Robert Pinsky Traces Poetry Roots to Vivid Long Branch Youth in New Memoir

In Jersey Breaks, the former U.S. poet laureate, whom Bruce Springsteen has called “the voice of the Jersey Shore,” probes his Monmouth County childhood.

Portrait of Robert Pinsky
"My feelings about [Long Branch] are as confused as can be," Robert Pinsky writes in his new memoir, Jersey BreaksPhoto courtesy of Eric Antoniou

The poet and critic Robert Pinsky, who was born and grew up in Long Branch, was the first U.S. poet laureate to be appointed to three consecutive terms. His new book, Jersey Breaks, is a memoir of his youth on the Jersey Shore. 

Cover of poet Robert Pinsky's new memoir, "Jersey Breaks"

Robert Pinsky’s new memoir, Jersey Breaks, is out now.

Pinsky, 81, was born October 20, 1940, and lived on Rockwell Avenue in Long Branch for much of his early life. He graduated from Long Branch High School in 1958—the same high school where his parents met and many of his aunts, uncles and cousins attended. 

Pinsky, who now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says he called his book Jersey Breaks because he wanted Jersey in the title.

“I wanted a noun that was sort of familiar but not a cliché, sort of enigmatic but not pretentious,” he says.

For Pinsky, Long Branch was a very special place to grow up. Bruce Springsteen has called the poet “the voice of the Jersey Shore.”

In the late 1940s, Long Branch was a somewhat run-down Jersey Shore resort town as Pinsky began his unlikely journey toward becoming the author of  poems known for their search for significance in everyday acts. Most of his 19 books are collections of his poetry. Pinsky is also the author of critically acclaimed translations of Dante’s Inferno, and The Separate Notebooks by Czeslaw Milosz. 

In his poem “Jersey Rain,” he brings a kind of magic to the rain of his native state:

“The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather…”

Growing up in Long Branch, he remembers the “thriving, messy downtown around the corner from Rockwell Avenue/Monmouth Avenue, the mixed Italian, Black, Jewish and Irish neighborhood where I grew up.”

Descended from a bootlegger grandfather, an athletic father, and a rebellious, tomboy mother, Pinsky was not a great student. Unruly but articulate, he became obsessed at an early age with the rhythms and melodies of speech, which inspired him to write. 

In his memoir, Pinsky traces the roots of his poetry back to the voices of his neighborhood, to music, and to the American tradition of improvisation. He recounts the skillful, inventive language in the jokes, arguments, fibs, deals and scoldings that surrounded him: “Even the hypocritical babble of institutions—I’m looking at you, junior high school—was fascinating. In my grandfather’s bar, the Broadway Tavern, I heard a community’s artful gossip and ornate bullshit. When I read James Joyce’s Ulysses as a freshman at Rutgers, I recognized the bar talkers, wits and raconteurs and their setting,” he says.

Rigoberto González, distinguished professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, says Pinsky is a national treasure. 

Black-and-white photo of Robert Pinsky as a child with a friend and family members in Long Branch

Pinsky on the left with friend Carl Mehler, in the 1940s, dressed as cowboys for Halloween. Standing behind them are, left to right, second cousin Florence Eisenberg and mother Sylvia, holding sister Susan. Photo courtesy of Robert Pinsky

“His formidable body of work, consistently wise and enlightening, widens the view we have of our broken world. But it’s his poetry that shines brightest—linguistically astute and intellectually dazzling—his words speak for us when we are stunned into silence, and they fortify us before we stumble into despair,” he says.

In the book, Pinsky also vividly captures the people of Long Branch who left such an indelible impression on him, such as the Alessi family, who lived in the apartment above his family’s, and the Minisch family next door, to the south, who introduced him to the Italian tradition of good food, gardening and meticulous housekeeping. 

In the boarding house next door, to the north, he heard a world of rough language, sexual jokes and horse-racing talk. Around the corner, Black families like the Wheelers, the Basses, the Hesters and the Acoos, along with Dr. Julius McKelvie, supplied him with firsthand experience of the great, historical racial divide, with its twists, cruelties and contradictions. His maternal grandparents, the Eisenbergs, lived only four doors away from his family. 

Pinsky describes the Long Branch of his youth as “Broadway, with Vogel’s department store, Townley’s hardware and Woolley’s men’s clothes, Dlugo’s hat shop, Arnold’s deli, the Alps luncheonett, the Strand and the Paramount. In front of the A&P, an Italian guy sold roasted chestnuts from his pushcart. Today, the botanical shops and taco stands carry on the tradition in ways I half recognize.”

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Pinsky, who graduated from Rutgers in 1962, also writes about his time there, where he met his wife, Ellen Bailey, a psychoanalyst. The couple have three children and eight grandchildren. 

He says he wrote the book as a way to understand the “bewildering matters referred to as ‘tribalism’ or ‘nationalism’ related to my New Jersey upbringing in a multiethnic, resort town, in a neighborhood that was biracial and segregated. I associate my upbringing with my ‘bedeviled patriotism,’” he says.

When he entered Rutgers, all American state universities were required to have compulsory ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) for two years. “So my freshman and sophomore years were, in a way, dominated by uniforms. Rutgers accepted large classes and expected large drop-out percentages, so an element of my class devoted a lot of time to polishing brass uniform buttons and spit-shining shoes. Music gave me the privilege of joining the marching band, in my sloppy uniform with its unpolished buttons. In ROTC, my grade was always a D,” he remembers.

At Rutgers, he studied with Francis Fergusson, author of the book The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays. Pinsky believes he is still the greatest American literary critic. Paul Fussell, an extraordinary essayist, was his superb teacher in freshman composition. He also had literary peers like Alan Cheuse, Robert Maniquis, Henry Dumas and Peter Najarian. 

“It was an unmatched, fertile setting,” he says. “Princeton, a few miles away, was at that time still oppressed and stifled by its racist, anti-Semitic past.”

He later attended Stanford University, where he earned both an M.A. and a PhD, and where he was a Stegner Fellow in creative writing.

The music of his youth also set the tone for his relationship to poetry. 

“My parents were good dancers. We had records by Count Basie, but also Mozart and Verdi. My mother listened to opera on the radio. She dug up a free piano that became an important part of my childhood—I describe it in my poem ‘The Green Piano,’” he says.

In the prologue of Jersey Breaks, he writes about the ways in which Long Branch inspired his poetry:

“Trivial and significant, stupid and profound, like a family oppressive and nurturing, like the larger world seductive and treacherous. My feelings about the town are as confused as can be. My bedeviled patriotism, my need for the lofty outcast art of poetry, my C-student’s distrust of worldly rewards and punishments, the inward voice that spurs me to bring together disparate times, places and things, that attraction to a mishmash. All began in Long Branch.”

When he returned to Long Branch recently, he was struck by the changes he witnessed to his former hometown: 

“My personal sorrow at the changes is tempered by the understanding of change—an old man who visited the town when I was a child there would have had the same feelings, I assume,” he says. 

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