Reading a Poem the Ignatian Way: Robert Pinsky’s “Vessel”


In the first installment of this close reading series, I suggested that reading a poem is a lot like praying in the Ignatian tradition, particularly the contemplative practice of “composition of place.” I also mentioned that I grew up in New Jersey and have recently been reading poets who are also from my home state.

For this close reading, I want to take a look at “Vessel” by Robert Pinsky, which is part of his 2000 collection, “Jersey Rain.” Growing up in Long Branch, New Jersey, to Jewish parents, and having attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Pinsky went on to become the U.S. Poet Laureate, serving three terms in this prominent role. Pinsky also played the saxophone growing up and has said that his experience with music, especially jazz, has greatly influenced his poetry.

Here’s his poem, “Vessel”:

What is this body as I fall asleep again?
What I pretended it was when I was small —

A crowded vessel, a starship or submarine
Dark in its dark element, a breathing hull,

Arms at the flanks, the engine heart and brain
Pulsing, feet pointed like a diver’s, the whole

Resolutely diving through the oblivion
Of night with living cargo. O carrier shell

That keeps your trusting passengers from All:
Some twenty thousand times now you have gone

Out into blackness tireless as a seal,
Blind always as a log, but plunging on

Across the reefs of coral that scrape the keel —
O veteran immersed from toe to crown,

Buoy the population of the soul
Toward their destination before they drown.

As we enter into the poems with our senses upon reading it the first time, we notice that the title, “Vessel” gives us an important clue as to the poem’s meaning. The poem begins with a question about the body, and the first answer it offers is that the body is a “crowded vessel.” This becomes an extended metaphor for the poem. What else do we see as we, with the speaker, try to make sense of the body? It is compared to a starship or submarine. We might picture these vessels and then, with the speaker, begin to see how the body has “breathing hull” and “arms at the flanks” and an “engine heart and brain.” Then, we see how the body, like a submarine, dives “through the oblivion/ Of night.” It does this over and over again, “tireless as a seal,” and blindly, “across the reefs of coral.”

If we go back and listen to the poem aloud, we might catch the very loose iambic pentameter Pinsky uses that gives the lines the sound of natural speech and even of water lapping against a boat. As we keep going, we start to hear the soft, somewhat slant rhyme scheme Pinsky is using. It seems to follow an ABABAB CDDC DCDCDC pattern, with rhymes such as “small” and “hull” and “whole,” as well as “seal,” “keel,” and “soul.”

As we go back and read again, bringing together what we have seen and heard in our previous readings, we start to make meaning. We are asked to imagine how the body is like a vessel, especially a vessel on the water. We examine their similar parts, and we almost hear the water in the rhyme scheme and meter.

As we approach the turn in the poem, and with the invocation of “O carrier shell,” all of a sudden, the speaker talks directly to the body, almost as if in prayer. It is suggested that this “vessel” has gone out into the oblivion of night “Some twenty thousand times,” which might mean that that is the number of days this “body,” or person, has been alive. Twenty thousand times it has faced the “oblivion” of the new day blindly, not knowing what is to be found there. And so, the speaker prays that the body, this vessel, would “Buoy the population of the soul/ Toward their destination before they drown.” The body has a soul and it seems that, in the extended metaphor of this poem, the soul is what buoys it — what keeps it afloat, and also what marks the way it is navigating. The body needs the soul to direct it toward its destination before death.

Once again, using the senses, particularly of seeing and hearing, and using the imagination to read a poem helps us encounter deeper meaning, much like this way of praying can. Even if at first glance a poem seems mysterious or we don’t know what it “means” or we see it on its surface only, if we use our senses and imagination, we might be surprised how much meaning we find there. We bring our full selves to a poem and when we do this, and read closely, we might discover something about ourselves, our humanity, the mystery of a sacramental reality and about God’s presence in the world.