Stanley Kunitz Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Stanley Kunitz constantly sought to achieve higher and higher ground, both in his thoughtful aesthetic and in his themes. Kunitz’s first poems were composed after the initial wave of modernism, led, in poetry, by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, had crested. They resemble, to some extent, the earlier, tightly organized, ironic poems of Eliot, though the influence of the seventeenth century Metaphysical poets, particularly George Herbert (again an indirect influence of Eliot, who was largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in the Metaphysicals), is probably more preponderant. Moreover, by the 1920’s, the work of Sigmund Freud had successfully invaded American arts and provided the introspective poet with a powerful tool for the analysis of self and culture.
The poems of Intellectual Things sketch many of the themes that would later be subject to elaboration and enrichment: the figure of the regenerative wound that is both the fresh scar of loss and the font of the power to transform experience into art; humans’ willful capriciousness (the “blood’s unreason”) and the inevitable cargo of guilt; and the search for the father, which is ultimately the search for identity, authority, and tradition. These topics pervade Kunitz’s later poems as crucially as they pervaded his early verse.
Eloquent and formally rigorous, the poems in this first collection show a poet already mature in his medium, writing of his “daily self that bled” to “Earth’s absolute arithmetic/ of being.” Characterized by paradox and a wish for transcendence (though that wish is frequently denied or diverted to another object), the early poems often poise on niceties of intellection—though they are also fully felt—and suggest transport by language rather than the transcendence to which they aspire. From the first, Kunitz’s poems have typically employed the language and images of paradox. In “Change,” the opening poem to his first collection, humankind is “neither here nor there/ Because the mind moves everywhere;/ And he [sic] is neither now nor then/ Because tomorrow comes again/ Foreshadowed. . . .” In more characteristically personal poems, such as “Postscript,” the poet observes, in what will develop into one of his ongoing themes, the self’s phoenixlike destruction and subsequent regeneration: “I lost by winning, and I shall not win/ Again, except by loss.” The losses Kunitz traces in Intellectual Things are those of past life (or of a past one that was denied), symbolized by the loss of his father, and the loss of love. In “For the Word Is Flesh,” the poet admonishes his dead father: “O ruined father dead, long sweetly rotten/ Under the dial, the time-dissolving urn,/ Beware a second perishing. . . .” The second death is the doleful fate of being erased from the memories of the living. In a memorable passage that presages a later, more famous poem (“Father and Son”), Kunitz writes, “Let sons learn from their lipless fathers how/ Man enters Hell without a golden bough”—that is to say, uninstructed.
Some of the finest effects attained in Intellectual Things can be attributed to a high degree of control over phrasing, combined with the use of rhyme as a tool of force reminiscent of Alexander Pope, as in “Lovers Relentlessly”: “Lovers relentlessly contend to be/ Superior in their identity.// The compass of the ego is designed/ To circumscribe intact a lesser mind. . . .” Kunitz uses rhyme also as a vehicle of wit, as in the shorter, three-beat lines of “Benediction”: “God banish from your house/ The fly, the roach/ the mouse// That riots in the walls/ Until the plaster falls. . . .”
Passport to the War
Passport to the War retains much of the density and bardic resonance of Intellectual Things , but the range of subject matter is broader: The self must now take its transformations into account against the background of recent history, for which regeneration is entirely...
(The entire section is 5,519 words.)