Robert Pinsky's "Shirt" traces the history of a shirt through its manufacturing processes, noting the hands that touched it at each stage of its production. In narrating the shirt's story, the speaker draws attention to the realities of labor and the many human tragedies that underpin the creation of what may seem like a simple, everyday object. The poem first appeared in the New Yorker in 1989 and was later published in the poet's 1990 collection The Want Bone.
The back, the ...
... Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea ...
... at my wrist.
The presser, the ...
... no fire escapes—
The witness in ...
... and not eternity.
A third before ...
... his gray trousers—
Like Hart Crane’s ...
... Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras.
The clan tartans ...
... dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. ...
... inspected my shirt.
Its color and ...
... shade. The shirt.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Robert Pinsky's Life and Work — A biography of Robert Pinsky from the Poetry Foundation covering his life, work, and literary development.
"Shirt" at New York Fashion Week — Listen to a conversation between designers at New York Fashion Week describing the production process in relation to Pinsky's poem, followed by an analysis by the poet himself.
Want List: A Review of The Want Bone — A review of Pinsky's collection The Want Bone, the book in which "Shirt" first appeared.
The Art of Poetry: Robert Pinsky — Read a Paris Review interview with Robert Pinsky in which the poet discusses his artistic process and relationship to language.
Poetry on Film: Robert Pinsky's Shirt — A discussion of "Shirt" as well as the a visualization of the poem produced by the Nantucket Project.
1The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
2The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
3Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
4Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
5Or talking money or politics while one fitted
6This armpiece with its overseam to the band
7Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
8The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
9The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
10At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
11One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
12On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
13The witness in a building across the street
14Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
15Up to the windowsill, then held her out
16Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
17And then another. As if he were helping them up
18To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
19A third before he dropped her put her arms
20Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
21Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
22He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
23And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
24Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—
25Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
26Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
27Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
28Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
29Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
30Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
31Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
32To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
33By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
34Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
35To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
36Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
37The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
38Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
39As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
40George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
41Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
42And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
43And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
44Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
45Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
46The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
47Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
48The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.