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Samurai Song
by Robert Pinsky

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. What makes a samurai a samurai? Look this word up in a dictionary or encyclopedia. Think about what this word means, the type of person it describes, and then think about how it helps you gain a better understanding of Pinsky’s poem.

  2. As the title suggests, this poem is a song. It has a very musical quality to it. Count out the number of syllables in each line, then the number of stressed syllables in each line. Now look at the numbers; there is a careful consistency of stressed syllables in each line, but there is a slight differentiation of the total number of syllables in each line. Read the poem aloud, overemphasize the stressed syllables, and listen for the overall rhythm of the poem. Describe this rhythm and discuss how the rhythm accentuates the meaning of the poem.

  3. Throughout the poem, the speaker is reflecting on the giving up of material possessions, and these possessions are replaced with abstract ideas. What is the speaker trying to teach the reader here? If you’re that reader, what has it taught you? Is this lesson an “important” one?

  4. The last line of the poem reads, in part, “... I courted my sleep.” What does the poet refer to here when using the word sleep? Can you think of other poems (or poets) who have used the imagery of sleep in a similar fashion?

About Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky (b. 1940) loved the Arts from a young age. Originally from New Jersey, he was the first in his family to attend college, enrolling at Rutgers University. While there, Pinsky taped a hand-written copy of W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” to his wall for inspiration. After receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford University, Pinsky returned for a time to Massachusetts to teach at Wellesley. He reversed his coastal affiliation once again by later joining the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley.

Pinsky’s work examines both poetry and literary composition as a whole. He has published extensive volumes of literary criticism, and his love of poetic craft led him to publish his bestselling translation The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. The volume focuses on reproducing Dante’s original terza rima rhyme scheme so natural to the Italian vernacular of its time, while maintaining a fresh and natural sound in modern English. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States for three consecutive terms (1997 – 2000). The Laureate is charged with raising public awareness of poetry through national projects; during his tenure, Pinsky started “The Favorite Poem Project,” which originally invited 100 average Americans to read and record their favorite poetry for the archives of the Library of Congress. The program received over 18,000 submissions from many walks of American life and is available online. Pinsky currently serves as poetry editor for Like many another well-travelled poet, Pinsky eventually returned to Massachusetts to teach at Boston University.

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