The Arty Semite

National Poetry Month: Robert Pinsky's 'Samurai Song'

By Ezra Glinter

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Jared C. Benedict

Today, in honor of National Poetry Month, The Arty Semite is featuring “Samurai Song” by Robert Pinsky. In the spirit of Passover, one can read “Samurai Song” as a kind of inverse “Dayenu.” It is often asked of the latter text, that if God had not given us the Sabbath, the Torah, or brought us to the Land of Israel (among the other things), would it really have been enough? The answer usually given is that while lesser benevolences may not have been enough in the larger scheme, we would still have had sufficient reason for thanksgiving and praise. Pinsky’s poem, in contrast, works the other way around. Rather than counting our blessings in ascending order, the poem strips them away one by one, while saying each time, in effect, dayenu.

Robert Pinsky is a three-term United States Poet Laureate, a professor at Boston University and the author of 19 books, including translations of Czesław Miłosz and Dante Alighieri. “Samurai Song” comes from his latest collection, “Selected Poems,” published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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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