The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978
In the Author’s Note to this selection, Kunitz writes that he can hardly believe that he has been writing serious poetry for fifty years. Yet to the literary historian, Kunitz has become an elder statesman of American poetry, a witness to its experiments and a survivor of its enthusiasms, while to the general reader his career documents his obsession with personal loss.
Whether caused by events like the loss of his wallet in Rome or the death of his father before the poet’s birth, Kunitz is always trying to understand his illusions and accommodate his needs. His father is the most important ghost in his life. In his fourth book, The Testing Tree, “The Portrait” tells us that his father killed himself and dramatizes the pain of this loss when the poet’s mother slaps him for finding his father’s picture. This incident sets up a Freudian pursuit which pervades Kunitz’s work and ends first in the famous “Father and Son,” in which the poet finally comes face-to-face with the ghost of his father only to find it blank, and much later in “Quinnapoxet,” in which the poet, having evoked his parents’ ghosts by cutting his thumb, ignores that of his mother but in deaf-mute sign language acknowledges that of his father.
If the lyric edge to Kunitz’s poetry is pathological, the reflective side of it often tries to map out a sort of epistemology of the psyche. In the early works there may be a moral tone to Kunitz’s saying the self’s real needs are to grieve in privacy, to be proud without intruding on others, and to be loved; but his later work has a more psychological focus. In “Motion of Wish,” Kunitz says that the process of personal wish is important, not its objects, and that the most significant “motion” is inward, not outward. He would prefer this process to involve pleasant, innocent, and sensual dreams, but it tends to shape dreams which evoke the problematic nature of being itself. These are the dreams which humans have that “set their brains adrift upon their blood.” The brain itself (as he says in “Mens Creatrix”) will “Entomb the noise of frightened blood”; and in “Single Vision” he promises to “sink/Into my deepest self; there drink/Memory down.” Further, though he considers wearing various masks in the world, only the “Self” he murders in nightmares is the mask that seems to fit in the mirror “that traps your shames.” Finally, having “walked through many lives” and undergone the heart’s “feast of losses,” Kunitz feels impelled to “’Live in the layers,/not on the litter’” (“The Layers”), and to assert that “What’s best in me lives underground” (“The Mound Builders”).
Kunitz’s poetry mentions again and again the discomfort of focusing on the self. “Dragging my life behind me in a sack” is one of his more striking tropes for this discomfort; he speaks also of “The burden of the personal life,” “the deep prison of . . . person,” and the carnage which typifies general (and the remorse which typifies personal) history. Moreover, the “heart” feeds on itself, and “we belong” to what “scars.” By the time he gets to “The Testing Tree,” Kunitz still thinks “the heart . . . / . . . lives by breaking,” albeit “for...
(The entire section is 1339 words.)