story.

— Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Invisible Kingdom

Robert Pinsky pays attention. That’s how he became an American poet: by hearing music even in the syllables of the conductor’s voice calling out, ‘Passengers going to Hoboken, change trains at Summit.’ Only such a poet, so attuned to the melody of language, could see the formidable feat of translating Dante as a matter of ‘metrical engineering.’ The other half of that phrase is important, too, since engineering is a question of work, and this is a chronicle of the working class, the memoir of an optician’s son, who understands that real work is essential to the creation and appreciation of poetry. (He was a distracted student, producing as hilarious proof here a report card only a future poet could generate.) This poet knows well that he owes his life as a poet to others—his recollections of teachers like Paul Fussell are particularly vivid—and so he was a generous poet laureate committed to the principle of service, listening to the voices of others. In that spirit, we should listen to the voice of Robert Pinsky, the intelligence and grace of his prose, his poetry, his song.
— Martín Espada, National Book Award–winning author of Floaters
Product Details
ISBN: 9781324066071
ISBN-10: 1324066075
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: January 16th, 2024
Pages: 256
Language: English