Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry: Explained, THE WANT BONE, by ROBERT PINSKY

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

THE WANT BONE, by         Recitation by Author     Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

"The Want Bone" is a poem by Robert Pinsky, first published in 1990 in his collection "The Want Bone".


"The Want Bone" by Robert Pinsky is a poem that explores the human longing for fulfillment and meaning in life. The poem uses the metaphor of a wishbone to convey the speaker's desire for something more in life, and how that desire drives them to keep searching and striving for greater things. The opening lines of the poem set the stage for this theme, with the speaker saying, "The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth's bell." This line suggests a sense of longing or yearning that pervades the poem.

As the poem progresses, the speaker continues to reflect on their search for meaning and fulfillment, drawing on imagery from the natural world to convey their feelings of restlessness and longing. For example, the speaker describes how "The bird's beak masks the tears / That wet its feathers." This image of a bird hiding its emotions suggests a sense of vulnerability and pain that the speaker can relate to.

Throughout the poem, Pinsky uses vivid sensory details to create a sense of atmosphere and mood. For example, he describes "The sea / Shimmering in the distance like the sheen on a tiger's back." This image of the sea as a tiger suggests both beauty and danger, and adds to the sense of tension and urgency that underlies the poem.

In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker reflects on the importance of desire and longing in human life. They say, "In the end, desire and necessity are one. / Still, I would choose to be a sparrow living / Among the great Death's-heads of the field, / Heavenly spotted, gazing out the billowed wind." This image of a sparrow among the skulls of the dead suggests a sense of defiance and hope in the face of mortality, and underscores the speaker's belief that it is our desire for something more that gives life its meaning.

Poetic Elements:

  • Form: The poem consists of four stanzas, each with five lines. The lines are written in free verse and do not follow a consistent rhyme scheme or meter.
  • Imagery: The poem makes use of vivid and striking imagery, such as the description of the want bone as "the relic of a feather/ That wings a bird, the wishbone/ Of the fowl, fish, and quadruped". The use of such imagery creates a sense of mystery and wonder surrounding the idea of the want bone.
  • Symbolism: The want bone serves as a powerful symbol of the speaker's desires and ambitions. The bone represents the idea that if we have a strong enough desire for something, we can overcome the obstacles in our way and achieve our goals.
  • Metaphor: The poem employs the metaphor of the want bone to suggest that our desires can give us the strength and determination to achieve what we want.


"The Want Bone" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that uses striking imagery and symbolism to explore the nature of desire and ambition. The poem suggests that if we have a strong enough desire for something, we can overcome even the most daunting obstacles in our way. Ultimately, however, the poem reminds us that our desires are not physical objects that we can possess, but rather intangible aspirations that we must work to achieve.

Poem Snippet:

"The relic of a feather

That dangles from an eagle--

The cure for arrows is desire.

The bird that takes this bone

From other birds goes higher."

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