SOURCE: “An Interview with Stanley Kunitz,”1 in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 1–14.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1972, Kunitz discusses his formative influences and approach to writing poetry, his artistic development and changing existential and mythopoetic concerns, and his views on the significance of poetry and the place of the poet in contemporary society.]
[Davis:] Mr. Kunitz, you said once to a group of students studying your poetry that no one has the “right answers” in interpretation, and that after it's published the poem belongs as much to them as to you. Are you generally reluctant to explain your poems?
[Kunitz:] I often don't really know what a poem means, in rational terms. There are so many currents that flow into the poem, of which the poet himself can't be totally aware. Years after you have written a poem, you come back to it and find something you didn't know was there. Sometimes, I grant, a poet can be helpful about a specific image or an obscure portion of his poem.
Do you think it's helpful to talk about the circumstances that led to your writing a poem?
If they can be recalled, they may, in some cases, prove illuminating. But, as a general rule, the poem ought to have released itself from the circumstances of its origin.
Is that related to the idea of myth—poetry as myth?
Yes, it's that, but it's also related to my feeling that the poem has to be found beyond the day, that it requires a plunge into the well of one's being, where all one's key images lie. The occasion for a poem, which may have been something quite casual, is not the true source of the poem—it has only helped to trigger the right nerves.
When I asked about myth, I was thinking of the idea that I find in the poems of The Coat without a Seam especially, the idea that myth is something constant that can be expressed in many different kinds of circumstances, but that goes beyond circumstances—even beyond the individual. So a great poem speaks to everyone because all share a common condition.
Jung spoke of archetypal images that go beyond the individual persona and that pertain to the collective history of the race.
Is that a reason for your use of dream and hallucination in the poetry—to reach that archetypal material?
I think of dream as an actual visitation into that world, as a clue to secrets of which one is only faintly aware in ordinary consciousness.
But you wouldn't agree with the “psychic automatism” of the surrealists?
No. Because I think a poem is a combination of unconscious and conscious factors. One is trying to reach a level of transcendence; at the same time, one has to keep a grip on language, not to let it run away with itself. Automatic writing is such a bore!
Is your use of metaphysical techniques—exploiting the metaphor in extended conceits—one of the ways of exercising that conscious control over language, giving form to the raw materials of the unconscious mind?
The image leads you out of yourself into a world of relatives. The beautiful risk to take is to extend the image as far as you can go, until it turns in upon itself. The danger is in jumping off into absurdity, but that's part of the risk.
Perhaps we can consider some of these questions by talking about changes in your development. You eliminated almost half of the poems in Intellectual Things (1930) in later volumes. Was...
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that because they were technically unsuccessful, or because you no longer agreed with the ideas you expressed in them?
My main feeling was that they were immature. Maybe I felt a little embarrassed reading them, so I thought it would be better to drop them, that's all.
I felt that many of the poems in that book placed much greater emphasis on the power of the intellect than later poems. I'm thinking of poems like “Mens Creatrix” (IT, p. 16), in which you seem to talk about the superiority of the intellect over the emotions. I wondered if perhaps one of the reasons for elimination of such poems was that you had changed your emphasis.
I doubt it. Certainly when I was writing the poems in Intellectual Things, I meant to demonstrate, if I could, not that the poem was a cerebral exercise, but the contrary, that the intellect and the passions were inseparable—which is the whole point of the Blake epigraph to the book, “The tear is an intellectual thing.”
Then why the poems in which you talk about putting away passion, or subduing it by intellectual power?
It's not a question of putting it away or rising above it. Remember, I'm thinking back a good many years, so that I wouldn't swear to this—but my recollection is that my characteristic figure at this stage, in speaking of mind and heart, was of each devouring and being devoured by the other, an act of mutual ingestion. In “Beyond Reason” (IT, p. 62) I spoke of taming the passions “with the sections of my mind”—as though it were a sort of dog food—but then I wanted to “teach my mind to love its thoughtless crack.”
One of the poems that impressed me on this theme was “Motion of Wish” (IT, p. 52).
I'll take a look at it and see whether you're right or not. … Yes, I think the lines you were thinking of were “… wish may find / Mastery only in the mind.” This poem I haven't looked at in so long, but as I read it now, I see these lines as the key to understanding of the poem: “… mariners eat / One lotus-moment to forget / All other moments, and their eyes / Fasten on impossible surprise.” And then the end: “A man may journey to the sun, / But his one true love and companion / Sleeps curled in his thoughtful womb. / Here will the lone life-traveler come / To find himself infallibly home.” But you have to consider here that the mind is the eater of the passions, and the passions rest in that mind, so that what one is asserting is a sense of the unity of all experience, not a separation.
And the mind contains that sense of unity.
Yes. The mind stands for the whole experiential and existential process. I think that the confusion here is to think that when I talk of mind in this volume, that I'm talking about brain. I'm not talking about brain; I'm talking about the whole process of existence.
What about poems like “Very Tree” (IT, p. 21), where it seems that what you're saying is that you perceive the essence of the tree—its treeness—and discard its particulars? That the particulars are not important?
One of my great influences was Plato, and I was very deep in Platonic lore, especially at this period of my first work. The theme is the idea of tree, treeness, as opposed to the shadow of the idea.
But you're not really suggesting that particulars of experience are unimportant?
You arrive at universals through the perception—the clear perception—of what Blake called “Minute Particulars.”
These earlier poems are much more abstract than your later work, aren't they?
I suppose so. That may have been the Platonic influence, as much as anything else that I can think of.
Did you become dissatisfied with that kind of approach?
As I became more of a political being, I wanted to fasten my poems to the reality of the day. I turned away from poems that began with the grandeur of generality. I wanted to find the general through breaking the kernel of particulars.
Is this why, in Passport to the War (1944), you make so many references to contemporary events? As concretions for your general themes?
Don't you think that is possibly simply the result of maturing a bit and having more experience of the world? At the time of writing Intellectual Things, I was in my early twenties and was an innocent in so many ways. I had developed intellectually more than I had emotionally or experientially.
This volume, especially, the war poetry, seems very different even from your later poetry.
It was my darkest time.
Do you still have the same feelings about the conditions of the modern world and what it does to man?
I've never stopped being a dissenter. I have no use for a superior technology that breeds hatred, injustice, inequality, and war.
What do you think the poet's position should be in relationship to that kind of society?
Number one, he must not become a subscribing member of it. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the poet has been the prophetic voice of a counterculture. Poetry today speaks more directly to the young than ever before because they recognize its adversary position.
Then you think it's more difficult to be a poet now than it was before the nineteenth century?
The poet before the Industrial Revolution could identify himself with State or Church, but he certainly has not been able to do so since. That's why he is a creature apart.
You often talk about guilt in Passport to the War. Sometimes it's played upon by society, but sometimes you seem to say that everyone carries a load of guilt around with him. What is this guilt caused by and directed at?
When I speak of “The Guilty Man” (PW, p. 27), I don't mean someone who has sinned more than anybody else. I mean the person who, simply by virtue of being mortal, is in a way condemned; he's mortal and he's fallible, and his life is inevitably a series of errors and consequences. Since he cannot really see the true path—it is not given to him to see it, except in moments of revelation—he is denied the rapture of innocence.
Like Original Sin?
Without the theological furniture.
Is this related to the existentialist idea of the fear of freedom?
I was making noises like an existentialist before I knew what it was to be one. I keep on trying to record my sense of being alive, which means in practice my sense, from moment to moment, of living and dying at once, a condition of perpetual crisis.
In particular, when I read “The Fitting of the Mask” (PW, p. 28), I thought of Sartre's “bad faith”: the attempt to conceal one's own being from oneself.
If we did not wear masks, we should be frightened of mirrors.
You say in “Night Letter” (PW, p. 9) that you “believe in love” as the salvation from this fear of one's own being and from the evils of modern society. Are you speaking primarily of love for mankind or personal love?
Abstract love is not love at all. One expresses love in relation to another—that's the germinal node. I don't really care much for people who are always talking about love for mankind and hate their neighbors.
The treatment of the love theme is another difference I found between the first volume and later ones. In Intellectual Things, the love poetry is often about relationships that fail; it isn't until the later poetry that you really celebrate fulfilling relationships.
That's more or less to be expected. After all, the disasters of early love are legendary and part of one's education. For that reason, among others, poets in their youth tend to be melancholy. “When I was young,” said Yeats, “my Muse was old; now that I am old, my Muse is young.”
It wasn't, then, that you had a more pessimistic conception of the relationship?
I've always been an optimist about love. Three marriages are the proof.
I'd like to talk a little about Selected Poems. Perhaps we could begin with a poem that seems central to that volume, “The Approach to Thebes” (SP, p. 31). That poem ends with these lines: “… I met a lovely monster, / And the story's this: I made the monster me.” Is this just acceptance of one's fate?
More than that. … I have a theory about monsters. I remember, a few years ago, telling Mark Rothko, who was a dear friend of mine, that every genius is a monster. Mark thought about that for sometime, and then, with the typical vanity of an artist, said, “You mean I'm a monster?” I replied, “Well, I'm not talking about anybody in this room.” But of course I was. The adversary artist in our time pays a price, in human terms, for his excess of ego and sensibility. He has had to sacrifice too much; he is poisoned by ambition; and he carries too big a load of griefs and shames—that's the hunch on his back. You're not likely to find him open, generous, or joyous. Rothko, incidentally, killed himself by slashing his wrists not long after our discussion. I have a poem about him, entitled “The Artist,” in The Testing-Tree.
And the burden of monsterdom is placed on mythic heroes, too?
There's one mythic hero that you seem to consider more than others, and that's Christ. Why is the Christian myth more important in your poetry than other myths?
Because it shakes me more. It is the supreme drama of guilt and redemption. I have no religion—perhaps that is why I think so much about God.
When you speak of myth in poetry, you mean a re-creation of the human drama embodied in religious myths such as this?
Poetic myth is nourished by all the great traditions.
Then you are saying that all myths attempt to do the same thing, to tell the same story.
All myths are the same myth; all metaphors are the same metaphor. When you touch the web of creation at any point, the whole web shudders.
And poetry has the same function as myth?
You draw many parallels between the poet and the mythic hero. Do you, like so many poets, see the poet as supreme example of affirmative action, of what a man can be?
As I said a while back, he can be a monster. But ideally he is the last representative free man, in that he is beholden to nobody but himself and his own vision of truth. Almost anybody else you can think of is beholden to others: the pastor to his congregation, the politician to the public, the actor to his audience. But the poet, since he is not a commodity, is more blessed than others—he can strive toward the absolute purity of his art.
Aren't you beholden to your publisher and your readers, at least in some measure financially?
No. I don't think so. One manages to survive. If I felt for a moment that I had to write lies in order to publish, I would stop publishing. It wouldn't matter that much. I could still go on writing.
You're especially concerned with the question of what it is to be a poet in “The Coat without a Seam,” and nearly all of the poems in that section are new in Selected Poems. Why is it that you became more concerned with poems about poetry in that volume?
I'm not sure that I did. Periodically one tries to redefine and reassert one's vocation—not always in obvious terms. Wallace Stevens made a career out of doing precisely that. “Poetry,” he wrote, “is the subject of the poem.” As you rightly perceived, I keep trying to relate poetic function with mythic or heroic destiny.
You note that relationship in other sections, too, in poems like “Green Ways” (SP, p. 5).
I wonder whether you caught the logic of the various sections in the Selected Poems. They were meant to indicate my primary thematic concerns.
Perhaps you would talk about a couple of those sections; for example, “The Terrible Threshold.”
That title—“The Terrible Threshold”—comes, of course, from one of the poems, “Open the Gates” (SP, p. 41), where the poet sees “The end and the beginning in each other's arms.” I think of the poems in this section as visionary experiences, culminating in a moment of illumination.
In speaking to a group of students studying “Prophecy on Lethe” (SP, p. 61), you said that that moment was one of fleeting awareness, and that you couldn't state what that awareness was of. If you can't state what you see in that moment of epiphany. …
I don't have to state it. The awareness is in the poem, not in my memory of it. Come to think of it, I don't even remember what the last lines were!
“With your strange brain blooming as it lies / Abandoned to the bipeds on the beach; / Your jelly-mouth and, crushed, your polyp eyes.”
I see all those death images piled up on that shore. The key word, the transcendental word, for me is “blooming.”
There's a movement there toward a sense of identity, isn't there? First an anonymous figure floating on the stream, and at the end you speak directly to the “you.”
Death-in-Life. Life-in-Death. The glory of the senses. …
This is what I was trying to get at: I saw the poem as, at least partially, a myth of the birth of consciousness, moving from a Being-in-Itself state—unconscious and no perception—to that sense of identity that you have because you're conscious. And of course, a sharper awareness of your own sensuous perceptions. I don't know whether that would be valid or not.
Thanks—I'll buy it. It just occurs to me that there's a comparable evolution in my later poem, “Green Ways.” I hadn't seen the affinity before.
And part of the point of “Green Ways” is that it is the duty of the conscious being to accept his consciousness, isn't it?
More than that, he must affirm his vegetable and mineral existence, as well as his animal self.
Not discarding them with consciousness, then.
Accepting them, in the fullness of the life-process.
Could you talk a little about “The Serpent's Word” section also?
Those are love poems, or deal with the love experience. The phrase is always the key to the section that it heads; here it's from the line: “Who taught me the serpent's word, but yet the word.” Which takes us back to the Garden of Eden.
In “The Dark and the Fair” (SP, p. 33), the source of that line, there's a Fair Lady and another Dark Lady, and the Dark Lady replaces the Fair. The Dark Lady is from the past; is she symbolic of the Fall?
She's Lilith, in the poem.
There is another poem in “The Serpent's Word” that I find more difficult than most, “As Flowers Are” (SP, p. 10).
That poem records the changes in a field through the seasons. And at the same time, it offers by implication a metaphor of the aspects of love. From week to week each species of flower, each hue, struggles to gain possession of the field.
Is that the “war” of the flowers?
Yes. The yellows and whites of spring yield to the hot tones of summer, a riot of colors. The chill nights bring the lavenders in; and, with the first frost, the whole field turns bronze. It's a parable, I suppose.
I think I see it now.
It's not so difficult, if you listen to the music.
You've said that in an open society, poetry tends to become hermetic, more difficult, and very private. Do you think this is true of your own poetry?
The important question is, do I still think we live in an open society. Certainly America seems to me less open than it was. And certainly my work has undergone a sea-change. Robert Lowell wrote something to the effect that I've broken with my “passionately gnarled” earlier style and am writing in a language that “even cats and dogs can understand.” Perhaps in my age I've managed to untie some of the knots of my youth. I want to say what I have to say without fuss. I want to strip everything down to essentials.
You talked about some of these ideas in Passport to the War, and that volume also had a more open style than the first one.
Poets are always wanting to change their lives and their styles. Of the two, it's easier to change the life.
In that last volume, The Testing-Tree (1971), you included several of your translations of other authors. Why did you pick those particular ones?
Obviously because I liked them as poems. And because they seemed to have an affinity with my own work. For example, I've been working on the poems of Anna Akhmatova for several years—they make up my next book. I've been so absorbed in her verse that it would be surprising if I hadn't been affected by it. Incidentally, I tend to think of a book as a composition, a joining of parts into an architectural whole, not just a throwing-together of the poems as written. A book ought to have an interior logic: these few translations seemed to me to fit into the logic of this particular book. I deliberately excluded scores of others.
Are they fairly strict translations?
Close, but not slavishly close. Translating poetry is an exercise in paradox. “Be true to me!” says the poem to its translator. And in the next breath, “Transform me, make me new!” If you follow the original, word for word, and lose the poetry—as you must, if you insist on a literal rendering—your translation is a dud. But if you find the poetry in a free act of the imagination, it's a lie. I'm reminded of the citizen in Kafka's aphorism who's fettered to two chains, one attached to earth, the other to heaven. No matter which way he heads, the opposite chain pulls him back with a jolt. That's pretty much the condition of the translator.
Do you read the originals yourself?
My knowledge of Russian is rudimentary. Though my parents came from Russia, I am not a Russian linguist or scholar. So I nearly always translate with somebody whom I can depend on for roots and connotations and allusions. Max Hayward helped me with Akhmatova, as he did before with Voznesensky.
Did you do many translations earlier?
A few … from French, Spanish, and Italian. I included one of my Baudelaire translations in Selected Poems. He was important to me.
You spoke of the “internal logic” of a volume of poetry. Does The Testing-Tree have a definite logic for its sections, as Selected Poems does?
A logic, but less definite, perhaps. I shuffled those poems all around. The first section is the overture, anticipating the main themes. Section two is dominated by poems of place; three, political; four deals with the role and character of the artist.
The title poem seems most like your earlier poems in theme.
Not in form, certainly. But that and “King of the River” go back to the mythic.
Were they written earlier?
No. Quite late.
Would you say, then, that your themes are the same, that you're just expressing them in a different way?
A man's preoccupations and themes aren't likely to change. What changes is the extent to which he can put the full diversity of his moods and interests and information into his poems. Formal verse is a highly selective medium. A high style wants to be fed exclusively on high sentiments. Given the kind of person I am, I came to see the need for a middle style—for a low style, even, though that may be outside my range.
I was interested in Robert Lowell's review of The Testing-Tree because I thought that he was saying, among other things, that the new poetry was more like his, more like confessional poetry.
I've always been an intensely subjective poet. There's never been any shift from that.
The sort of open description of autobiographical detail that appears in your last volume is generally considered confessional poetry.
Confession is a private matter. Most so-called confessional poetry strikes me as raw and embarrassing—bad art.
Do you think you've been influenced by any of the confessional poets? Lowell and Roethke?
In the first place, you mustn't call Roethke a confessional poet. He would have vomited at the thought. We were friends for thirty years, till his death, swapping manuscripts and criticism. My friendship with Lowell dates from the publication of my Selected Poems in 1958. Intellectual Things had brought Roethke and me together—he was still unpublished. But these are more than literary friendships. In these long and deep associations it's idle to discuss who influences whom. Friendship is a sustained act of reciprocity. We have all been touched by our interchange. Vulnerable human beings affect each other; that's all there is to it.
You wouldn't then put yourself in any group?
Now or at any stage, I can't imagine to what group I could possibly be attached. A one-to-one relationship is the limit of my herd instinct.
What earlier poets would you say influenced you greatly?
Donne and Herbert and Blake were my first major influences—Donne and Herbert stylistically, Blake prophetically. I must have learned something, too, from Wordsworth's “Prelude” and his “Intimations of Immortality.” For awhile I steeped myself in Keats and Tennyson. After that, almost nobody until Hopkins overwhelmed me during my college years. And Yeats, of course, whom I consider to be the great master of the poem in English in this century. I suppose Eliot to a degree, though I opposed him, quarreling with his ideas, his criticism, and what I thought of as his poverty of sympathy. His theory of the depersonalization of poetry struck me as false and destructive. My work didn't fit into that picture of his at all. Both Roethke and I felt from the beginning that the Eliot school was our principal adversary. We fought for a more passionate art. Nevertheless I was so aware of his existence that even in a negative way I was influenced by him. So was Roethke. That Eliot rhythm had an hypnotic effect.
I'd like to go back for a moment to the question we discussed earlier, your differences from confessional poets. Your latest volume is certainly more directly autobiographical than the others. Rosenthal justifies the use of autobiographical material in confessional poetry by the poet's assumption that the literal self is important and that it becomes symbolic of the world—what happens to the self is what the modern world does to man. How does your idea of poetry differ from that?
I phrase it differently. I say that the effort is to convert one's life into legend, which isn't quite the same thing. Secrets are part of the legend. My emphasis isn't on spilling everything. It's on the act of transformation, the ritual sense, the perception of a destiny.
Is it possible to see these mythic connections even if you're not a poet?
I'm not contending that the poet is set apart from others. On the contrary, he is more like others than anybody else—that's his nature. It's what Keats meant by negative capability, the predisposition to flow into everyone and everything. A poetry of self-indulgence and self-advertisement is produced by the egotistical sublime—Keats's phrase again—and is simply ugly. God knows a poet needs ego, but it has to be consumed in the fire of the poetic action.
Then your view is almost the reverse of the confessional one; you begin with a general idea of the human condition.
The only reason you write about yourself is that this is what you know best. What else has half as much reality for you? Even so, certain details of your life can be clouded by pain, or fear, or shame, or other complications, that induce you to lie, to disguise the truth about yourself. But the truth about yourself is no more important than the truth about anybody else. And if you knew anybody else as well as you know yourself, you would write about that other.
The interview was conducted on March 9, 1972, at Mr. Kunitz's home in New York. Mr. Kunitz kindly consented to read and edit the interview. Poems quoted are identified by page number with the following abbreviations: IT—Intellectual Things (New York: Doubleday, 1930); PW—Passport to the War (New York: Henry Holt, 1944); SP—Selected Poems, 1928–1958 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958); TT—The Testing-Tree (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).
Stanley Kunitz 1905-2006
(Full name Stanley Jasspon Kunitz; has also written under the pseudonym Dilly Tante) American poet, editor, essayist, translator, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Kunitz's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 11, and 14.
Revered as an elder statesman of American poetry, Kunitz produced a distinguished body of work that spans generations and won acclaim for its virtuosity and insight. Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems, 1928–1958 (1958), the National Book Award for Passing Through (1995), and, at age ninety-five, was named poet laureate of the United States beginning in 2000. Kunitz is well-known for the nonconformity of his style, and critics seldom draw direct comparisons between him and his contemporaries, although they do note his relationship with his protégé Theodore Roethke. In the 1930s and 1940s, while the experimental verse of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound enjoyed wide popularity, Kunitz's work reflected the dense formalism of seventeenth-century metaphysical poets such as John Donne and George Herbert. Kunitz's verse has gradually become less autobiographical and formal over the years, evolving by the 1970s into a poetic style that combines metric complexity with lucid form.
Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905, several weeks after his father, Soloman, committed suicide. This event haunted Kunitz in his formative years and it informs much of his early poetry, which focuses on themes of death and orphanhood. Raised by his mother, Yetta Jasspon Kunitz, a Lithuanian immigrant and entrepreneur who took over the family business, Kunitz's childhood was marked by his love of reading. His literary and academic prowess allowed him to obtain a scholarship to Harvard, where his poetic and linguistic talents were recognized and encouraged. After graduating from Harvard summa cum laude in 1926 and earning a master's degree in English, Kunitz worked briefly as a newspaper reporter in Worcester, Massachusetts. One of his first positions after college involved editing the letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who was executed in the United States with Nicola Sacco in 1927 under the charge of anarchy. Kunitz's efforts to prevent what many perceived as an unjust execution were unsuccessful, and this experience contributed to his lifelong advocacy of political freedom. Kunitz later forged a successful career as an editor of literary reference works while working for the H. W. Wilson Company in New York. He inaugurated two important series of reference books: the Wilson Library Bulletin and the Authors Biographical Series. Following the publication of his collection Intellectual Things (1930), Kunitz gradually focused his attention on writing poetry, but remained a working editor and translator for most of his career. Kunitz also held the position of poetry professor at Bennington College in Vermont, Columbia University in New York, the University of Washington, and Queens College, New York. Though he eschewed the confinement of an academic career, Kunitz has been recognized as an important mentor for many poets, notably Roethke and Louise Glück. He served as general editor of the “Yale Series of Younger Poets,” published by Yale University Press, from 1969 to 1977. During World War II, Kunitz was drafted, although his identification as a nonaffiliated pacifist excused him from active duty. He is a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a community that sponsors young artists and writers. Kunitz's impact on the artistic community was honored by the publication of A Celebration of Stanley Kunitz on His Eightieth Birthday (1986), a volume of poems, essays and letters edited by Stanley Moss.
Kunitz's early poetry collections, Intellectual Things,Passport to the War (1944) and Selected Poems, 1928–1958, earned him a reputation as an intellectual poet. Reflecting Kunitz's admiration for the English metaphysical poets John Donne and William Blake, these intricate poems, rich in metaphor and allusion, were recognized more for their craft than their substance. The Testing-Tree (1971), with its conversational tone, loose form, and short lines, marked a departure to a simpler, more open style for Kunitz. In a Publishers Weekly article, Kunitz commented on his two styles: “My early poems were very intricate, dense and formal. … They were written in conventional metrics and had a very strong beat to the line. … In my late poems I've learned to depend on a simplicity that seems almost nonpoetic on the surface, but has reverberations within that keep it intense and alive. …” The change in Kunitz's style was reflected in his treatment of his most major recurring themes. Critics have noted that Kunitz has been more inclined to expose his personal feelings in his later work, particularly with regard to the suicide of his father. Poems such as “The Portrait,” “Open the Gate,” and “Father and Son”—which focus on a son's quest to know his father—show Kunitz to be more willing to confront his personal trauma than he was in his earlier verse. Critics have also focused on Kunitz's interest in the narrow balance between life and death, which Kunitz describes as “a rather terrifying thought that is at the root of much of my poetry.” Kunitz's exploration of such serious themes has drawn acclaim from several critics, although many note that his tone has become more optimistic in his later collections such as Next-to-Last Things (1985) and Passing Through.
Critics have overwhelmingly praised Kunitz's poetry, calling him “difficult” and “obtuse” at times, but these terms are used approvingly. The critical reverence for Kunitz's poetry often emphasizes the characteristic mysterious nature of his verse. In 1930, William Rose Benét found Intellectual Things “modern and yet very old, intricate and metaphysical and yet undeniably full of the true seer.” Many recent critics suggest that Kunitz's poetry has improved over time, although he is still primarily placed within a generation of older poets. According to Jay Parini, “the restraints of [Kunitz's] art combine with a fierce dedication to clarity and intellectual grace to assure him of a place among the essential poets of his generation, which includes Roethke, [Robert] Lowell, [W. H] Auden, and [Richard] Eberhart.” However, Kunitz's initial works prompted scant critical attention, and it was not until he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize that critics began to take any significant interest in his poetry. Still, academic critics have been much less receptive to Kunitz than his peers. For many years, general critical consensus held that Kunitz was too imitative, lacking any recognizable style of his own. Many reviewers felt that in his early works, Kunitz was a derivative practitioner of the modernist-metaphysical mode, and in his later works, he switched to the confessional mode made popular by such poets as Lowell and John Berryman. In recent years, Kunitz has been praised for the power and intensity of his lyric poems, while continuing to be admired for his meticulous attention to the subtleties of sound and sense. Kunitz has continued to be recognized by his peers as an important voice in contemporary American poetry.
SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz: The Stubborn Middle Way,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 49–73.
[In the following essay, Weisberg provides an overview of Kunitz's artistic development and poetic style, drawing attention to his metaphysical concerns, creative vision, and the influence of T. S. Eliot and W. A. Auden.]
“The easiest poet to neglect is one who resists classification.”1 Had he spoken of himself, Stanley Kunitz might rather have said that we neglect the poet who becomes classified too early and too narrowly. Since a brief, if sympathetic, article by Jean Hagstrum in 1958,2 Kunitz's impressive canon has aroused no critical interest. Instead, he has been dubiously honored, by almost universal agreement, as a strange phenomenon called the “poet's poet,” and the only recent study of him, by Marjorie Perloff in the Iowa Review, explicitly sustains this official view.3 In what sense is Kunitz “the poet's poet”? The title first assumes that his verse is of minor interest in itself, but that his literary relationships as peer and mentor have merited him a grateful, if condescending, nod from the historians of contemporary poetry. More specifically, the title has generally implied fixed critical views of the nature of his verse. In his early work as represented in Selected Poems he is a skillful but derivative practitioner of the modernist-metaphysical mode, limited in subject, a bit abstruse in imagery, and interesting chiefly as a technician. In the late poems in The Testing-Tree he is again the skillful derivative, this time as a late convert to the confessional mode.
We will see the real Kunitz when we look askance at our categories of classification. It seems absurd, but may be necessary, to say that his career as a sane, mature, and stable eye in the storm of modern literary lives is no reason to slight his work. The notion that his field of vision is narrow is challenged by his own remark about political poetry: “An age in crisis needs more than ever to be made aware of the full range of human possibility.” We must ask whether narrowing his material may, ironically, have helped us to widen that range. And if we avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of typing the late poems as pallid confessionals, we might see that there are magnificent autobiographical poems, like his “King of the River,” which “derive” from a tradition of personal poetry far older than that born in 1959 with Robert Lowell's Life Studies. We may come to see Kunitz as a still point in the turning world of recent poetry, a poet whose dynamic order will remind us of what subject matter may be worth a poet's excluding.
What has been seen as the safe path of the “poet's poet” has been a stubborn middle way. Kunitz has felt no need to encompass the extremes of his contemporaries when he can remain at their point of intersection. He need not journey all the way to either hell or Byzantium to dramatize the condition of the poet caught in between: to deny this is to assume an ethic and aesthetic of Faustian aspiration which he would say destroys more good poetry than it creates, because it destroys good poets. Kunitz lives among the classic paradoxes of modern literature and has learned that a sane irony produces a poetry as useful as the most audacious plumbing and soaring.
Born in 1905, Kunitz emerged as a poet in one of the dourest literary periods in America, a time of the odd convergence of such literary influences as T. S. Eliot's, and such philosophical influences as Marx's and Freud's. W. H. Auden is the mediator between these influences and a large if loose group of young American poets who came of age between the wars, and whose pre-war poetry now, in retrospect, seems so stylized in its cultivated, impersonal, and often ideological despair. In “The Dark and the Fair,” Kunitz recalls a literary gathering (it ideally would have included Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, Lowell, and Theodore Roethke) and sums up its mood:
A roaring company that festive night; The beast of dialectic dragged his chains, Prowling from chair to chair in the smoking light, While the snow hissed against the windowpanes.
Our politics, our science, and our faith Were whiskey on the tongue; I being rent By the fierce divisions of our time, cried death And death again, and my own dying meant.
This recalls a whole mode of poetry most obvious in the painfully psychological, probing poems of the first Auden volume, and such Jarrell poems as “The Winter's Tale” that follow. In them the poet, having absorbed a lot of Freud and Marx (in the sense of analytic approach if not actual ideology) attempts a hawk's-eye survey of a somber pre-war world and sees nothing but life-denial. It is revealing that even here, the poet finds the source of this vision in personal depression and not in the results of comprehensive social analysis. Kunitz offers a poem quite directly in this mode in “Night Letter”;
I suffer the twentieth century, The nerves of commerce wither in my arm: Violence shakes my dreams; I am so cold, Chilled by the persecuting wind abroad, The oratory of the rodent's tooth, The slaughter of the blue-eyed open towns, And principle disgraced, and art denied. My dear, it is too late for peace. …
“Night Letter” embodies attitudes of its moment in its arch, world-weary tone, its often contrived yearning for a “faith, and especially its agonizing debate with history as Satan. (“Gerontion” is the great model here.) It is certainly close to the early poems of Schwartz, to Shapiro's bitter social ironies, and even, without the acrobatics of style, to the Lowell of Lord Weary's Castle. It was a generation, in its self-conscious anti-Romanticism, all too ready to adopt the Romantic youthful pose of exhausted cynicism tinged with rootless religious idealism. Those most deeply involved in this mode, of course, sought release from it after the war's conclusion induced in America a sense of relief and security; the free-form and ultimately the confessional followed the impersonally cynical in our poetic history.
Kunitz's membership in this group needs qualification. Despite sharing the tone and diction, he shows little inclination toward any ideology or faith-based view of the world (as Auden ultimately does), and he only slowly, if at all, follows the path of confessional liberation of Lowell and Jarrell, for example. Yet, years later, he still clings to some of the central concerns of this group, especially the burden of the past (though for him it is always personal, never collectively historical) and the possibilities of healing what Eliot decried as our dissociation of sensibility in a verse that fuses an active critical intelligence and a Romantic temperament. Perhaps this makes Kunitz the truest member of this group, again, the still point at its center, a subtle guide to the development of contemporary poetry amidst the extremer tendencies of his fellows.
Selected Poems, 1928–1958 is organized, the poet tells us, not by chronology, but by similarities of “argument,” of theme. Two outstanding themes appear in it, and perhaps a third emerges to unite the two. The first theme unifies a great number of poems that make the agonies of love a metaphor of mortality in general. The poet pictures these agonies through complex metaphysical imagery as a wound, or, more often, a festering disease from which we may seek escape into pure vision, but to which we return as the felix culpa of poetry: love and life are a venereal disease. The second major theme is that of generation, of the poet's three-phase struggle with his past. First, the poet tries to escape the responsibility that the ghosts of the past place on him; then he ecstatically embraces them in a transcendent illumination; and finally, as in the first theme, rejecting a rarefied vision for the salvation he finds in the fecund ditch of life, he learns to “endure” (a central word in Kunitz) the agonies of the generative process. This does not mean to make peace with the past by transcending time, but to make peace with time itself. Ultimately, the wound and the generative process are one, and it is the poet's job to celebrate them.
It is the poems of the first theme that undoubtedly caused critics to type Kunitz as an extreme formalist, but it is important to see a substantial change within them even in Selected Poems. We might say that Kunitz does begin with poems that do all too self-consciously offer themselves as reincarnations of John Donne:
And even should I track you to your birth Through all the cities of your mortal trial, As in my jealous thought I try to do, You would escape me—from the brink of earth Take off to where the lawless auroras run, You with your wild and metaphysic heart. My touch is on you, who are light-years gone. We are not souls but systems, and we move In clouds of our unknowing. …
(“The Science of the Night”)
Kunitz here displays the typical dilemma of his generation—and excess of sheer stylistic talent all too vulnerable to string influence—as if he were too enthusiastically filling Eliot's request for a re-association of sensibility. The burden of talent and influence produces an immensely interesting and rich lyric which yet seems to stifle the poet's true voice, as if an almost unconscious insincerity may have been the curse attached to the Eliot-Auden inheritance. At other times we may feel the poet fully to blame for conceiving himself as the restorer of the Elizabethan World Picture:
So intricately is this world resolved Of substance arched on thrust of circumstance, The earth's organic meaning so involved That none may break the pattern of his dance; …
(“So Intricately Is This World Resolved”)
The problem is that at the base of a good metaphysical yoking-conceit must be some sort of conflict between an order and a violence, and if the violence is insufficiently realized in the poem, if it seems just a tame, cultivated violence and not the genuine violence of a convincing emotional experience, the order in the conceit will seem more clever than dynamic.
But as Selected Poems progresses, a more sincere voice does emerge in the poems of this first theme; a more forceful, less genteel, violence of language reveals a genuine emotional core, and Kunitz seems to achieve the difficult synthesis he may well have thought Eliot was asking for. He manages to bring to his immediate experience a Renaissance sense of wit and decorum, including metrical formality, and use it to express and contain his personality, not suppress it through derivative stylization. We might even imagine him in these poems conducting a secret argument with Eliot. The poet has acknowledged himself a respectful adversary of Eliot: “His definition of poetry as an objective act, a depersonalized performance, was contrary to my own conviction that art and life were bound together. I sought a more passionate voice. And I scorned his politics.” Kunitz undoubtedly is wrong in seeing a crude art-life split in Eliot, but he takes Eliot at his word in making a poetry of intelligence and emotion possible again, very close to the original Renaissance model. This is opposite to what Eliot did in his own verse, which was to transform the metaphysical mode so thoroughly into modernist-free verse as to make the metaphysical influence more a critical catalyst than a true poetic model.
The new voice emerges gradually. We see in “No Word” still the almost excessively thick imagery, yet the wit in this poem conceals a contemporary, common subject—the “no word” is the telephone call that does not come—and so the metaphysical style begins to connect with a true experience:
No message. May the mothering dark, Whose benediction calms the sea, Abater of the atrocious spark Of love and love's anxiety, Be kind; and may my self condone, As surely as my judge reprieves, This heart strung on the telephone, Folded in death, whom no voice revives.
At the end here, the poet moves toward Eliot in weaving an object of common experience into the conceit, and the effect is startling and emotionally convincing. Recalling Eliot's distinction between the “rhetorics” of Henry James and John Milton, we might see the twists and turns of the verse approaching the vacillations of an active emotional mind, and not just self-consciously elaborating the conceit. The woman of the poem remains as remote as in “The Science of the Night”—but remote as a real woman might be to a man, and not, as in the previous poem, remote merely because abstract. Here she is simply distant and cold, and takes on some implied substance through the poet's own tension.
We see another advance in “The Words of the Preacher.” The diction is no more contemporary, and in some ways the emotional experience no more precise. But the poem has an energy that other of Kunitz's metaphysical lyrics lack. And so it succeeds as one of Ezra Pound's early experiments in traditional forms succeeds, by investing the form with new vigor and whole, yet being, in a sense, a purely imitative poem. Equally important though, the poem begins to develop the disease conceit that will dominate the rest of the volume:
Taking infection from the vulgar air And sick with the extravagant disease Of life, my soul rejected the sweet snare Of happiness; declined That democratic bait, set in the world By fortune's old and mediocre mind.
To love a changing shape with perfect faith Is waste of faith; to follow dying things With deathless hope is vain; to go from breath To breath, so to be fed And put to sleep, is cheat and shame—because By piecemeal living a man is doomed, I said.
This verbal energy, or, more specifically, this invigorating sense of a speaking voice, is precisely what most imitative verse lacks. Many poems of the thirties compound the weakness by seeming uncertain of who is speaking at all. The potential energy in a good “homage” may be dissipated by the poet's anxiety to force sincerity, and the result is the insincerity we have seen already. Here, the poet displays a rare Pound-like sense of play with the metaphysical style. The poem deals with his serious theme, yet borrows from the early Pound the redeeming power of play in rejuvenating the old form. This sense of play is a significant movement for Kunitz, for the poems get richer as they turn from a forced Elizabethan elegance to the sharper emotional thrust that is more natural to him.
For Kunitz, the felix culpa is man's attachment to this “extravagant disease” (the metaphor has the metaphysical vigor of such Yeats metaphors as “dying animal” and “fecund ditch”), and like W. B. Yeats, he gradually lays claim to this middle ground, this scrimmage of mortality between nihilism and rarefied vision as the distinct arena of his poetry. Kunitz's best poems refuse to decorate the physical life with Elizabethan elegance, or transcend it for a permanence he finds all the more threatening. Again, the poems are strongest where the commitment to this mortal arena is most honest, where the metaphysical images heighten rather than tame the tension.
Three poems stand out in particular, and it might be well to begin with “By Lamplight,” which, with revealing irony, may well evoke from a sensitive but incautious reader the odd notion that a poem written decades ago is “Plathian”:
Welcome, eccentric life, Attracted to my star, Let there be festival Perverse and singular. Let any drop of poison Grow legs and crawl and eat: The malice of unreason A man can tolerate. The stumblers and the clowns Are wired with their will To live, to live, to live: They do not mean to kill. Sweet beetles, comrade moths, The bonfires in your head Are neither coals of hell Nor the rose in the marriage-bed. I heard all summer long (Dance, monsters, hairy forms!) The idiot on the leaf Babbling of the dust and storms, And in this rough heart made A little thin-legged song Out of my greening blood To swell the night's harangue.
The synthesis of order and violence becomes, for Kunitz, not just the felix culpa of diseased mortality, but the growth of poetry itself. The poem is, in origin, simply the meditation of the midnight poet on the gross insect life orbiting around his lamp. This insect life becomes for him the “hairy forms,” the “festival” of perverse mortality which he not only welcomes into his brain, but makes his poetry of. The disease image is repeated at the end, almost as an image of a kind of festering mental gangrene, but the grossness of physicality is absorbed into the thoroughly healthy, unmorbid vigor of the poem. Kunitz chooses here the middle ground between “the coals of hell” and “the rose in the marriage-bed”—his territory is absolute neither in extreme damnation nor perfected symbolic harmony. It is only after acknowledging this powerful embrace of reality that the rhymed (often slant-rhymed) and well-varied iambic trimeter, which encloses the aberrant circles of the insects, should be noted for the poem's formal success.
We can begin, then to understand the common misconception of Kunitz. The violence of his theme is not over-cultivated; he is rarely a gardener poet, and as seen, in the best short poems, the violence is anything but elegant. It is simply that he lives, or once lived, in a very symbolic universe, so that we are offered little of the explicit private or public material of violence that we have come to expect in contemporaries. Kunitz, in fact, is a devout romantic in his adherence to the natural world as his model for human experience, though he has successfully transformed nature from Wordsworthian harmony and sublimity to the modern disfigurement he must deal with, especially by dealing more with man's body than with earth's body. So it is a very conscious, controlled limitation of explicit subject matter, rather than any over-refinement, that may make the poems seem genteel to the contemporary ear: The disease of mortality in Kunitz is a disease; but the poet has decided that the more he documented it, the less he would make music of it.
A more striking example of this balance is “Off Point Lotus,” a poem which as well as any in Kunitz demonstrates the inadequacy of using the label “confessional” to measure the personal. The poem is wholly and impressively personal in the sense that a reader knowing nothing of the poet's life will still intuit that it has been written out of a private experience and that the reader will need no explicit evidence of that experience. His intuition will derive, rather, from the thoroughly uncontrived verve with which the Odysseus myth is taken up, and from the lucid connections the poem makes to others in the volume to establish itself as a stage in the construction of a coherent poetic character:
Three years I lolled in that country of the girls, Thick with their wine, their loose idolatry, Nor saw that I was only prince of gulls, Nor heard the ambiguous whisper of the sea.
Used … used! Eating their morphine leaf, I breathed a cloud of self-congratulations To pillow me, while my boat slapped on the wharf And a gang of spiders scribbled invitations.
All right, my bully-boys, you who connived My fall, I thank you for your dirty part, I kiss you for each lie you took to wife And for that salt you packed around my heart.
Good-bye, old things, I am forever lost! My crazy vessel dances to the rail, Sea-drunken since I left that barbarous coast, The stain of anger spreading on my sail.
The manipulation of tone is the great strength of this poem, and tone is just that factor which makes a self-consciously mythic or conventional poem “personal” in the Kunitz sense.
Again, referring to the earlier metaphysical lyrics, we can recall a somber archness disturbingly in excess of the experience as it is offered to us in the poems. Here, the harshness is distributed on both sides of the lotus experience: the self-irony of “lolled,” in the subtle shift to a confident irony toward his seducers in the third stanza. Kunitz alludes to the disease theme in the rather painful salt image and in the blood-wine stain at the end, but the infection of carnal and liquorous ecstasy becomes his moving force and even his emblem on the sail. He does not offer these figures as pre-contrived conceits, as a more obvious metaphysical poet would. Rather, they are not conceits at all: they emerge from the emotional logic of the poem's imagery. Again, keeping half an eye on the triumphant “King of the River,” it is the subordination of a rich—and thoroughly traditional—symbolic material to an original and active mind and heart caught moving through the contours of our fundamental experiences that characterizes the best Kunitz poems. Once this symbolic material has been established as the “connecting tissue” of the volume, we can, as if with libretto in hand, sway to the diverse emotional music.
One wants to say that “Hermetic Poem” is so “Roethkean,” until one realizes how well it epitomizes this first theme of Kunitz:
The secret my heart keeps Flows into cracked cups.
No saucer can contain This overplus of mine:
It glisters to the floor, Lashing like lizard fire
And ramps upon the walls Crazy with ruby ills.
Who enters by my door Is drowned, burned, stung and starred.
The reader suffers the four fates of the poem not in any indulgent disarray of poetic effects, but in a controlled perilous journey of a sensibility through appetite, to pain, to poetry.
Much as the first theme is of a journey through pain, the second is a journey through guilt; pain and guilt are the loci of the poetry. In this theme of guilt we may see a parallel development from an agonizing awareness, to a magniloquent vision of transcendence, and finally to a middle ground that does not undermine the vision but balances it with a subtler possibility of enduring a bitter, but liberating, tension between the guilt and the vision. Thus may the development be seen in bare outline, but as with the first theme, a very close reading of the poems reveals a complicated journey in and out of these three phases, with an emerging emphasis on the last phase toward the end of the volume and in the finest poems in The Testing-Tree.
As the pain came from love, so the guilt comes from time, and in “The Signal from the House,” the poet boldly announces the theme, and immediately casts it into its central metaphor. His “father's house” is the repository of ghosts who fail him, as we shall see, in not offering him a clear spiritual heritage, in not giving him a Word to take into the future, and whom he fails in his refusal or inability to make peace with them. The poems of what we might thus call the generation theme oscillate between these two failures, but it is the latter failure that provides the drama for this first announcement:
I said to the watcher at the gate, “They also kill who wait.”
I cried to the mourner on the stair, “Mother, I hate you for those tears.”
To mistress of the ruined hall, The keeper of the sacred heart,
I bought the mind's indifference And the heavy marble of my face.
For those who were too much with me Were secretly against me:
Hostages to the old life, Expecting to be ransomed daily
And for the same fond reason From the deep prison of their person.
Their lantern shining in the window had signaled me, like a cry of conscience,
Insisting that I must be broken Upon the wheel of the unforsaken.
Aside from being another example of a work intensely personal while in no clear way being confessional, the poem succeeds as a conscious metaphysical conceit where earlier ones failed, in that again, it energizes an old form: here what we might call the dramatic reversal structure of such a George Herbert poem as “The Collar.” The reversal arises from the speaker's defiant but uncertain attitude toward the dead, exemplified by his attitude to the mourners, whom he chides for mediating between him and the father he wants to forget but cannot. He resists identifying with the mourners—who are imagined as respectful worshippers as well as the bereaved—and adopts the pose of “marble indifference.”
The action significantly connects with the well-known poem “The Thief,” in which Kunitz ultimately rejects the marble past of Rome for the squalid and fertile modern city that stands on its ruins. In “The Signal from the House,” the same pose is offered only to be shown in its futility. The undertone of guilt and paranoia at the center of the poem turns suddenly at the end to a direct acknowledgement of the wheel, the medieval torture of time to which he is committed. The father-haunted-house metaphor is woven into the metaphors of the sacred chapel and of the psychological kidnapping, and all merge in the final torture which the poet presents in impressive understatement. Here, as in the next poem of the theme, we begin with an ironic Miltonic echo, which reminds us at the end, that the poet must join those “waiting,” enduring the responsibilities the unburied dead foist on us.
Now it is just this stance of serving and waiting that “Open the Gates” contradicts, and it is important to see this as a very deliberate contradiction, as Kunitz establishes the opposite pole of the theme. “Open the Gates” is a poem of visionary impatience with time, a storming of the door out of the haunted house and into heaven, and though its goal is rejected by later poems, it still stands as a brilliant, terse revelation of a possibility. Even if modified later, this possibility by its power, still maintains a constant valence in Kunitz's mind. Without this poem as opposite pole, even “King of the River” might be weakened in its dramatic placement in his canon:
Within the city of the burning cloud, Dragging my life behind me in a sack, Naked I prowl, scourged by the black Temptation of the blood gone proud.
Here at the monumental door, Carved with the curious legend of my youth, I brandish the great bone of my death, Beat once therewith and beat no more.
The hinges groan: a rush of forms Shivers my name, wrenched out of me. I stand on the terrible threshold, and I see The end and the beginning in each other's arms.
The past, personal as well as cultural, is even more clearly a guilty burden in this poem. Kunitz creates an impersonal sense of visionary possibility of unity rising out of the personal theme of “The Signal from the House,” which is reiterated in the sense of skulking guilt and shame at the end of the first stanza here. An earlier poem, “Among the Gods,” had platonically celebrated “the sound / Of matter pouring through eternal forms,” as if the music of that cascade will be his true poetry. In “Open the Gates,” in the final metamorphosis of the concluding scene of St. Augustine's Confessions into a brilliant, Yeatsian sexual metaphor, the process reverses, and the forms ecstatically rush out of the speaker, and he stands, purged, before “the terrible threshold” through which he sees time embraced into a unity. The commitment to physicality in such poems as “Among the Gods” seems coldly abstract compared to the sexual excitement of the return to Platonic purity in “Open the Gates,” his “Byzantium.”
The struggle with time and guilt continues in such well-known poems as “For the Word Is Flesh” and “Father and Son,” and in “Goose Pond,” where the poet literally returns to his childhood, his juncture with the past, the “detritus of his birth, / The rusted hoop, the broken wheels,” until “He meets his childhood beating back / To find what furies made him man.” “Goose Pond” gives us no new clues, but serves to sustain the search, for the poem promises that time has not died, that some life can be extracted from the past, however threatening. But “Goose Pond” also deliberately misleads us for a moment, by offering the seemingly irrefutable idea that memory is a key to redemption in or from time. Indeed, it begins to suggest that all past clues have misled us, the visionary, the hopeless, and resigned, as well as the Bacchic descent into the present in “The Thief,” though this last brings us close to the truth of the two lyrics in which the poet finds his deepest meaning. For in “The Scourge” and “Last Words,” he lays out a principle of endurance, which rejects memory as sterile and vision as quixotic and finally sterile too; here the poet reaches a mature recognition of the need to commit himself to time, and to the mystery of the process of generation that will give sons who may understand him no more than he understood his father; the sustenance of generation itself will become his main value.
“Last Words” is a self-colloquy on the theme of transience, and like “The Scourge,” it resolves into a new maturity of acceptance. He arises “from sleep's long pillow” at the end of the imagined journey of life, and it is worth noting that we have here neither the apocalyptic jump out of the time of “Open the Gates” nor the desolate waste of time of the “father” poems:
The colors of the world are permanent Despite the bleach of change. Pure stain on stain, The bow of light's eternal forms is bent Across steep heaven in the general brain.
The color of stain, of mortal suffering, subtly blends into Platonic purity, and “stain on stain” becomes the figure of the sequence of generation, which he sees now not as a blind reproductive cycle, but as a grand Lawrentian rainbow. In the third stanza, he chides himself for the melodramatic lament, “Who cries, The beautiful, the proud, are fallen! / (O silly child it was myself that cried.)” And we see how at the end the personal stain becomes the pure form of stain when it merges into a “general pattern,” when he sees mortal suffering as, not the agony of the individual, but as a stage in the history of his race:
Our little strength, our beauty, and our pride
Are for the race to keep; we can discover Secrets with our broken skulls; our dead feet run Under the lid of earth that closes over The generations marching to the sun.
The affirmation requires a faith—a faith in the imperceptible, buried pattern of generation that gives meaning to our experience: as in Eliot's “bedded axle-tree,” the history of the race is enacted in a chthonic movement, and it may take the battering of our skulls, literally or figuratively, to merge with that movement. But Kunitz affirms that the movement is there, and as the generations march to the sun, I think we see the sun not as the sudden apocalypse out of time, but as the light of truth which guides our generational progress. It is neither a blind nitrogen cycle of the race, nor Yeats's Nietzschean recurrence, but a stately dance to the music of time.
“The Scourge” also pits melodrama against faithful acceptance, and perhaps even more successfully, because of the lucid opposition of the two voices in the poem. We have a debate between “heart” and what we might call “self,” parallel in some ways to Yeats's great dialogue, where, too, a self suggesting wholeness of vision must defend itself against a soul-heart that mournfully or melodramatically demands death:
My heart felt need to die, Our dusty time had come; I said, “Endure the lie, The waste, the tedium.”
My heart sank to his knees, Schooled in the tragic style, But I, being out of heart, Whipped him another mile,
And not because I cared To let that actor go, But only that I feared His eternal No, No, No.
We see the poet, with brilliant simplicity, putting the poetry of high vision into the perspective to which it has been tending all along as Kunitz possesses his poetic middle way: the “heart” is first, a mere actor, second, by implication, a “hypochondriac” of the kind described in “For the Word Is Flesh,” and finally, and this is crucial for Kunitz, less a voice of affirmation than of nihilism, a denier that the World is flesh. But the self makes its point by allowing the heart to enact its melodrama of visionary nihilism, with surprising results:
Beyond the covered bridge The crooked road turned wild; He rose at the season's edge, Passionate and defiled,
Plucking the remnant leaf Stained with the only good, While all my children leaped Out of the glowing wood.
This great ending is clearly a response to the challenge of “Open the Gates.” Instead of an embrace of beginning and end, we get a burst into an infinite future. Like the speaker of “Open the Gates,” the heart jumps across the threshold toward death, yet here it is not a “monumental door,” but a crooked road and a covered, obscured passage. And instead of beating the cold bone of death, the poet re-enacts the plucking of the golden bough. Only, the gold is the stain of the blood of generation, “the only good,” and the gush of blood is the gush of the generations marching again to the sun. The great achievement of “The Scourge” is to establish an ethic of endurance in a poetic vision which is really more violently thrilling than the vision of apocalypse he is implicitly rejecting.
Selected Poems, Kunitz tells us, is classified into themes and arguments, and the absence of chronological structure teases us into abstracting a line of development that the arrangement of poems may obscure. As such, having discerned the two basic themes of disease and generation, we may have to add a third, not just to tie our two themes into a conclusion, but to account for a number of impressive poems which fall in between or outside these themes. Let us call it the theme of monstrosity.
Kunitz has explicitly defined for us a concept of the contemporary artist as a potential monster:
What is it in our culture that drives so many artists and writers to suicide—or, failing that, mutilates them spiritually? At the root of the problem is the cruel discrepancy between the values of art and the values of society, which makes strangers and adversaries out of those who are most gifted and vulnerable. The artist who turns in on himself, feeds off his own psyche, aggrandizes his bruised ego, is on the way to monsterdom. Ambition is the fire in his gut. No sacrifice is judged too great for his art. At a certain point the becomes a nexus of abstract sensations and powers, beyond the realm of the personal.
He then refers to two poems in particular, “Approach to Thebes,” and “The Artist,” from The Testing-Tree, which elaborate this notion. The Oedipus figure of the latter poem lives to tell his story, and so, though “spiritually mutilated” by his incest with his “flagrant source” (the pun suggests, in terms of the generation theme, the dangers of the beginning and the end embracing), survives as a poet to bequeath his monstrous legend to his posterity. And such would be a tolerable notion of the role of the poet, as bequeather except we see a more terrifying picture of the poet as monster in Mark Rothko's suicide in “The Artist,” and most especially in an amazing poem that Kunitz does not mention, “Prophecy on Lethe.”
Echo, the beating of the tide, Infringes on the blond curved shore; Archaic weeds from sleep's green side Bind skull and pelvis till the four Seasons of the blood are unified.
Anonymous sweet carrion, Blind mammal floating on the stream Of depthless sound, completely one In the cinnamon-dark of no dream— A pod of silence, bursting when the sun
Clings to the forehead, will surprise The gasping turtle and the leech With your strange brain blooming as it lies Abandoned to the bipeds on the beach; Your jelly-mouth and, crushed, your polyp eyes.
A poem like this may explain why the poet resists what he calls elsewhere “the Faustian dog that chews my penitential bones,” why he resists a poetry of visionary prophecy, to which he is clearly attracted, why he sets against the great monsters of poetry such figures as William Carlos Williams and Boris Pasternak “who were whole, who excelled in their humanity, who fulfilled themselves in the life as well as in the work.” It explains, in fact, the whole middle way of Kunitz's poetry, a refusal to embrace “the Truth” so violently that he will ruin himself into abstracted monsterhood—the danger being, of course, that it is the truth that he fears. But the poet is honest enough to acknowledge what he is willing and not willing to do, and “Prophecy on Lethe” suggests that he has come close enough to the terror of the truth to know what he would choose to keep clear of.
“Prophecy” makes monstrosity much more precise and suicidal than “Approach to Thebes.” It alludes to the myth of Echo and Narcissus and makes the poet a bit of each, doomed to inwardness, reduced to two separate parts: a carrion and a voice. Like Oedipus, the implicit poet figure bequeaths a poetic legend to posterity. The bequest turns out to be his own frightening monster-self, tossed on the shore of normal reality from the sea of Truth—inward truth—that the self has descended to. It is swollen, decayed, contorted; it has seen some Medusa, and it cannot tell the story but only offer itself as a warning. Yet the warning cannot even be heard or understood, since the animal imagery or the poem pictures the poet as having passed into a wholly new species, inexplicable to “the bipeds on the beach.” He has passed, in fact, all the way through poetry to silence, the visionary embrace having separated itself from the voice it left underwater. Instead of the beginning and the end in each other's arms, we get the “skull and pelvis” bound and blurred beyond human recognition and denied voice and vision. The heroic poet has been harmonized into grotesquerie. Kunitz acknowledges that not every poet can be a monster, that it “takes a special kind of greatness,” such as Sylvia Plath had, and here we have the poet's refusing to join what has become the post-confessional suicidal school. We can only say that if it seems he lacks that “greatness,” his poetry is ennobled nevertheless by the way he refuses to desire it.
So perhaps the truest final note of Selected Poems comes in the wry realism of “Revolving Meditation,” which tries to put poetry into a perspective of the larger question of the whole, healthy life, arguing that there may be something “beyond all this fiddle.”
Imagination makes Out of what stuff it can, An action fit For a more heroic stage Than body ever walked on. I have learned, Trying to live With this perjured quid of mine, That the truth is not in the stones, But in the architecture;
Kunitz is willing to risk that his poetry may suffer the consequences of his believing that mere is something worth more than poetry, though it is that risk which ironically produces many of his best poems. To those who cry for a leap into the Truth, he responds:
But I fly towards Possibility, …
Careless that I am bound To the flaming wheel of my bones, Preferring to hear, as I Am forced to hear, The voice of the solitary Who makes others less alone, The dialogue of lovers, And the conversation of two worms In the beam of a house, Their mouths filled with sawdust.
We can relate the worm-riddled house to the Broken Tower here, and see the poet making what he can of the decaying process, which is also the march of pure stain upon stain toward the sun. He wants poetry to bring him fulfillment in life, not beyond or beneath it.
The Testing-Tree shows us some of that fulfillment in the possibilities of poetry once the struggle with “the brave god” has been relaxed, the battles for the truth over. “The Artist,” the poem on Rothko, provides us with a bridge to Kunitz's latest volume, since it reassures us that the poet is now beyond any interest in self-consumption:
At last he took a knife in his hand and slashed an exit for himself between the frames of his tall scenery. Through the holes of his tattered universe the first innocence and the light came pouring in.
It takes a full appreciation of the early Kunitz to receive the full ironic bite of those lines. The artist here is denied even the grotesque legacy of “Prophecy on Lethe”; he achieves not even destruction, but pure dissolution. The Testing-Tree is the offering of a poet who has learned—and hopefully taught—his lesson, and the appealing personal—not confessional—warmth of the volume is a model of what a deliberately, maturely limited aesthetic can produce.
“Illumination,” which in some ways recapitulates “Open the Gates,” uses a light tone to make a serious new point about the possibilities of vision—in fact, to deliberately deepen the ambivalence of the value and feasibility of the visionary embrace he once tried so resolutely to assert. The poet here, with obvious irony, catalogs the ills of his life:
the parent I denied, the friends I failed, the hearts I spoiled, including at least my own left ventricle—
Then, with even subtler irony, the illumination is promised, but not delivered. And yet the poem leaves him—and us—with the strangest feeling that perhaps the illumination was accomplished—but not as intended:
“Dante!” I cried to the apparition entering from the hall, laureled and gaunt, in a cone of light. “Out of mercy you came To be my Master and my guide!” To which he replied: “I know neither the time nor the way nor the number on the door … but this must be my room, I was here before.” And he held up in his hand the key, which blinded me.
This poem subsumes all the conflicts about vision shaping the earlier poetry in a healthy irony exactly opposed to the deadly irony of his Auden-influenced work. Having moved among extremes of feeling and thought, the poet has created as the great sanity and health-inducing element of his poetry the manipulation of tone as the great limiter and negotiator among extremes. There is a lessened risk here; after all, “The Artist” did see a light the poet cannot allow into this poetry. But Kunitz finds ample poetic freedom in dramatizing the vicissitudes of the mind and heart tracing out their boundaries, and his subtlest and most mature manipulation of tone is also his most lucid map of the geography of the mind and heart, and finally the richest poem of his career.
“King of the River” fuses the emotional intensity of the early poems with the terse and yet conversational style of the other poems of this volume. It is his most distilled statement and most finely crafted lyric. Ironically, both Kunitz and Lowell (in “Waking Early Sunday Morning”) have been moved by Yeats to write about salmon. Yeats, a great influence on the early poems, may be seen as an antagonist here. “Sailing to Byzantium” itself is, of course, ambivalent in its nostalgia and desire for the fish-filled sensual river of generation—or we might say simply its nostalgia for desire. But the thrust of Yeats's poem is to assert the primacy of monuments of unaging intellect as the right goal of the imagination. Kunitz, in effect, is reconstituting Yeats's “Dialogue of Self and Soul” and throwing it in the face of Byzantium, by actively committing himself to corruption. The bruised, battered human muscle of Kunitz's poem, “glazed with madness,” is only slightly less grotesque in physical form than the polyp-eyed corpse of “Prophecy on Lethe,” yet it becomes a figure not of terror, but of heroic endurance and imagination. The poet embraces, not the dissolving of the beginning into the end, but his constant oscillation on the “two-way ladder / between heaven and hell.” And the waving orchestration of the poem, parallel to the coiling and uncoiling of this generative human muscle, celebrates the same ambiguities of his attitude toward time and eternity. Kunitz renews Yeats's “fecund ditch” in his “orgiastic pool,” and the rapid and almost grotesque birth, copulation, and aging to ward death of the salmon becomes the happiest metaphor of the poet's career. As in “The Illumination,” where he subsumed the dilemma over vision, here he perfectly dramatizes the tensions of nostalgia and desire in the contours of the verse—in the “if-but-then” sequence which builds irony into the very structure of the poem:
If the power were granted you to break out of your cells, but the imagination fails and the doors of the senses close on the child within, you would dare to be changed, as you are changing now, into the shape you dread beyond the merely human.
The finest irony of all is that the visionary poet fails to see that the shape he aspires to assume, he may be assuming all his life. To be visionary for Kunitz is to want orgiastic death, which is what we are having all along if we will slow down our senses to notice. Normal experience is all the orgy toward death a poet needs, and all the monstrosity he can afford. We are going nowhere as rapidly and as grandiloquently as we need to, so to endure is to be as apocalyptic as we need be.
This and all subsequent quoted comments of Kunitz are extracted from “Imagine Wrestling with an Angel: An Interview with Stanley Kunitz,” Robert Boyers, interviewer, in Salmagundi (Spring-Summer, 1973), pp. 71–83. Quotations from Kunitz's poems are from: Selected Poems, 1928–1958 (Boston, 1958). The Testing-Tree (Boston, 1970).
“The Poetry of Stanley Kunitz,” in Edward S. Hungerford, Poets in Progress (Evanston, 1962).
“The Testing of Stanley Kunitz,” Iowa Review 3 (Winter, 1972).
Intellectual Things (poetry) 1930
Living Authors: A Book of Biographies [editor; as Dilly Tante] (nonfiction) 1931
Authors Today and Yesterday: A Companion Volume to “Living Authors” [editor; with Howard Haycraft] (nonfiction) 1933
The Junior Book of Authors: An Introduction to the Lives of Writers and Illustrators for Young Readers [editor; with Howard Haycraft; revised edition, 1951] (nonfiction) 1934
British Authors of the Nineteenth Century [editor; with Howard Haycraft] (nonfiction) 1936
American Authors, 1600–1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature [editor; with Howard Haycraft] (nonfiction) 1938
Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary [editor; with Howard Haycraft; first supplement, 1955; with Vineta Colby] (nonfiction) 1942
Passport to the War: A Selection of Poems (poetry) 1944
British Authors before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary [editor; with Howard Haycraft] (nonfiction) 1952
Selected Poems, 1928–1958 (poetry) 1958
European Authors, 1000–1900: A Biographical Dictionary [editor; with Vineta Colby] (nonfiction) 1967
The Testing-Tree (poetry) 1971
Poems of Anna Akhmatova [translator; with Max Hayward] (poetry) 1973
The Coat without a Seam: Sixty Poems, 1930–1972 (poetry) 1974
The Terrible Threshold: Selected Poems, 1940–1970 (poetry) 1974
A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations (essays and interviews) 1975
The Lincoln Relics (poetry) 1978
The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 (poetry) 1979
The Wellfleet Whale and Companion Poems (poetry) 1983
Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (poetry and essays) 1985
Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected (poetry) 1995
The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (poetry) 2000
SOURCE: “Dazzling,” in New Statesman, November 2, 1979, pp. 686–87.
[In the following review of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, Motion finds shortcomings in Kunitz's early work, though cites redeeming qualities in his later poetry.]
[W. B.] Yeats is usually cited as the exception who proves the rule that most poets, after peaking somewhere in their 30s, steadily deteriorate as they get older. And Yeats, it seems, is mainly responsible for making Stanley Kunitz another such odd-man-out. If the early work in The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 is anything to go by, its author's development was severely retarded by admiration for Innisfree and its environs. In recent years, however, he's stopped winding himself in ‘the bright thread of a dream,’ and turned his back on myth kitties. The first third of the book—it's arranged in reverse chronology—is consistently unillusioned and contains the rewards of half a century's effort to establish a durably sincere style and poetic personality.
But even while discovering his greatest strengths as a pragmatic realist, Kunitz is tormented by some aspects of his original romanticism. Inflated rhetoric and exaggerated self-consciousness are still liable to compromise him when he writes with an entirely straight face. He's obviously aware of this problem himself—‘I am not what I was,’ he says in ‘The Layers,’ ‘though some principle of being / abides’—and has adopted an increasingly wry tone of humour to cure it. This isn't used to evade seriousness, but to register its unavoidably preposterous, embarrassing and comic aspects. In doing so it enlarges the human application of poems like ‘River Road’ or ‘Signs and Portents,’ and thereby enlists a greater degree of sympathy than his earlier and more unremitting gravities.
SOURCE: “It Makes You Wonder,” in New York Review of Books, November 22, 1979, pp. 39–41.
[In the following review, Young provides an overview of Kunitz's literary contributions and analysis of several exemplary poems from The Poetry of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978.]
While some poets can be read exclusively in their poems, without our having recourse to anything else written by them, or without our knowing anything of their biography, this is not the case with Stanley Kunitz. Mr. Kunitz has been for many years of a long life a busy man of letters; his achievements as editor, teacher, reviewer, and translator are worthy ones. Yet these are, perhaps, less dramatic qualifications for fame than having died young or become a political activist or written a manifesto denouncing all American poets influenced by T. S. Eliot.
To report that Mr. Kunitz has published five volumes of poems (the present one includes new poems which he calls “The Layers”), that he received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1928–1958 collection, that he has been Consultant to the Library of Congress, lectured at several universities, and ably translated poems by Akhmatova and Voznesensky: all this, though it locates him for those who are casual readers of poetry and endows his name with intellectual respectability, is, in some sense, inadequate.
Stanley Kunitz is not a monumental poet, nor is he a spectacular one; he is notable for his intelligence, and intelligence tends to wait a longer time for recognition or acquires it within a relatively limited circle. If Mr. Kunitz had never written a poem, he would be a hero in my books for having been the co-editor of Twentieth Century Authors, a reference work I have hunted in vain to buy since I first discovered it on the shelves of the Royal Library in Stockholm. An encyclopedic record of its subject, crammed with personal histories frequently supplied by the authors represented, it has refreshing critical estimates that support or challenge the reputations enshrined. There is no publication to replace it, no other biographical dictionary known to me which is at the same time so copious, anecdotal, and judicious. These volumes are not listed on the credits page of the book under review, perhaps because Mr. Kunitz himself may not value them as highly as I do.
Among his other valuable contributions, in my opinion, are certain short reviews which are included in a book of his essays and conversations entitled A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (Little, Brown, 1975). These are seldom longer than six pages, sometimes only three; they are a relief from much of the exegetical pomposity around us. In small compass Kunitz manages to capture the qualities of, among others, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan, Randall Jarrell, and, above all, Theodore Roethke, whose work he has since written about with strong insight.
The record stands, honorable and useful. If there have been moments, either in his verse or in his prose, when Mr. Kunitz has appeared to prefer the consuming blaze to the measured view, he has confessed sooner or later, that such has not been his fate, save within the domain of metaphor.
Formal verse is a highly selective medium. A high style wants to be fed exclusively on high sentiments. Given the kind of person I am, I came to see the need for a middle style—for a low style, even, though that may be outside my range.
By a low style, I infer that he means a form of address more idiomatic than any he has himself used.
Among the earliest poems represented here (from the 1930 collection) is one called “I Dreamed that I Was Old,” in which the poet was already shedding a histrionic tear for the wisdom which he felt confident he would later acquire—“in stale declension / Fallen from my prime, when company / Was mine, cat-nimbleness, and green invention. …” Obviously he was then deciding that sweet as are the green inventions and the visceral energies of youth, the crown of life is not ecstasy but wisdom. If I say that the intellectual bent which led him into the complementary duties of teaching and criticism is a marked feature of his poetry, I am not implying that his verse is lacking in sensuousness or conflict, only that in it Apollo has the upper hand to Dionysus. Three poems, from three periods of his work, will better epitomize what I want to point out than a spate of short quotations.
“Father and Son” (in the 1944 volume) was, I take it, a decisive poem in his development, wherein, whatever else is going on, the pursuit of the lost father is described with intense anguish and is finally relinquished. From its lyrical opening,
Now in the suburbs and the falling light I followed him, and now down sandy road Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet Curdle of fields, where the plums Dropped with their load of ripeness …
it rises to a clamor of dependence and invocation:
At the water's edge, where the smothering ferns lifted Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know The way. … Instruct Your son, whirling between two wars, In the Gemara of your gentleness, For I would be a child to those who mourn And brother to the foundlings of the field And friend of innocence and all bright eyes. O teach me how to work and keep me kind.”
If the poem had ended there we might have justifiably regarded it as poised between sentiment and schmalz. The two lines that in fact and beautifully terminate it—
Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me The white ignorant hollow of his face
—staunch the flow, seal the wound, cancel the outcry, save the poem.
Thereafter, the most effective poems are those in which the personal lament is diverted during the course of the recital by an abrupt shift of attention or by a willed inclusion of qualifying details—as in “The Thief,” where, having been robbed of his wallet in Rome, the poet fats his revenge by mingling imprecation with a cold eye cast at the history which, in the form of lantern slides, had seduced him into going to Rome in the first place.
But the past that tempted me, the frozen pure, Was a pedagogic lie. All's motion here, And motion like emotion is impure, A flower flawed by mutability, Religion by its ruins, and yet thereby More lovely and more graced, perhaps More true.
Losing ground in his argument, he revises his description, relating the cynical present to the voluptuary past:
… the assassin motorcyclists charge, Wolves prowl in the streets under arcades of bells, Tiberius grovels through his dungeon halls Dreaming of boy-sized fishes in his bath.
He fails to resolve his anger at the situation—it cannot be resolved except by time—but he resolves the poem, with an adroitly uncompromised finale that retains to the last the belligerence of his dialogue with “Mater Cloaca.”
Here in my blistered room Where the wind flaps my ceiling like a sail (A miracle, no doubt, to be left at that!) I recognize the gods’ capricious hand And write this poem for money, rage, and love.
Kunitz's most impressive poem is, I think, “The Approach to Thebes,” a judgment which I don't impose on other readers as, “objective” (if objectivity is either important or possible). I happen to admire poems in which a personal agony is transformed by assimilation in a historical—or mythic, it's the Oedipus story—setting. The opening lines are as close to a baroque diction as Kunitz ever wrote; every modifier is unusual and irrevocable.
In the zero of the night, in the lipping hour, Skin-time, knocking-time, when the heart is pearled And the moon squanders its uranian gold, She taunted me, who was all music's tongue, Philosophy's and wilderness's breed, Of shifting shape, half jungle-cat, half-dancer, Night's woman-petaled, lion-scented rose. …
With regrets that I can't quote all the splendor of the poem, I cut to the end of the first section, where the compensatory satisfaction is followed, in the next passage, by the traditional judgment:
I can bear the dishonor now of growing old. Blinded and old, exiled, diseased, and scorned— The verdict's bitten on the brazen gates.
Then comes, line by line, the reversal, the crescendo of self-revelation.
Children, grandchildren, my long posterity, To whom I bequeath the spiders of my dust, Believe me, whatever sordid tales you hear, Told by physicians or mendacious scribes, Of beardless folly, consanguineous bust, Fomenting pestilence, rebellion, war, I come prepared, unwanting what I see, But tied to life. On the royal road to Thebes I had my luck, I met a lovely monster, And the story's this: I made the monster me.
I'd call that wholly successful as poetic impersonation and moral subtlety. And it is allied with what seems to me to be the central obsession in Kunitz's poetry, if obsession is an appropriate figure for verse that respects “the need for a middle style”: the conviction that at some strategic moment, which only the self knows, the poet (the artist) must “[slash] an exit for himself”—that is, from the ordered medium and the dissimulation, in order to express (and in this context he quotes Ortega y Gasset) “the terror of facing single-handed … the ferocious assaults of existence.” From a later collection (The Testing-Tree, 1971), “The Artist” crucially embodies the strategy.
His paintings grew darker every year. They filled the walls, they filled the room; eventually they filled his world— all but the ravishment. When voices faded, he would rush to hear the scratched soul of Mozart endlessly in gyre. Back and forth, back and forth, he paced the paint-smeared floor, diminishing in size each time he turned, trapped in his monumental void, raving against his adversaries. At last he took a knife in his hand and slashed an exit for himself between the frames of his tall scenery. Through the holes of his tattered universe the first innocence and the light came pouring in.
Clearly, the setting of this poem derived from Kunitz's infatuation with nonfigurative painters, though the subject of the poem need not be limited to that reference. The many compliments this poet-critic has produced for prominent painters must have flattered them, but Kunitz's art criticism has remained literary, and I fear that he contributed more than his share to that transcendental vocabulary enlisted to praise the canvases of Mark Rothko.
Concerning the poem itself, as aesthetic doctrine; the extent to which liberation—or “innocence and the light”—may be purchased by slashing an exit, and plucking bright honor from the pale-faced moon, is arguable. I don't myself believe the unpaintable can be painted (God knows they've tried it) or the last unspeakable word spoken. I don't think Stanley Kunitz believes so either. I think he appreciates the rhetoric of freedom in aesthetic gestures because it has a political ring. In his practice, as I have noted, he observes the central amenities. This is to say: he prefers lucidity to excrutiating difficulty (note that “The Approach to Thebes” is grounded on iambic pentameter and that “The Artist,” neither spasmodic nor vehement, consists of six complete sentences in sequential order); he shows a classical respect for the pulse of nature in art (he has stated, “For the poet, even breathing comes under the heading of prosody”); and he almost invariably judges the experience in the poem, even while he is conveying it. Conspicuous, in the most convincing of Stanley Kunitz's poems, is the tension produced in them by a controlled inhibition of the passion that threatens to break through.
Barber, David. Review of Passing Through, by Stanley Kunitz. Atlantic Monthly 277, No. 6 (June 1996): 113.
Barber provides an overview of Kunitz's literary career and the development of his poetry.
Dove, Rita. “Poet's Choice.” Washington Post Book World (1 October 2000): 12.
Dove lauds Kunitz's appointment as Poet Laureate and extols the vitality and eloquence of his poetry.
Flint, R. W. Review of Next-to-Last Things, by Stanley Kunitz. New York Times Book Review (6 April 1986): 24.
Flint offers a generally positive review of Next-to-Last Things.
Geeslin, Campbell. Review of Next-to-Last Things, by Stanley Kunitz. People Weekly (13 January 1986): 14.
Geeslin offers a brief positive assessment of Next-to-Last Things.
Glück, Louise. “On Stanley Kunitz.” American Poetry Review 14, No. 5 (September–October 1985): 27–28.
Glück relates her personal debt to Kunitz, who served as her teacher and an indispensable mentor during her formative years.
Kunitz, Stanley with Leslie Kelen. “Stanley Kunitz: An Interview by Leslie Kelen.” American Poetry Review 27, No. 2 (March–April 1998): 49–55.
In this interview, which was compiled from conversations in 1991 and 1993, Kunitz discusses his formative experiences, the development of his poetry, contrasts and continuities in his body of work, and his preoccupations with myth, the parent-child relationship, and existential themes.
Moss, Stanley, ed. A Celebration for Stanley Kunitz on His Eightieth Birthday. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1986, 159 p.
This is a collection of essays and tributes dedicated to Kunitz.
Moss, Stanley, ed. A Tribute to Stanley Kunitz on His Ninety-Sixth Birthday. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 2001.
This is a collection of critical and laudatory pieces dedicated to Kunitz.
Oliver, Mary. “Gathering Light.” Kenyon Review VIII, No. 3 (Summer 1986): 129–35.
Oliver offers a positive assessment of Next-to-Last Things.
Plummer, William. “New Beginnings: At 95, Fledgling Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz Finds Fresh Words.” People Weekly (30 October 2000): 159.
Plummer provides an overview of Kunitz's life, work, and career, including his appointment as poet laureate.
Review of The Collected Poems, by Stanley Kunitz. Publishers Weekly (31 July 2000): 89.
The critic offers a brief positive review of The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz.
Smith, Dinitia. “The Laureate Distilled, to an Eau de Vie.” New York Times (2 August 2000): E1.
Smith provides an overview of Kunitz's life and work.
Tabor, Mary B. W. “A Poet Takes the Long View, 90 Years Old.” New York Times (30 November 1995): C13.
Tabor profiles the life and work of Kunitz.
Additional coverage of Kunitz's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41–44R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26, 57, and 98; Contemporary Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 48; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 19; and Poetry for Students, Vol. 11.
SOURCE: “Contour Lines,” in Encounter, Vol. LIV, No. 4, April, 1980, pp. 62–66.
[In the following excerpt, Brownjohn offers a positive assessment of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978.]
It's been easy for English readers to tell which selected American poets have been most influential on this side of the Atlantic in recent years; harder to know who they have been selected from. There is (there almost always has been) a dearth of good, explanatory anthologies, even those with axes to grind; so the map of present-day American poetry is difficult to draw. Its two poles are clearly marked, because they are the places at which English poets leaning towards the United States have been most eager to cluster: around the “avant-garde” at one end and the “academic,” “Europeanised” poets at the other. (The categories are gross simplifications, but they have been only too usable for English poets—and they do in fact relate quite plausibly to that basic division into redskins and palefaces.) But the land between the poles is wide and indistinct, a terrain where vaguely respected names appear like distant cities, too shadowy for their age, geography or customs to be made out with any certainty.
The best we get is occasional shafts of light on this scene, often in the form of guilty reminders of what we have allowed ourselves to miss. Stanley Kunitz's collected poems [The Poetry of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978], for example, is a remarkable achievement by any standards; his anti-chronological arrangement of the poems allows the reader to choose between beginning with new poems “and stepping back to my start”; or to try out the experiment of reading a book backwards. The last pages of the book contain work (just contemporary with late Hart Crane and just after most of John Crowe Ransom) of considerable formal gravity and command, a little severe on its own romantic inclinations, yet already impressively confident. Further back, in the poems of the war years and after, his range widens, to include the sensuous, the ironical, and the disquieting (“‘Rover!’ I call my fourfoot home, / Whose only language is a growl; / Dig up old bones, but he won't come / That chose the world; it is more foul.”) And back further still, towards the present, Kunitz is drawing into his own work some of the strengths of the European poets he is translating with unobtrusive distinction, Mandelstam and Ungaretti among them. In the present, at the end of the book which is really the beginning, he is writing in a flexible yet controlled free verse hammered out of years of dedication to the hard graft of formal versification: something suited equally to scenes from the American past (and occasionally the landscape of today) and to personal meditations on age and death.
Such a control, so traditional a kind of meticulous calculation, is not the point at all for certain American poets who have adopted a different kind of discipline. Since the deaths during the last three years of Robert Lowell, Allen Tate and Elizabeth Bishop, writers such as Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and John Hollander can almost be advanced into a “senior” generation; but, to the astonishment and disappointment of their admirers in Britain, they remain for most readers in this country part of the great undiscovered territory. Read their work aloud in groups of knowledgeable aspirants (I have done this often in creative writing workshops in the English outback) and you raise only bewilderment, at best, among those who can take, say, Ginsberg at one extreme, and Wilbur at the other. Clearly something very new and unfamiliar is going on, so it's necessary to discount it for its eccentricity, or its flippant approach to serious matters like the shaping of imaginative effusions into proper forms, or its occasionally extravagant length. It's a poetry which puzzles, and disturbs, and calls out defences. So the chances are it might be good.
SOURCE: “The Ineluctable Signature of Stanley Kunitz,” in Poetry, Vol. CXXXVI, No. 6, September, 1980, pp. 347–51.
[In the following review of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, Stitt argues that Kunitz's greatest strength lies in his high-minded rhetorical style, rather than the “middle” or “low” style associated with confessional poetry and Kunitz's professed democratic sympathies.]
Although Stanley Kunitz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his Selected Poems, he is best known for the revolution in his style which occurred with the poems of The Testing-Tree, published in 1971. Robert Lowell (echoing virtually all the criticism devoted to Kunitz since that time) praised the volume for reflecting what he called “the drift of the age,” a movement away from tortured formality towards prosaic relaxation, away from metaphor and indirection towards clarity, the literal truth, Kunitz himself explained the change in this way: “A high style wants to be fed exclusively on high sentiments. Given the kind of person I am, I came to see the need for a middle style—for a low style, even, though that may be outside my range.” The statement correctly assumes that the voice of a poem ought in some way to reflect the personality of the poet; the style, after all, is the man.
I think we have a generally accurate notion of the kind of man Stanley Kunitz is. Much of his poetry is politically based, and his stance is consistently democratic; he sides with the people against the tyrants. He has, in short, far greater affinity with the middle or low than with the high. But it is a curious fact that the flattest, least satisfying—even least characteristic—poems in this volume [The Poetry of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978] are the political poems and the translations (which are themselves almost exclusively political, coming from such writers as Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Yevtushenko). Among the rest of the more recent poems, the weakest are consistently those that most adamantly display the low or middle style; such poems as “Words for the Unknown Makers,” “My Sisters,” and “Journal for My Daughter” are simple, clear, literal and trivial, obvious, boring. In point of fact, Kunitz is at his best today, and has always been at his best, when writing in an elevated, rhetorical style.
The trouble with Kunitz's justification of his change in method lies in its first sentence, where the poet describes what he is rejecting: “A high style wants to be fed exclusively on high sentiments.” We will soon be looking at the high style, but for now must ask—what are high sentiments? Kunitz makes his early work sound like a series of lofty moral maxims, suitable for high-toned greeting cards or Victorian tea parties. In truth, the elevation visible in his strongest poems comes not from their high sentiments but from the powerful range of emotions which they enunciate. I would amend the sentence to read thus: Powerful emotions in verse are best presented through a powerful and rhetorical style. Whatever his social and political commitments, Kunitz is not a man of tepid emotions, and his more tranquil and reflective poems, which appear most frequently in his later work, virtually disappear under the fog of their blandness. For example, these lines from “My Sisters”:
I had two sisters once with long black hair who walked apart from me and wrote the history of tears. Their story's faded with their names, but the candlelight they carried, like dancers in a dream, still flickers on their gowns as they bend over me to comfort my night-fears.
The lines were chosen for quotation because they do contain some emotion and some life; not enough, however, to transform the poem into anything more than a touching exercise in remembrance.
For contrast, let us look at another of the most recent poems—“The Knot,” which in fact opens this volume:
I've tried to seal it in, that cross-grained knot on the opposite wall, scored in the lintel of my door, but it keeps bleeding through into the world we share. Mornings when I wake, curled in my web, I hear it come with a rush of resin out of the trauma of its lopping-off. Obstinate bud, sticky with life, mad for the rain again, it racks itself with shoots that crackle overhead, dividing as they grow. Let be! Let be! I shake my wings and fly into its boughs.
This powerful lyric is dramatic in tone, and takes its strength from the skillful manipulation of several poetic devices. Perhaps the first thing that strikes the reader is the insistence of the rhythm; the lines are loosely iambic and vary from three beats to two beats in length. The stress pattern is made more prominent through heavy use of assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme. The individual sentences open with strong, dramatic phrases and end abruptly, always at the end of a line.
In the way it handles meaning, the poem is not literal, not direct, not in any way plain; it is, rather, firmly grounded in the suggestive obliquity of metaphor. The message, to which Kunitz has a strong emotional commitment, concerns growth, rebirth, freedom, a release back into life from dormancy. The painted-over knot is (against reality) allowed this process, in part through the agency of the speaker's dream. As for the speaker himself, his role is presented in terms of a sleeping caterpillar (“curled in my web”) that emerges to “shake my wings / and fly.” The story the poem tells is archetypal, even mythic, and is very similar to that told inmost of Kunitz's best poems. He has described the pattern himself, with great accuracy: “… my impulse towards form generally tends to move along the lines of certain ineluctable archetypes, particularly those of death and rebirth, the quest, and the night-journey (or descent into the underworld). In all three patterns—which may be consubstantial—the progress is from a kind of darkness into a kind of light.” This pattern (the three paths are indeed consubstantial) is especially prominent in the earlier work. When it is absent from the later work, the poems suffer from a lack of both thematic and artistic intensity; and when it is present there, as in “The Knot,” we suddenly see the true consistency in this man's art and life.
Kunitz's poems are delivered in an impressively authoritative voice; issues are heightened and generalized as in, say, the King James Bible. We could almost think at times that we were listening to one of the Old Testament prophets or chroniclers. An important part of this effect is owing to the narrative form in which the poems are cast; they are spoken almost in the form of parables. This quality is apparent in the opening lines of many poems, as we are plunged into what looks to be a timeless story of universal relevance. For example, each of these passages is the opening to a different poem:
Time swings her burning hands I saw him going down Into those mythic lands …
Soul of my soul, in the ancestral wood Where all the trees were loosened of their leaves I strayed …
Within the city of the burning cloud, Dragging my life behind me in a sack, Naked I prowl …
Concentrical, the universe and I Rotated on God's crystal axletree …
Often, the ensuing poem will turn out to have only the portentous tone and form of a parable; what actually is described may be altogether more mundane, as in the poem—utterly typical of Kunitz—“No Word”:
Through portal and through peristyle Her phantom glides, whose secret mouth, The absence of whose flagrant smile, Hangs on my chimney like a wreath of cloud.
I prod the coals; my tortured faith Kneels in the blaze on melting paws; Jeweled with tears, the lonely beast Bequeaths me irony and claws.
No message. May the mothering dark, Whose benediction calms the sea, Abater of the atrocious spark Of love and love's anxiety,
Be kind; and may my self condone, As surely as my judge reprieves, This heart strung on the telephone, Folded in death, whom no voice revives.
The apocalyptic tone of the poem—a common tone in Kunitz—issues from a not-very-exceptional situation: the death is that of a love affair; the complaint is that the beloved does not, will not, telephone. What gives the poem its considerable energy is the emotion of the speaker, which Kunitz translates into rhetoric and metaphor. We note in passing his heavy reliance on adjectives—general in his poems—“secret mouth,” “flagrant smile,” “tortured faith,” “melting paws,” “lonely beast,” “mothering dark,” “atrocious spark”—a technique that would ruin a plainer poem.
Kunitz learned his trade largely from the seventeenth-century British metaphysical poets—Donne and Herbert to be sure, but also their more baroque followers, Crashaw, Vaughan, Carew. In many passages illustrating this debt, we are reminded of another debt as well. Theodore Roethke was an early admirer of Kunitz; throughout the life of the younger, and more famous, poet, they nurtured one another with their work. It isn't always easy to say who influenced whom, but in lines like these from Kunitz, the similarities are nakedly evident:
Air thickens to dirt. Great hairy seeds that soar aloft Like comets trailing tender spume Break in the night with soft Explosions into bloom. Where the fleshed root stirs …
There is a hyperbolic quality to most of Kunitz's work, as the passages I have quoted surely show. His love of rhetoric, metaphor, parable, the lushness of imagery and sound, is forever pushing him to the extreme edge of the possibilities of language. Such excess is of his essence, and shows his singularity. He has never been short on self-knowledge, and has always had the wisdom to keep faith in himself, his voice. When nearly all the participants in a symposium on the poem “Father and Son” objected strenuously to one of its lines—“The night nailed like an orange to my brow”—Kunitz defended himself at some length, and concluded: “Such moments in a poem, evident only by the pressure building behind them, can never fully explain themselves, but the poet must take his risk with them as an article of faith. In the end, for whatever it may be worth, they constitute his signature.” We can only be grateful to Stanley Kunitz for the courage he has shown throughout his career. The risks he has taken have ever sprung from inner necessity; they have the stamp of personal rightness upon them. Such is their undeniable signature.
SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz and the Transubstantial World,” in Literary Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Spring, 1981, pp. 413–26.
[In the following essay, Davis provides an overview of Kunitz's poetic development in Intellectual Things, Passport to the War, The Testing-Tree, Selected Poems, and The Poems of Stanley Kunitz. Davis refutes the view of Kunitz as a derivative poet, drawing attention to his recurring archetypal images, technical skill, and effort to mediate between personal experience and universal myth.]
Stanley Kunitz once said, “The originality of any poet consists to a considerable degree in finding those key images which forever haunt him, which make him different from others.”1 The recent publication of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 (Little, Brown and Company, 1979) offers the opportunity to trace those images in development throughout Kunitz's long career, to find the obsessions that produce them, and to judge them in the context of the poetry as a whole. Almost all of his published poems appear here, beginning with new poems in the opening section, “The Layers,” and moving back in time through sections corresponding to his four previous American volumes.2 The new poems themselves strike a retrospective note: “The Knot” opens the volume with description of a reappearing knothole, “Obstinate bud, / sticky with life,” and the title poem of “The Layers” concludes the section, “I am not done with my changes.”
The promise of recurrence and growth is well-chosen as frame to this section and as introduction to all the poetry. Kunitz has described his “key images” as “certain ineluctable archetypes, particularly those of death and rebirth, the quest, and the night-journey (or descent into the underworld).”3 Those patterns do indeed recur in Kunitz's poetry. But they are best understood through his overriding concern: the relation between experience and expression. This concern produces the themes of myth, language, and poetry itself; it regulates the shifting forms of the “ineluctable archetypes”; and it drives Kunitz's development through the stages of his poetic career. As he investigates the possibilities of speech, poetry, and myth, he alternates in emphasis, but he always recognizes the same struggle: to match fact to idea, life to archetype, and event to meaning. To follow his relentless pursuit of “the word” that can achieve that integration, we must read Poems backwards, following Kunitz's growth chronologically.
Kunitz has always been a “formal” poet, preferring musical effects, rhythmic and ringing phrases. That control may have contributed to his minor status among critics, who tend to regard him as competent but limited, even timid in vision and expression. His first volume, Intellectual Things (1930), helped to create this impression; while they certainly show Kunitz's talent, these poems are of the kind that can easily become stalled in an over-refined, over-intellectualized stage. Yvor Winters criticized their “excessively facile statement,” “perceptive numbness” and “claptrap meter,”4 and some of those criticisms are justified. These poems often seem quite derivative in form and simplistic in thought; worse, they are sometimes nearly impenetrable in their substitution of clever phrasing for clear idea. A stanza from “Particular Lullaby” can illustrate this point:
The ebb of spirit from the vase Of woman is the hurt extreme Of conscious breath. Bewilder your thighs, Wrap your long thought in a dream.
Kunitz's own dissatisfaction with his beginnings is reflected in his exclusion of nine of the fifty poems in Intellectual Things from the new collection. (None from succeeding volumes are omitted.) But these poems of a very young man are not total failures. Most of them do avoid “claptrap meter,” and most display what Zabel called a “melodic gift”5; occasional obscurities do not ruin a generally thoughtful approach.
The problems are, in fact, not so much technical as philosophical. Intellectual Things is largely concerned with apocalyptic and revelatory moments; there are almost no “realistic”—much less ordinary—situations in the poems. The visions often focus on language as a creative force. In “When the Dead Arise,” for example, “this maggoty dumb earth / Pronounces verbs erect and vertebrate”; in “Single Vision,” the “language of my marrow” contains “forms … instant to my will.” The Thomas-like speaker of “Poem” says, “And I spoke the corn, / And I cried the clover up, with the dewy mouth of my mirth.” Such experiences show an ideal union of subject and object, human and world, so that language becomes what it represents. But that perfect moment of “the word” seems to occur only in death, birth, or dream. These are the “ineluctable archetypes”; but they lack force except at the very limits of human life. And they bring only temporary satisfaction. As in “Geometry of Moods,” the moment of mental purity often fails:
Concentrical, the universe and I Rotated on God's crystal axletree,
I core of the world, a bead in a ball of glass So pure that only Nothing could be less.
Oh the earth ensphered me, liberal and warm, When the curve of heaven was her sleeping arm.
Now cubical upon a fractured pole It creaks, scraping the circle of my soul.
The problem is in the source of revelation: despite its religious tone, Intellectual Things celebrates only the power of the human mind. That ought to concentrate the poetry on human life, but in fact it causes a conflict that Kunitz is not yet prepared to handle: he praises the eternal and essential nature of thought without accepting the limitations of the individual, temporal thinker. He is painfully aware of those limitations, and even opens with a picture of the problem:
Dissolving in the chemic vat Of time, man (gristle and fat), Corrupting on a rock in space That crumbles, lifts his impermanent face To watch the stars, his brain locked tight Against the tall revolving night.
Unfortunately, at this stage Kunitz is less interested in resolving the conflict than in escaping it. He sets up the polar opposites so that he can opt for one pole—the mental one. Thus the “quest” always leads away from experience into dream or thought.
The language of Intellectual Things is that of abstract reason, dominated by references to human skills and sciences like geometry and sculpture, and spoken by an anonymous and generalized persona. Speech patterns are formal, often stilted, corresponding to regular rhythm and rhyme. These poems are celebrations of control; “the word” they offer is conscious and analytical. And they emphasize the superiority of mental life in image as well as diction. Natural images are always imaginatively opposed to, or transformed into, artifacts and ideas whose permanence exposes the inadequacy of the dying world. Reductive processes consistently deny particularity and vitality, as “Very Tree” exemplifies:
Forget the tube of bark, Alliterative leaves, Tenacious like a hand Gnarled rootage in the dark Interior of land.
Here is a timeless structure wrought Like the candelabrum of pure thought, Stripped of green root and leaf, Getting no seed to sprout, …
What sensory details remain evoke an atmosphere that is pure, bare, cold, hard; these are qualities attached throughout the volume to the mental world:
Brain, be ice, A frozen bowl of thought, Pure radius of the marble eye That is time's central spot: In cold eternal calm Chasten the trembling thigh.
All these effects, like the explicit subject matter, contribute to Kunitz's air of grappling with the problems of mental creation to the exclusion of direct sensuous experience. He is trying to achieve the integrating word not by balancing self and world, but by subsuming the world, imposing his will on it. His later rejection of that narrow position shows even in the titles of the poems omitted from the new collection; they suggest the emphasis on abstraction (“Thumb-Nail Biography,” “Any History,” “A Daughter of the Sun Is She,” “Promenade on Any Street”) and the attack on natural and particular life (“Rape of the Leaf,” “Dissect This Silence,” “Thou Unbelieving Heart,” “Sad Song,” “Invasions”). But at this stage any ambivalence is only suggested, in the potentially negative qualities assigned to the mental world and in the repeated failure to sustain control. The young Kunitz explicitly sees life as “disease,” “infection,” “rot”; he desires to transcend that state in the purity of the Idea. But many of the most powerful poems are passionate with the failure to transcend. For every poem in which the adventurer comes to the “thoughtful womb” of the mind (“Motion of Wish”), there is another reminding us that “life escapes closed reason” (“Organic Bloom”). That “escape” is usually tragic at this stage; Kunitz talks about “teach[ing] my mind to love its thoughtless crack” (“Beyond Reason”), but cannot yet do it. Despite the Blakean epigraph—“For the tear is an intellectual thing”—his homage to particular life is the recognition of necessity, not true love. He sees that life is not reason, but keeps trying to make the exchange. That is why these poems are concrete without being at all sensuous: the young Kunitz longs for Platonic purity even as he sees its difficulty in a world of appearances.
In Passport to the War (1944), the uneasiness about cloistered mental life blossoms into bitter paranoia. The inability to achieve “language of my marrow” appears repeatedly, in frustrated attempts at communication—unanswered questions, broken syntax, lapses into silence. But now the failure is not due to imperfect life; it is caused by sterile intellect. The “dialect of love,” now lost in the war (“Welcome the Wrath”), is replaced by “language of the wound”—agonized protest—or by corrupted language—“news” that ignores human suffering (“The Hemorrhage”), abstract labels and categories (“My Surgeons”), “the oratory of the rodent's tooth” that fits a dishonest world (“Night Letter”: originally “the weasel's tooth”). In newly concrete situations, a new persona emerges—still anonymous, but now speaking for suffering humanity. This speaker, bitter and cynical, calls for rebellion.
The poems of Passport to the War have an obvious political dimension, based on World War II and more generally on post-industrial society. But they are also a clear extension of the earlier poems; Kunitz breaks out of his over-intellectualized position by turning his images back on themselves, to reveal the dangers of abstract “purity.” Now human skills and sciences create a tyrannical Pavlovian world (“Reflection by a Mailbox”); analysis and abstraction become tools for deadly dissection (“My Surgeons”). Imaginative metamorphosis is replaced by mad hallucination (“Night Letter”); artifacts are “marble faces” or fixed masks of ignorance and fear (“Father and Son,” “The Fitting of the Mask”). And the bare, cold, regular, and infertile milieu of earlier poems now clearly implies the sterility of the isolated intellect. Intellectual Things celebrated the purity of mental creation, always threatened by imperfect temporal life. Passport to the War shows what results when mental life denies that outer reality. “The gesture made is woven in the sleeve,” says “The Harsh Judgment,” echoing the image of clothes-become-man running throughout the volume. The denial of the inseparability of thought and action has created the sick world.
There is still some hope—the belief in love of “My Surgeons,” the “pity penny” of “The Tutored Child,” the defiance of “Welcome the Wrath” and “Night Letter.” Natural images take on new power through association with instinct, emotion, and identity; for example, the image of man becoming tree in “The Illusionist” and “Invocation” shows an escape into the non-rational self, an evasion of self-knowledge, but it has a potential much greater than the stripped image of “Very Tree,” because it retains its living quality. Even more positive images depict natural passionate life in opposition to mechanical forms. Two in particular suggest the way out of Passport’s painful world repeated images of blood and fire turn pain into purgation, support choice with feeling. Thus in “Invocation” the poet unites the early theme of creative shaping with a new sense of natural energy; speaking to a “Circler” who can draw form from loss, he describes the “one incendiary vein”
I have defended, purified, to slake You in the burning, whose daemonic beak The casp of bone about my heart O break!
Such hopes, though, are still largely confined to fiery liberation and purgative bloodletting—violence meeting a violent world. These are vigorous, concrete, passionate poems. But they are bitter at the failure of the quest for the saving word, both personally and universally. Their bitterness provoked one critic to comment, “They are the poems of a sick man in a sick world.”6 Not until his next volume could Kunitz combine his early passion for thought and form with the later appreciate on of immediacy and motion, and find a joyous “word.”
Selected Poems, 1928–1958 marks a new stage for Kunitz, and manifests a new mastery of poetic form. (This section in Poems is called “This Garland, Danger,” from a line in “Green Ways.”) Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize for this volume, and his own recognition of its significance shows in his inclusion of poems from the two earlier books. His arrangement of the poems by theme obscures his development, but emphasizes the constancy of concern; and the new poems themselves mark a similar consolidation. They still use false or weak speech as corollary to failed vision—“Perception blunted as one's syntax fails” (“The Thief”)—and oppose that failure to instinctive expression—“There's grammar in my bones!” (“Grammar Lesson”)—but they do not try to achieve “the word” by “subduing” the passions or by irrational defiance. Instead, a new “word” combines passionate being with conscious communication. The speaker of “Green Ways,” for example, first pleads for instinctive inarticulate union with the natural world, but finally accepts the burden of conscious awareness relieved, expressed, and symbolized by language: “Let me proclaim it—human be my lot!” In “Among the Gods,” the poet says of the gods, representatives of eternal truth,
Huge blocks of language, all my quarried love, They justify, and not in random poems, But shapes of things interior to Time, Hewn out of chaos when the Pure was plain.
“The word,” then, expresses man's halfway position, tied to pure spirit and to imperfect but vital physical life. Articulation can console for the fallen state—“the serpent's word, but yet the word” (“The Dark and the Fair”). More, it is “the language that saves” (“Sotto Voce”), for articulated knowledge produces the redeeming myth; in “A Spark of Laurel,” articulation becomes incarnation, combining universal and particular by resurrecting the individual story in myth:
Ha! Once again I heard The transubstantial word That is not mine to speak Unless I break, I break;
The spiral verb that weaves Through the crystal of our lives, Of myth and water made And incoherent blood; …
“The word,” then, is myth, the union of particular action with universal thought. Like Intellectual Things, the new pieces in Selected Poems are dominated by religious, mythic, and artistic language. But while Intellectual Things used that language to separate mental from physical life, the new poems connect intellectual systems to particular experience to create new and complex modes of apprehension, as in the awed “astronomy” of “The Science of the Night”:
My touch is on you, who are light-years gone. We are not souls but systems, and we move In clouds of our knowing like great nebulae. Our very motives swirl and have their start With father lion and with mother crab.
Images of balance and symmetry no longer censor, but reinforce sensuous experience, as do mythic allusions. The “ineluctable archetypes” come into their own, developed in detail as well as outline. The importance of living the archetype is now equal to the understanding of it. So in “The Approach to Thebes,” Oedipus meets his fate, saying, “And the story's this: I made the monster me.” That acceptance of all the aspects of experience dominates Selected Poems, as “the word” becomes not intellectual, but “transubstantial.” And within what are still quite regular forms, new variations in tone and diction reveal the range of life that myth can capture—from a whimsical song for a mouse (“The Waltzer in the House”) to solemn chants and tender love poems. Technical virtuosity does not overwhelm the poems; their form is like that of the beloved in “The Unwithered Garland”: “Her grace is not of any part, / But selfhood's self, its very motion.”
Kunitz reaches a peak in Selected Poems, a command of the musical and magical potential of poetry that makes him a glorious singer. But he continues to grow; The Testing-Tree (1972) startled reviewers in its apparent wrenching away from the early philosophical and musical style toward what they saw as “confessional” and literal poetry. Kunitz does indeed try new ways in The Testing-Tree, but they are again understood best as an outgrowth of the earlier work. The theme of language as indicator of perception continues, but the word is again made new as Kunitz turns back to the limits of the individual perspective. Now he shows less the essentiality of myth than the inability of an individual story to reach the status of myth, or even of complete expression.
Such a theme naturally demands concrete illustration, and in The Testing-Tree persona and scene take on their greatest definition. Poems are spoken by or tell of specific individuals, sometimes historical personages like Bonhoeffer (“Around Pastor Bonhoeffer”), sometimes fictional but carefully individualized characters, most often Kunitz himself. Each character has an appropriate language, from Bonhoeffer's religious idiom to the child's fairytale perspective in “Journal for My Daughter” or the young Kunitz's mixture of reverence and childish arrogance in “The Testing-Tree”:
then sprinted lickety- split on my magic Keds from a crouching start,
with no one where to deny when I flung myself down that on the given course I was the world's fastest human.
But of course the sense of limitation requires, beyond specific situation and persona, a hint of larger meaning. The Testing-Tree is shot through with a sense of the discrepancy between appearance and meaning, between individual understanding and a greater intuition. Hence the frequent use of childhood experience: speaking as child or as remembering adult, Kunitz can reveal the inadequacy of the childish articulation, or even of the adult sense of symbolic parallel: “I am looking for the trail. / Where is my testing-tree? / Give me back my stones!” Historical characters can also show limited vision, like Dante in “The Illumination” when asked for guidance:
To which he replied: “I know neither the time nor the way
nor the number on the door … but this must be my room, I was here before.”
These poems are clear and concrete, even more so than Selected Poems; but their literalness defeats absolute certainty, even as their feeling lifts them above random event. The prophet-like figure of “Journal for My Daughter” expresses unsatisfied desire; “The Customs-Collector's Report” is a pathetic tale of confused last words; the love note of “After the Last Dynasty” is a set of questions; and even Bonhoeffer's “omega” expresses the finality of terror rather than certainty. Ordinary events and expressions must take on disproportionate significance, like the “red Masonic hat / and a walking stick” that represent a lost father in “Three Floors,” or the commonplace metaphors of the astronaut in “The Flight of Apollo.” Conversely, narrow certainty of meaning is deflated by the glimpse of a “blue unappeasable sky” in “Robin Redbreast,” or by the “innocence and the light” outside the enclosed world of “The Artist.” Even the recurrent vocabularies of history and nature, that might suggest systems of meaning, remain undeveloped. So Kunitz finally fulfills his early dictum that “Life escapes closed reason.”
Reviewers who read these as “confessional” poems have criticized their tentative air as “an occasional uncertainty as to how to transfigure the object, how to find the appropriate detail that makes a remembered incident come alive” or that “can endow a private incident or public event with universal significance.”7 But Kunitz's focus is on the uncertainty of universal significance, the impossibility of such a transparent view. The circumstances that incarnate meaning also obscure it; they distort reality by limiting it. The flawed expression parallels the divided consciousness. In fact, the weakest parts of The Testing-Tree are often overly explicit statements (e.g., the assertive endings of “The Magic Curtain” and “River Road”). Poems that leave open the gap between experience and myth, like “Three Floors,” are moving in the felt discrepancy between fact and meaning: the hat and stick are clearly presented as symbols inadequate to the boy's need, and therefore make the father's absence more poignant, as is the boy's feeling:
Bolt upright in my bed that night I saw my father flying; the wind was walking on my neck, the windowpanes were crying.
“The Mound Builders” offers an image for what Kunitz attempts in The Testing-Tree. At Ocmulgee National Monument, the poet thinks of the “seven-layered world” of the mound, the layers of civilization extending from tribes now in “museums of prehistory” to modern Macon. The thought of former lives allows a sense of myth—an understanding of the “millennial ordeal” that links one life to another. But it does not cancel out the immediate life that opens the poem. Standing on the latest layer, the poet seeks to know previous ones—to inform present life by connection with the buried past and the buried self. Distressed by modern “spoilers of the air,” he finds consolation, not escape by transcendence, but support from natural (“the prevalence of green / and the starry chickweed of the fields”) and human continuity.
Kunitz uses a similar image in the newest poems; in “The Layers,” he describes a celestial admonition to “Live in the layers, / not on the litter.” And he enforces that theme by a return to myth and dream. These poems are clearly not “confessional”; those that do deal with Kunitz's personal life or family avoid the literal level of The Testing-Tree. In “Quinnapoxet,” for example, the poet encounters his long-dead parents while fishing; in “The Unquiet Ones,” they “glide” into his dreams, “dark emissaries / of the two-faced god.” His sisters write “the history of tears” (“My Sisters”). In such cases, the lost past returns, but particular experience has become “ineluctable archetype,” its forms more important emotion of The Testing-Tree, we get what lay behind them—the glimpse of a deeper and darker meaning.
In poems that show the adult Kunitz in the midst of experience (“The Quarrel,” “Route Six”), the poet is much quicker to interpret the event. This is not so much a denial of the limited meanings in The Testing-Tree as an accumulation of them; the retrospective (though rarely nostalgic) note in “The Layers” comes from the collection of experiences and summary of their meanings. Now the explained scene can lead to (though not be) a metaphor or conclusion that helps define the Self. The individual event could not be the myth; but more and more it can participate in the myth. So, in “The Quarrel,” an angry word “weighs less than a parsley seed, / but a road runs through it / that leads to my grave.” Or on one journey to the Cape, “Twenty summers roll by.” The traveller of “The Layers” looks back to see his “abandoned camp-sites,” no longer present but necessary to his journey. The backward look allows a sense of pattern much less arbitrary than the abstractions of Intellectual Things; the shape of one's life finally begins to emerge.
Other people, in contrast, seem less knowable now. In The Testing-Tree, the sense of individual limits did not prevent Kunitz's entry into the world according to Bonhoeffer; in fact, that narrowed vision was essential to definition by means of language and image. Now Kunitz holds back more, defining others through their products and possessions. We discover a slave through his cigarstore Indian, nineteenth-century women through their handicrafts (“Words for the Unknown Makers”); we approach Lincoln by looking at the contents of his pockets (“The Lincoln Relics”). These forms of acting on the world may show us others more honestly than the attempt at empathy. But the two approaches are not as contradictory as they might seem. The poet of The Testing-Tree felt the narrowness of an individual perspective, and so balanced his own with others’; but he stayed within the boundaries of one view at a time. The poet of “The Layers” extends his meanings to myth, recovering an earlier sense of significance and structure; but he cannot do so on the basis of personal experience alone. So he reminds us of the reality of others—not only as limited perceivers, but like himself as artists. They are known by the intersection of their lives with the perceivable world, by the objects they handle and the artifacts they produce. The art object may be dangerous if it cuts the artist off from the “terrible storm” or the calls of his “twisted brother” outside the ivory tower (“The Crystal Cage”). But it can also be a means of communication with others, a form that links different experiences—one's own, or many people's. So the cigarstore Indian is the “surrogate and avatar” of its maker, expressing a freedom he can only desire; and a conventional funeral scene expresses “common tears” and so suggests a reality beyond its “narrow gate” (“Words for the Unknown Makers”).
Art, of course, is especially important, with myth and love, and other intentional links of form to meaning. But even apparently random reality can provide a link. The poet is moved by the Lincoln relics, “what he carried next to his skin, / what rocked to his angular stride, / partook of his man-smell, / shared the intimacy of his needs.” And this personal touch, not just “his legend and his fame,” recovers Lincoln as a reality. The poem ends with the gap between the evanescent, external physical reality and the mythic meaning:
He steps out from the crowd with his rawboned, warty look, a gangling fellow in jeans next to a plum-colored sari, and just as suddenly he's gone. But there's that other one who's tall and lonely.
For the first time, both modes of knowledge seem equally important. We do not get to one “through” the other, do not sacrifice one to the other; we have a simultaneous perception of Lincoln the man and Lincoln the legend, each enriching the other.
“What of the Night?” offers a similar view. In part 1, the poet sinks into himself “like a stone / dropped down a well.” In the “slime” and “brackish life,” he finds a pure myth,
as when pilot angels with crystal eyes and streaming hair rode planets through the shies, and each one sang a single ravishing note that melted into the music of the spheres.
But in part 2 he is awakened by a “night-bell” calling him to the outer world, for an obscure, perhaps pointless, mission. Resisting the call, he says,
Oh I should be the one to swell the night with my alarm! When the messenger comes again I shall pretend in a childish voice my father is not home.
The self's pure vision, already located in “brackish life,” is further balanced by the ambiguous demand of the world. We know that, whatever his protestations, Kunitz does not deny its call, for his tender concern rings through his work. He now fulfills the promise of Intellectual Things: the radiance and order of the inner world suffuse these poems. But instead of escape into the “frozen bowl of thought,” here his vision illuminates a world of particular experience, which in turn invigorates and tests the ideal. So in “Firesticks,” the mythic quest goes “into the mind's white exile,” but follows “down history's long roads.” And “The Layers” concludes these new poems with a promise of “changes” that will continue the discovery of the eternal myth beneath the masks of particulars.
Poems recalls Selected Poems most clearly in its retrospective nature, its air of summary and consolidation. But we can see in Poems how far Kunitz has come from the metaphysical patterns of Intellectual Things, through the bitter attacks of Passport to the War, Kunitz moves on to assertion, then confession, and finally to a sense of self that is both vigorous and open. Starting with a narrow exercise of will, he learns to recognize the mutual importance of fact and idea. The change is apparent technically too. Kunitz has always had a good ear, but the language is now more adequate to the music, the situation to the idea; and the poem's rhythms, here and in The Testing-Tree, are more subtle (usually two- and three-stress lines) and more conversational. These new poems do have weaknesses: sometimes the old tendency to belabor the point shows through in an unnecessary admonition at poem's end (e.g., “The Catch”). At the other extreme, there is an occasional “untransfigured” detail—a situation either too obscure (as in “My Sisters”) or too mundane (“The Quarrel”) to bear its weight of meaning. The summary note of Poems makes such problems more important than the modesty of The Testing-Tree. Usually, however, meaning and event are carefully matched and carefully distinguished as well. Kunitz has alternated between these poles throughout his career, stressing myth and meaning in Intellectual Things and Selected Poems, turning to fact and experience in Passport to the War and The Testing-Tree.Poems shows how closely those poles are related, and in “The Layers” displays their coexistence.
There is no question that Kunitz has been influenced by his times; his career has followed the poetic development of the age. But to view him as merely a derivative poet is quite unfair to his achievement. He has a sense of music in a time when much poetry is deaf to rhythm and sound; his most conversational poems are rich with harmony and echo. He has a gift for the haunting phrase and image that once earned him the title of “surrealist” poet; the “key images which forever haunt him”—the lost father, the journey and descent, the loss and phantom reappearance—haunt us too. And to the ear and imagination he has added an eye ever keener as the years go on. He has taught himself to see a suffering world, and the individuals in it; and he has refused to see all as a commentary on himself alone. Putting the personal experience beside the universal myth, he finds the “word” for both, one that shows the power and the limits of each side. Kunitz is not a prolific poet, nor an “experimental” one. For fifty years, he has gone on writing careful, intelligent, and passionate defenses of the human condition. These poems may not startle, but they last.
Kunitz in David Lupher, “Stanley Kunitz on Poetry: A Yale Lit Interview,” Yale Literary Magazine, 136, 3 (May 1968), p. 9.
A collection published in England, The Terrible Threshold: Selected Poems, 1940–1970 (London: Martin Secker and Warburg Limited, 1974), contained poems already published in the first four American collections.
Kunitz in Anthony Ostroff, ed., The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1964), p. 79.
Yvor Winters, “The Poetry of Stanley Kunitz,” New Republic, 63, (4 June 1930), p. 77.
Morton Dauwen Zabel, “Prelude to Adventure,” Poetry, 36, 4 (July 1930), p. 220.
A. J. M. Smith, “Language of the Wound,” Poetry, 64, 3 (June 1944), p. 166.
Marjorie G. Perloff, “The Testing of Stanley Kunitz,” Iowa Review, 3, 1 (Winter 1972), pp. 102, 103.
SOURCE: “Introduction: Life into Legend,” in Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 1–48.
[In the following essay, Orr provides an analysis of the recurring images and personal symbolism in Kunitz's poetry, drawing particular attention to the significance of legend, quest, and parent-child motifs related to the poet's search for self-identity and meaning.]
When Stanley Kunitz' magnificent fourth book of poems, The Testing-Tree, was published in 1971, it was hailed by Robert Lowell on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. As Kunitz' books make their appearance, it seems inevitable that he will be generally accorded that status which he has long since earned in the eyes of fellow poets—that of a major poet of the dramatic lyric. Yet the immediate chorus of praise and the excitement in the literary world that greeted The Testing-Tree's appearance was followed by the relative critical neglect that has persistently haunted Kunitz' achievement as a poet.
Kunitz writes sparingly—on the average his books have appeared at fourteen-year intervals. In his words, he writes “only those poems that must be written, that force themselves into being.” As a result, the transitional poems often don't get written, and each poem can represent, or appear to represent, a new departure. But transitional poems are dear to the hearts of critics and readers alike; they are often the bridges between major poems that allow us to perceive more quickly the patterns of concern and theme.
Curiously, we demand of a major poet not simply great poems but a great vision. In terms of the dramatic lyric, this great vision involves the sense of a distinct personality encountering, those particular mysteries of existence that most compel its energy and utterance. Paradoxically, the very excellence and integrity of Kunitz' individual poems have had the effect of obscuring the larger vision and continuity that guarantee his status as a major poet. The appearance of his collected volume, The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, gives us the perspective we need to see the pattern and wholeness of Kunitz' oeuvre. The themes of identity and of the self's quest for autonomy and intensity of being emerge as the principle constellations in which each fine poem is a separate star.
In this Introduction I will be moving rapidly across the body of Kunitz' work, seeking those thematic and stylistic continuities that make his poetry more complex and coherent than that of many lyric poets. In identifying and emphasizing these underlying structures, I will be quoting only briefly from individual poems. Finally, it is these individual poems, their integrity and intensity, that determine Kunitz' stature as a poet.
The necessarily theoretical nature of this chapter will result in a temporary neglect of the individual poems, which will, I hope, be remedied by the subsequent chapters where we will move chronologically through Kunitz' books, examining individual poems in some depth.
A FEW ASSERTIONS
Kunitz is a poet of the dramatic lyric who strives to dramatize the themes and contradictions of his life. He distrusts the didactic impulse in poetry—the impulse to summarize, interpret, or otherwise comment upon the dramas he presents. Keats is perhaps Kunitz' favorite poet, yet in his introduction to his edition of The Poems of Keats, Kunitz does not hesitate to chide him for a lapse into didacticism:
No matter how you read, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” the lines have a thematic and didactic smack to them. Keats has a finer aesthetic perception in one of his letters when he refers to the reality of aethereal things, and names them: “such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare,” or when, on another occasion, he asserts, “The Imagination may be compared to Adams' dream—he awoke and found it truth.” (A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly [hereafter cited as Order/Folly], p. 69)
Kunitz would approve of Yeats' remark that we cannot know the truth, we can only embody it. He might further add that we can dramatize the truth as an encounter, a “drama in a nutshell” (“Revolving Meditation,” p. 143). Kunitz speaks of the poet's need to “polarize his contradictions.” These contradictions are polarized in order to enact a dramatic encounter whose events are its meaning.
Kunitz is a poet of irrational or nonrational intelligence, although he is aware of irrationality's dangers:
Irrationality may well be the safest of all disguises for the modern artist—the Mask, or Persona, that permits him the greatest freedom of expression with a certain degree of immunity; though there is a danger, to be sure, that the Mask may eventually usurp the Face. (Order/Folly p. 7)
The irrational or nonrational intelligence that structures his poems takes many forms, but the alchemical ambition that marshals these forms remains consistent: to convert life into legend.
That which is to be alchemized is the self as much as the life. Through the transformation of self into language he wants to “test existence at its highest pitch—what does it feel like to be totally one's self” (Order/Folly, p. 17). Such a transformation also has aspects of the heroic quest; Kunitz speaks of “submitting to the ordeal of walking through the fires of selfhood into a world of archetypal forms” (Order/Folly, p. 13). It is the poem itself that enacts that transformative ordeal. The enterprise is the same as that of Keats when Keats speaks of this world as a “vale of soul-making.”
When Kunitz proposes “converting life into legend” as a formula for his poetic enterprise, he is in part making an assertion about the lyric poet's awareness of larger structures and principles of continuity in his work. That notion of the lyric which sees each poem as an epiphanic moment crystallized in language yet isolated from all other such moments does not appeal to Kunitz. The word “legend” in the formula emphasizes a consistent narrating thread that runs through the individual poems.
“Legend” is Kunitz' attempt to make of the lyric poet's enterprise an open-ended quest whose themes, goals, and events become representative human dramas. Kunitz' legends are based in private experience; yet, translated and dramatized, they acquire universality: the quest for love, for authenticity and autonomy, for intensity of being.
The concept of the “key image” provides a second structural continuity to Kunitz' work. Basically, the key image has its source in the poet's childhood and manifests itself again and again in the poetry. Its recurrence elevates it to the status of a symbol in the poet's personal mythology and at the same time provides at the image level the continuity which legend provides at the narrative level.
The third factor of continuity in Kunitz' poetry is the self, the dramatized “I” who is the protagonist of the poems. This self is the central and centralizing persona of the dramatic lyric. The self quests, seeks meaning. Sometimes the self journeys through a horizontal landscape emblematic of the life lived inside time. At other times, the self responds to the transcendental impulse so powerful in the lyric and seems to spiral above a crucial incident or event, held by the event's centripetal power yet striving to rise up to view it from a different perspective.
These two selves, the journeying self and the spiraling self, are both valid for Kunitz. The spiraling self acknowledges the power of recurring themes in our lives and the necessity to confront them again and again. The spiraling self is most appropriately linked to the recurring key images. The journeying self acknowledges another truth: that we convey our past with us as we enter a future whose events we cannot predict. The journeying self is appropriately linked to the narrative thrust of the legends.
These continuities of narrative, image, and self are necessary in order to overcome a critical bias that seeks to minimize the scope and ambition present in the work of a major lyric imagination. Perhaps the most demeaning manifestation of this bias is the belief that the lyric poet's highest ambition is to appear in an anthology. It is necessary to propose a countertruth: to assert that in some cases, as with Kunitz' work, it is possible to say that all a lyric poet's poems are one poem, that the work as a whole partakes of the same impulse toward unity and coherence that shapes language and event into the individual poem.
THE LEGENDS AND THE QUEST
Kunitz has frequently spoken of the theme of the son's quest for the father, which is indeed a central part of his work. But in fact, his work focuses on several distinct quests or legends, each having its unique narrative thrust. These legends are linked to each other in various ways, and they also have a common motive: the quest for identity.
When we speak of a quest for identity that originates in lived experience and that involves a son's search for his father, we have entered the territory of psychology. In the lived life, identity is determined largely in terms of family relationships, and it is here that the other legends emerge.
A retrospective reading of Kunitz' poetry reveals three figures who are primary poles of his imaginative existence: father, mother, and beloved. These three figures imply an “I” whose identity emerges in relation to them. The first two relationships are father—son and mother—son. From these two, a further relationship emerges: that of man (grown son) and beloved.1
Kunitz will dramatize the primary concerns of his life and work in terms of legends based on these three primary relationships.
The first legend I will call the “father legend.” The two female figures represent a more complex interaction. Until very late in the work, the powerful figure of the mother is liable to appear in the same poem as the beloved. This fact has great significance and constitutes a legend of its own: the mother/beloved legend. There are also numerous poems in which the lover/beloved appears without the mother, and when it seems appropriate I will refer to them as one of two variations of this legend: the beloved legend or the beloved/muse legend.
In the early poetry, the figure of the beloved is idealized and frequently related to the courtly love tradition in a way that the contemporary reader may find archaic. But equally, the later Kunitz of The Testing-Tree presents some of the most fully realized, dignified, and convincing figures of women in poetry written by men. What remains constant and consistent throughout is Kunitz' belief that love has the power to transform us—a power he embodies in the figure of the beloved.
Besides the father legend and the mother/beloved legend, there is a third major legend of identity that emerges most strongly in Kunitz' later work. But, if the other legends have their origins in psychology, the third legend seems rooted in metaphysics. I will call it the “legend of being” or the “quest for being itself.” This third legend tends to make its appearance in early poems as a final transformation of the father legend. It exists in such later poems as “King of the River,” “The Layers,” and “The Knot” as an autonomous legend that is the triumphant and culminating expression of Kunitz' imagination.
Certain key facts and figures from his youth provide the basic material for Kunitz' alchemical transformation of life into legend. In a 1971 interview with Selden Rodman, Kunitz presents the bare bones of the life situation that so affected his work. His immigrant parents were from grain merchant families who lived in Luthuanian Russia, though he was never to learn for sure the real birthplace of his father:
Perhaps my father, who killed himself six weeks before I was born, came from East Prussia: I've never known much about him because my mother made it a forbidden subject. Why he killed himself wasn't clear. The dress manufacturing business they'd started together was going bankrupt; but there must have been another woman, too, or mother wouldn't have made the subject taboo. Not even his name could be mentioned. Mother was a great seamstress—and business woman—so after the double catastrophe she opened a little dry goods store and for years worked day and night to pay off the debts—though she wasn't obliged to legally.
I was farmed out, or in the hands of nursemaids … I was lonely and fatherless, but my father had left a library—fairly substantial sets of Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoi and the like. …
My two sisters died young. Mother was just forty when I was born. When I was eight, she married again. My stepfather taught me most of what I know about love and gentleness. He was an Old World scholar, of no practical help to my mother, but she revered his learning and the sweetness of his character. She anticipated the modern liberated woman, being perfectly capable of managing by herself what had developed into a flourishing business, based on her dress designs—I can still see the loft with its cutting tables and long rows of girls bent over their electric sewing machines. Mother never trusted anybody else to repair the machines when they were out of order. But she was always tired at the end of the day. When my stepfather died suddenly in my fourteenth year, my world was shattered. It didn't leave me with much sense of family. …
What finally destroyed her was that she couldn't bear to fire anyone. So she went bankrupt again in the Depression, and that was the end of her business career. She had fought for money and power, and she had failed—for which she could not forgive herself. She died, alert and intransigent, in the early Fifties at the age of eighty-six.2
The directness and clarity of this presentation only become available to Kunitz late in his life. The overriding theme of Kunitz' work is identity—the struggle to discover and dramatize “what furies made him man” (“Goose Pond,” p. 120). These forces find their locus in his childhood circumstances. Throughout Kunitz' long career, these primary family figures (father, mother, son) and the dramatic situations they enact are what draw out his deepest emotional and imaginative responses.
THE MOTHER AND THE BELOVED
Although the quest for the father is often spoken of as the major thematic thrust of Kunitz' work, the motive and priority must be sought in the mother—son relationship. The figure that emerges from Rodman's biographical interview is of a remarkably powerful, competent, and unyielding mother. In order to locate the quest for identity at one of its origins, we must comprehend the situation of a boy who is left fundamentally alone with a powerful mother. His biological father is mysteriously absent, and there is a taboo against his very name. In order to establish his autonomy and identity, Kunitz must break out of the orbit created by his mother's gravitational power. When the legend concerning the mother—son relationship does make one of its infrequent appearances in the early poems, the figure of the mother is consistently seen as powerfully destructive of or inhibiting the son's quest for autonomy. She is also, in the early poems, repeatedly linked to the beloved, especially in poems of failed love as “Poem” (Intellectual Things) or “The Signal from the House” (Selected Poems):
I cried to the mourner on the stair, “Mother, I hate you for those tears.”
In terms of the quest for identity, the beloved is a goal, the mother is an obstacle to that goal.
Freud, in his essay, “A Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life,” talks about the role of the mother at that time in a young man's life when he chooses a love object in the world. Freud contends that the mother is always the actual first love object and that the beloved is a surrogate. He maintains that at this point the young man separates love into two components: a “tender,” idealizing impulse and a “sensuous,” sexual impulse. These two components cannot be reunited into the figure of the mother lest incest-fear incapacitate the young man.
What happens in a great deal of Kunitz' work is strongly related to the mother, but the effect is different from that suggested by Freud's model. In Freud's essay, the mother is a rock against which the young man's libido flows and separates into two streams (“tender” and “sensuous”) which cannot be reunited. In early Kunitz, it is as if the libido is never given any expression in the external world. In an early poem, “So Intricately Is This World Resolved,” Kunitz proposes that the man cannot or must not act in the world of sexual impulse, that love not only cannot be consummated but cannot be acted upon:
O lover, Lift no destroying hand; let fortune pass Unchallenged, beauty sleep; dare not to cover Her mouth with kisses by the garden wall, Lest, cracking in bright air, a planet fall.
In many of the poems of Intellectual Things, the libidinal energy thus frustrated of expression animates an inner world, an interior landscape, and creates a condition of erotic solipsism. In these poems, language itself becomes charged with the energy and actions of sexual event, but the arena is interior to the self: in “Mens Creatrix,” the brain becomes a “mental womb” which will be “cleaved” by a “rhythmic Spike of Light” (p. 202).
While language and mental events become charged with sexual energy, the figure of the beloved in the early love poems becomes or remains an idealized figure from literary tradition rather than a recognizably flesh-and-blood creature. She is “love's incarnate form” or “a dove-soft nimble girl” and acts in an interiorized landscape that in no way corresponds to the external world. The result in the early work is twofold: a love poetry in which the object is idealized in such a way as to transcend any human particularity; and a poetry about poetry itself—or about mental processes—which is charged with sensual intensity.
In terms of the quest for identity, Kunitz must struggle to overcome his own inhibitions and emotional contradictions and his mother's prohibitions in relation to the beloved. One movement in this theme is from the interior, enclosed world of Intellectual Things (1930) outward toward a recognizable external landscape and a recognizable, if tortured, relationship between self and other in Passport to the War (1944).
On the psychological level, the mother/beloved legend culminates and is resolved in “The Magic Curtain” (The Testing-Tree, 1971). As in “Poem,” and “The Signal from the House,” the mother and the beloved are both present in the same poem and the same drama, but here they are present so that the boy can choose the beloved (a governess) in a way that affirms a tender, sensuous love and also affirms his identity as distinct from the mother's:
“I'll never forgive her,” mother said, but as for me, I do and do and do.
(“The Magic Curtain,” p. 68)
The beloved triumphs over the mother (at a human level); love triumphs over negations; forgiveness over “never forgiving.”
On the metaphysical level, the mother/beloved legend culminates and is resolved in “A Spark of Laurel,” where the powerful and erotic female figure that has dominated many of the poems in Selected Poems is recognized as reconciling mother and beloved (ideal and passionate love) and her ambiguous identity is seen as the very source of poetry: the muse, who is “‘Mother and mistress, one’” (“A Spark of Laurel,” final lines, p. 147).
THE FATHER AND THE SPIRIT FATHER
“To find the father is to find oneself.”
If, in the early work of Intellectual Things and Passport to the War, the beloved is a goal toward which the speaker/self moves with great intensity, then the other main goal is the father. In the figure of the father we are dealing with a fusion of the biological father, whose suicide before Kunitz' birth made his name taboo, and the gentle and loving stepfather who died suddenly when Kunitz was fourteen. The term “father” in any discussion of Kunitz' work should be understood to mean the fusion of the pain of the beloved stepfather's sudden death with the imagery and mystery of the biological father's suicide. In all Kunitz' poems the father is dead, but this fact in no way undercuts his reality; in fact, it heightens his reality at the psychological level. In Kunitz' memory, as we have seen, both fathers are associated with books or scholarship, and they are characterized in the poems as being loving and yet mysteriously absent or elusive. They are also, and this point is critical, perceived as being actual or potential allies in Kunitz' quest for identity and his related effort to break free of the power of the maternal. The father is a goal of the identity quest in much the same way that the beloved is:
And I will go, unburdened, on the quiet lane Of my eternal kind, till shadowless With inner light I wear my father's face.
(“Vita Nuova,” p. 236)
Jung, in his essay “Freud and Jung—Contrasts,” criticizes Freud for his overemphasis on the child's relation to the parents; he sees it finally as an entangling, sterile relationship from which Freud offers no means of escape, no avenue for growth. Jung claims to see in the universal cultural phenomenon of initiation rites, a human impulse toward rebirth and as such a release from “the boring and sterile family drama.” Such a rebirth is a movement beyond the biological toward the spiritual. Such a reborn person sees that the Spirit is Father and Nature is Mother.
Behind the biological father stands the Spirit Father, behind the biological mother stands the Nature Mother. Throughout the poems of son and father, Kunitz' Spirit Father is ambiguous (he is helper and haunter, guide and ghost), but he is Spirit from the outset and the goal of the son's quest.
Perhaps Kunitz so quickly identifies father with Spirit because his biological father is absent and therefore transparent.4 Not so the figure of the mother. As Freudian biological mother, she is an opaque and powerful figure standing between young Kunitz and the beloved. As Jung's Nature Mother she is associated with the decay that overtook the father. This decay is linked with vegetation; the mother “buries” humans like seeds:
In the year of my mother's blood, when I was born, She buried my innocent head in a field, because the earth
Was sleepy with the winter. And I spoke the corn
(“Poem,” p. 198)
Frequently, as in the following poem, animal (“carrion”) and vegetative (“a pod”) nature overlap in the recurring image of a ripening that is merely prelude to a bursting and rotting:
Anonymous sweet carrion, Blind mammal floating on the stream Of depthless sound, completely one In the cinnamon-dark of no dream— A pod of silence, bursting when the sun
Clings to the forehead,
(“Prophecy on Lethe,” p. 209)
In “Organic Bloom” the human brain is seen as a grotesque water lily:
Enormous floats the brain's organic bloom Till, bursting like a fruit, it scatters doom.
In the poems of Intellectual Things, Kunitz sees the relationship of spirit to nature as a war, a struggle in which the father is always threatened with “a second perishing” (“For the Word Is Flesh”). What will free Kunitz' poetry from this struggle is a twofold imaginative transformation: the embracing of nature as a cyclical (death—decay—rebirth) rather than linear (death and then decay) process; and the location of the Spirit Father in nature rather than against it:
O father in the wood, Mad father of us all, King of our antlered wills
(“The Way Down,” p. 137)
Although Kunitz seeks and even pursues the figure of the father, he also needs to confront him in order to be free of a father “whose indomitable love / Kept me in chains” (“Father and Son,” p. 157). In the early poems of Intellectual Things, the Spirit Father either succumbs to decay or represents a transcendence of physical conditions which fails to accommodate the central phenomenon of death. When he is at last located in cyclical nature in “The Way Down” (Selected Poems),
Where the fleshed root stirs, Marvelous horned strong game, Brine-scaled, dun-caked with mould, Dynastic thunder-bison, Asian-crude, Bedded in moss and slime, Wake
then indeed, as Heraclitus says (and the poem's title indicates), “The way down and the way up are one and the same.”
This reconciliation of Spirit and Nature represents a major advance in Kunitz' quest for identity. The Nature of Selected Poems and after is a Nature whose cyclical renewals offer hope, and the father, who represents great positive power and potential guidance for the son, is identified with this new conception of Nature. Kunitz' abiding love of the natural world links with his idealization of the father. In later Kunitz, Nature is Father Nature—its renewals are expressed in the phallic imagery of male potency.
THE THIRD LEGEND
The first two major legends of Kunitz' poetry (the father legend and the mother/beloved legend) can be understood and appreciated at a psychological level without being confined or reduced to that level. The poems of these legends depict the way a strong male identity is formed through imaginative interaction with the figures of father, mother, and beloved. But the third legend goes beyond the issue of individual identity, shifting from psychology to metaphysics, from identity to being. The third legend could be called the legend of being itself, or “the quest of being for yet more intense being”—for the secret of its own mystery, which is understood as a journey that has no goal and finds its meaning in the journey itself.
The third legend can be understood also as the human adventure—the absurd heroics of human grandeur—the journey for the journey's sake, but at the highest level of risk and intensity. One of Kunitz' favorite metaphors for this is the journey into space. Perhaps this metaphor gripped him first when, as a cub reporter for the Worcester Telegram, he was sent to interview Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, who was sending aloft curious missiles from pastures near Clark University. Young Kunitz heard him say, “In your lifetime, man will walk on the moon,” and he never got over the grandeur of Goddard's imagination. “The Flight of Apollo” is the best embodiment of this version of the quest for its own sake. It is a hymn to the quest, but also an exploration of its motives—“Earth was my home, but even there I was a stranger. … Think of me as nostalgic, afraid, exalted”(p. 48).
At the core of the legend of being is the fact of our mortality and our awareness of it. Perhaps it is this that places the emphasis on journey and process rather than on any goal. Kunitz himself best expresses the fundamental dynamic of the legend of being: “The hard and inescapable phenomenon to be faced is that we are living and dying at once. My commitment is to report the dialogue” (Order/Folly, p. 123).
The supreme poem of this third legend is “King of the River,” where Kunitz seeks a nonhuman creature to commune with: a salmon. This creature is noble (he is king of the river), and he represents the ultimate metaphysical paradox of consciousness itself, beyond all individual identity, but within mortality where “‘The only music is time, / the only dance is love’” (p. 54).
The legend of being emphasizes process, movement, metamorphosis. Its characteristic images are those of the journey and of transcendent phallic shapes that represent pure, renewable energy questing onward without purpose, but finding meaning in the ecstasy of the process itself. We find this transcendent phallus in the rocket ship of space exploration, but even more centrally in “The Knot” where it is the “Obstinate bud, / sticky with life” (p. 1) that becomes a tree of life, or in “King of the River” where it is the male salmon, a “Finned Ego” thrashing upriver to spawn and die.
But a relentless forward thrusting is by no means the only characteristic movement of this legend. Sometimes the journeying self is aware of two countermovements within it: one that pulls toward the past (Kunitz calls it “nostalgia”) and the other that pulls the self forward (Kunitz' term is “desire”). The forward thrusting of the phallic self is present in “desire” and in “will.” But the backward motion is equally strong and has its role to play in the journey:
I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey
(“The Layers,” p. 35)
The title of another poem, “Revolving Meditation,” brings us from the journeying self to the spiraling self. The spiraling self involves a revolving motion around a center. The spiral is an emblem for the obsessive self and the obsessive theme in Kunitz' poetry: for the poem and the self that circle or revolve above a set of images or a subject—returning to them again and again:
How much I disapprove of it! How little I love it! Though, contrariwise, Can there be Anything half as dear?
The self spirals above the image or subject, trying to transform it, to convert life into legend, to “find the drama in a nutshell.”
LOVE AND ART
When Kunitz speaks to the child of a marriage that is ending, he describes himself as “Your father, in whom two ambitions rave, / Like stations wrangling on the foreign wave / For spheres of influence.” Such a father “loathes the heart that blends / His guilty love; but the quarrel never ends” (“The Tutored Child,” p. 155). In a companion poem later in the same book, he addresses the child's mother, whose accusing question: “What Have You Done?” was originally the poem's title. In the second poem the “two ambitions” of “The Tutored Child” are identified and fused in the transformed heart:
From my angry side O child, Tumbles this agate heart, Your prize, veined with the root Of guilty life, From which flow love and art.
(“The Reckoning,” p. 183)
“Love and art” are the two ways Kunitz seeks his identity. When, in the central poem, “The Testing-Tree,” the boy Kunitz enacts a ritual of three stones thrown at a sacred oak tree target, the goals for which he strives are the same:
I played my game for keeps—
for love, for poetry, and for eternal life— after the trials of summer.
THE KEY IMAGE
The key image is the single most important element in Stanley Kunitz' work. The clearest definitions Kunitz himself provides occur in a lecture given at the Library of Congress on May 12, 1975, and printed by the Library as the essay “From Feathers to Iron”:
One of my convictions is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images which go back to the poet's childhood and which are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic. … That cluster of key images is the purest concentration of the self, the individuating node, the place where the persona starts. … In Keats's case, one can learn more about his quiddity by pursuing images of fever and of ooze than by analysing his literary sources. A critical property of key images is that they are unalterable, being good for a lifetime.
and in a 1977 interview with Columbia magazine:
[Interviewer:] You've spoken of a poet's finding his center, could you talk about that?
[Kunitz:] I'll try. You have at the center of your being a conglomeration of feelings, emotions, memories, traumas that are uniquely yours, that nobody else on earth can duplicate. They are the clue to your identity. If you don't track them down, lay claim to them, bring them out into the light, they'll eventually possess you, they'll fester, or erupt into compulsive behavior. The farther you stray from your center, the more you will be lost. That's one of the teachings of Lao-tzu. When you're there, at the existential core, you'll know it. Hopkins said in one of his letters that he could taste himself, and the taste was more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, or the smell of walnutleaf or camphor. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat.
When Kunitz proposes such an important role for the cluster of key images, he is affirming the fact that his is a symbolic, associative intelligence rather than a conceptual, discursive one. For Kunitz, even at his most allusive, Christianity and Neo-platonism are sources of images for impulses and emotions, not philosophical or religious perspectives.
In Kunitz' work, key images can be verbs (e.g., flow, throb, pulse, turn, burst) as well as nouns (e.g., wound, house, threshold, tree, heart). The meanings of these key images emerge both intensively in the context of the particular poem and extensively in their various (and sometimes metamorphosed) recurrences throughout the life's work.
KEY IMAGES THROUGH TIME: THE WOUND AND THE HOUSE
One way of understanding how a key image functions in Kunitz' work as a whole is to trace its occurrences in the poems chronologically. Although a key image may be, to use Kunitz' phrase, “good for a lifetime,” it is far from static. For example, during the course of the work, the wound image, perhaps the most important of Kunitz' key images, evolves and metamorphosizes, appearing also as a hurt, a stain, a scald, or a burn.
In the early poems of Intellectual Things, this image cluster centered on “wound” is linked to the mortality that so haunts the volume. It makes its first, earliest appearance as “hurt” (an abstraction) and as “stain”:
The blessing in this conscious fruit, the hurt Which is unanswerable, fill the brow With early death.
(“Beyond Reason,” p. 235)
The shape confronting me upon the stair (Athlete of shadow, lighted by a stain On its disjunctive breast—I saw it plain—)
(“Master and Mistress,” p. 233)
The stain of the second poem is associated with a ghost/apparition. The hurt of the first is associated with the brow. In later poems, the hurt will become less abstract, more violent and concrete, and increasingly associated with the head and brow. At the outset it is an image soiled by mortality, but it is held at a distance, abstracted and intellectualized, even resisting its own physical implications. Later, this stain of mortality will reappear as a “mudstain” the son promises to wipe from the father's corpse (“Father and Son”). In a poem called “The Pivot,” the following strange image occurs:
he leaves behind A faunlike head upon a tray, Spear buried in the mind.
In an early poem about the process of poetry, “Mens Creatrix,” a “rhythmic Spike of Light” was said to “cleave” the brain.
Without being reductive we can assert that this pervasive set of images is linked to the father's suicide as imagined by the son. since the suicide is the central fact of Kunitz' imaginative life, that from which all else flows, it is perhaps appropriate to skip from the first book to the fourth book and present the pivotal poem of the entire oeuvre, “The Portrait.” In this poem the personal, biographical source of Kunitz' being is presented with the extraordinary simplicity and understatement characteristic of his later work (it appears in The Testing-Tree, published when Kunitz was 66):
My mother never forgave my father for killing himself, especially at such an awkward time and in a public park, that spring when I was waiting to be born. She locked his name in her deepest cabinet and would not let him out, though I could hear him thumping. When I came down from the attic with the pastel portrait in my hand of a long-lipped stranger with a brave moustache and deep brown level eyes, she ripped it into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard. In my sixty-fourth year I can feel my cheek still burning.
“The Portrait” is the first poem to mention the father's death as a suicide. When we consider that children turn to their parents, the source of their being, for answers to their identity, the implications of a father who kills himself while the son is in the womb are indeed disturbing. This self-willed contradiction of life by one's own life-source is sufficient (when fused with the beloved stepfather's sudden death) to send Kunitz' life down a curious path. He must seek the father; he must confront this contradiction of life at his life's source, a contradiction whose image is the wound.
Among other significant information about Kunitz' life, “The Portrait” tells us that his father committed suicide in a public park and that all mention of the father and the event were prohibited by Kunitz' mother. This leads us to a crucial speculation: that the young Kunitz must imagine the method of suicide and that he imagines it as a revolver shot to the head (though drowning is not impossible and ponds and lakes are also key images associated with the father's death). Looking backward from “The Portrait,” we can recognize that the plot of an earlier poem, “The Hemorrhage,” closely parallels the actual circumstances of the father's suicide and that the wound is the centralizing image:
The people made a ring Around the man in the park. He was our banished king Of blames and staunchless flows, Exhibitor of the dark Abominable rose;
Our chief, returned at last From exile, with the grim Stamina of the lost, To show his sovereign hurt.
The hurt, the hemorrhage, the “staunchless” flow are powerful images both for the source of Kunitz' trauma and the power of that trauma to persist and constantly threaten his own being.
Without attempting to define or confine the meaning of the key image of wound, we can assert the following: it is connected to mortality; it is frequently located at the forehead or brow; it is connected to the father; and ultimately it becomes a link between father and son: a badge of shared suffering that each wears, a legacy from father to son that unites them. This last aspect of the image is seen in embryonic form in the orange/nail image of “Father and Son,” becomes a legacy in the burning cheek of the final lines of “The Portrait,” and achieves its final role as an emblem of communion in the very late poem “Quinnapoxet,” where the son signals to the father's ghost in the poem's final image:
I touched my forehead with my swollen thumb and splayed my fingers out— in deaf-mute country the sign for father.
In “Quinnapoxet” the speaker dreams a wound (a “gashed” and swollen thumb) and then sees the apparition of his two parents approaching. Like “The Portrait,” it is a poem of the family triad, one where we see very clearly the negating power of the mother over Kunitz' sense of self:
“Why don't you write?” she cried from the folds of her veil. “We never hear from you.” I had nothing to say to her.
Here, the mother is imagined as a barrier between son and father (now that death is no longer the barrier, death having been imaginatively overcome in “The Way Down”). The son signals to the father with his wound; wound to wound, they commune. The “swollen thumb” has to do with a phallic life-force, a life-force hurt into being, yet potent.
“Quinnapoxet” is the culmination of the father legend—Kunitz has gone as far as he can go in psychological terms and in the context of son—mother—father. In “The Knot,” the father legend (symbolized by the “bleeding” knot wound) yields to the legend of pure being (symbolized by the phallic tree of life). The metamorphosis (or regeneration) of wound into phallus is that point at which we pass from psychology to metaphysics, from a hymn to the father to a hymn in praise of pure being and its power to renew itself and us with it.
A less spectacular, but equally important set of key images that relate to the legend of pure being is that of “house” or “home.” House/home represents the backward motion of being (nostalgia) just as the phallic rocketship, tree of life, and “Finned Ego” of the salmon represent its forward motion (desire).
How does the image of house/home relate to nostalgia? By investigating the image of house/home we uncover the power of context in determining the meaning of a key image. Considered without a specific dramatic context, one might well assume that house/home had positive meanings related to security, domestic intimacy, and belongingness. But in Kunitz' poetry these positive qualities are constantly undercut in such a way as to establish a fundamental aspect of his vision: that security and stability in the physical and emotional or social worlds are illusions.
He establishes and undermines the positive aspects of the image at the same time. The most revealing instance of this is in “Father and Son.” In this poem the son has pursued the father's ghost across a dream landscape, hoping at last to catch him and confront him with his needs for guidance in the world. The pursuing son anguishes over the opening words to this crucial encounter:
How should I tell him my fable and the fears, How bridge the chasm in a causal tone, Saying, “The house, the stucco one you built, We lost.”
The father, whose presence would give stability to a son's identity, had the power to “build a house”—to create a surrounding stability and security. The house that the father built his survivors have lost.
Here we see the essence of Kunitz' dilemma in the father legend: he is in awe of a father he never knew. He feels a son's intense need for fathering and guidance. One image of the father's mythic power is the house he built, and when the son looks back into the past, he does so with longing. He wants, impossibly, the dead father to return—“‘Father,’ I cried, ‘Return! You know / The way.’” As long as Kunitz associates the house with the lost father, he sees it in the distant past.
In the poem that immediately precedes “Father and Son,” we see the image of the house connected to the mother/beloved legend, and thus the image acquires other meanings. In this poem, “The Signal from the House,” the house is associated negatively with both the mother and the beloved, people who “were too much with” the speaker and therefore “secretly against” him. He seeks to abandon them and the house in order to embark on a journey and to escape “the old life.” The signal of the title calls him back “like cry of conscience” to what he knows to be his destruction. If the house was built by the father, it is inhabited by the mother. The son, in order to grow, must leave the house and embark on his journey; if he actually yields to the backward, nostalgic pull of the house, he accedes to his own self-destruction.
Although the house/home image is strongly linked with the past and pastness, it most truly belongs with poems of the legend of being, where homelessness is connected to desolation and solitude as a condition of being. At the mythic level this is the story of our eviction from Eden, our first home. In “Robin Redbreast,” where one of the poem's primary strategies is to identify the bird's situation and the speaker's, we see Kunitz making connections between Eden, the self's desolation and insecurity, and the house image:
It was the dingiest bird you ever saw, all the color washed from him, as if he had been standing in the rain, friendless and stiff and cold, since Eden went wrong. In the house marked For Sale, where nobody made a sound, in the room where I lived with an empty page …
In another poem of the legend of being, “The Flight of Apollo,” the poem's primary movement is the outward journeying of adventurous desire, but the opening lines establish Kunitz' special sense of home as a precondition of the quest—“Earth was my home, but even there I was a stranger” says the astronaut, and later “think of me as nostalgic, afraid, exalted.” The astronaut's journey is one of the purest forms of the legend of being, and its source is a home that is not a home.
When Kunitz dramatizes the legend of being as a male salmon, the “King” of the river journeying upriver to spawn and die, house/home becomes “kingdom,” and the poem's final paradox again concerns home and homelessness as a state of being:
he is not broken but endures, limber and firm in the state of his shining, forever inheriting his salt kingdom, from which he is banished forever.
(“King of the River,” p. 54)
In one sense this “salt kingdom” is the ocean he is journeying away from, upriver, and up fish ladders over dams. Earlier in the same poem, through the image of a ladder, Kunitz links the salt kingdom/home behind the salmon to nostalgia:
If the heart were pure enough, but it is not pure, you would admit that nothing compels you any more, nothing at all abides, but nostalgia and desire, the two-way ladder between heaven and hell.
We have here the fundamental dynamic of the legend of being. A backward urge toward “house/home” that is called “nostalgia” and is either illusory or, if acted upon, dangerous. And a forward urge called “desire” whose movement is the journey and whose image is often phallic as in the “Finned Ego” of the male salmon. Desire in the legend is not desire for some object or goal, but is simply an index of the intensity of being itself: “‘What do I want of my life? / More! More!’” (“Journal for My Daughter,” p. 42).
The overriding image is of the self's journey, but the backward glance of nostalgia that I have discussed earlier is as much a condition of being as the restless forward journey into the unknown.
We can speculate that for a key image to work successfully in a body of poetry, it must be rooted in personal experience. Among literary modes of thought, the key image (a variant of symbol) has a peculiar power of verticality: it can function with equal authority at different levels of being or reference. Kunitz demonstrates his awareness of these different levels of being or reference that the key image has simultaneous access to when he remarks apropos of the key image “pond” in his work, “As far as I am concerned, the pond in Quinnapoxet, Poe's ‘dank tarn of Auber,’ and the mere in which Beowulf fights for his life with Grendel and the water-hag are one and the same” (Order/Folly, p. 125). Similarly, if we glance briefly to the side and recall Kunitz' ambition of “converting life into legend” (life and legend being two parallel levels of being), we can see that the image of the wound functions in one context (say, “The Portrait”) at the literal level of the lived life, and in another context it functions at a universal, legendary level as the wound of mortality and human suffering.
THE SPIRAL AND THE JOURNEY: TWO FORMS OF SELF
The central and centralizing figure of all lyric poetry is the dramatized self. In trying to understand the nature of the dramatized self in Kunitz' work and how it functions, we gradually become aware that there are two distinct concepts of the self and that they are ultimately complimentary. Like the wave and particle theories of light, neither of which alone explains the phenomenon of light, both concepts of self are needed by Kunitz in order to let him tell his whole story.
The first is the concept of the spiraling self. The spiraling self represents our human impulse to return again and again to a particular issue. The spiraling self circles over this recurrent issue with a funneling motion that goes either higher (wider arcs) or lower (narrower), depending on whether the self is trying to rise above the issue or approach it more closely. Whether the self is ascending or descending, its purpose is the same: to arrive at a different level of being from which to view the same issue. To understand an old problem at a different level of being is to arrive at a new understanding of the problem.
The spiraling self acknowledges also the centripetal power of certain themes, images, or events (sometimes traumas) in human life: certain moments we return to again and again seeking release, transcendence, transformation, clarity. These powerful moments are none other than Kunitz' key images and are dominated by the powerful figures that often stand behind them: mother, father, beloved.
When we spoke earlier about the figures of Spirit and Nature behind the father and mother, we might also have spoken in terms of the spiraling self. The Spirit Father is at the same position on the spiral as the biological father, only on a higher level of being. When I say “higher” or “lower,” I am not speaking evaluatively; lower simply means closer to the key image and its source in lived experience. Higher speaks about the self's impulse to deal with an event at the level of archetype or myth or by means of substitution and displacement—an impulse still anchored to its source in the world of experience.
The second self is the journeying self. If the spiraling self has a vertical impulse around a central key image, then the journeying self has a linear, horizontal movement. Here meaning concentrates in the figure of the self, the “I,” as it journeys through the landscape of the poem. This self has a history in terms of pastness (“nostalgia” is its emotional coloring) and an impulse toward the onward journey (which it understands as “desire”). This self has an urgent, linear sense of time and of mortality. The journeying self is the one most adapted to the legend of being as it unfolds in the later poems, but often, as in “The Layers,” both “selves” function together to create the fullest story.
THE CONSTELLATION AND THE SPIRALING SELF
When Kunitz speaks about key images that recur throughout a poet's work, one might easily arrive at the notion of obsession. One could argue that the history of important lyric poetry from, say, Sappho or Petrarch on is a history of obsessed poets whose obsessions are thematically profound. But there are certain negative connotations to the word obsession which should be confronted, connotations of narrowness and spiritual stasis or fatalism. These negative connotations might seem appropriate to a poet such as Sylvia Plath whose vision of the world might image the cluster of key images as a kind of interiorized astrological fatalism as in the final lines of her poem “Words”:
While From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars Govern a life.
But Stanley Kunitz' poetry is a poetry of survival, questing, and renewal through imagination. If Kunitz' poetry errs in its view of things, it errs deliberately on the side of the heroic:
I am your man on the moon, a speck of megalomania, restless for the leap toward island universes pulsing beyond where the constellations set.
(“The Flight of Apollo,” p. 48)
The question becomes: how does the concept of a cluster of key images accommodate itself to movement and growth? The answer is: through the spiraling self. The spiraling self can be imagined as a funneling movement above a still center composed of the cluster of key images: a funneling movement above a constellated stillness of images. If the key image can represent the grim fixity of fate, then the spiraling self is motion, movement, possibility circling above fixity and seeking to transform it.
We find real warrant for the notion of a dynamic spiral in the work itself:
The spiral verb that weaves Through the crystal of our lives, Of myth and water made And incoherent blood …
(“A Spark of Laurel,” p. 146)
We see the spiral motion self-consciously present in the poem title, “Revolving Meditation,” whose opening lines enact the ambivalence of the spiraling self toward its own obsessions:
How much I disapprove of it! How little I love it! Though, contrariwise, Can there be Anything half as dear?
and whose later lines show the marriage of free will and compulsion that characterize the self that has yielded to the power of recurring images in order to unlock the mystery of their meaning:
Preferring to hear, as I Am forced to hear …
In this poem, Kunitz revolves around trauma seeking a way out, seeking a way to make the circle of endless repetition into a spiral of higher levels of consciousness (life become legend). In “Night Letter,” we encounter “the spiral of a soul balanced on a stone” (p. 161).
In a late poem, “The Illumination,” Dante appears to Kunitz in a vision, standing in a spiral-like “cone of light” (p. 45). When the bewildered Dante speaks he says, “I was here before,” and thus touches on a central truth of the spiraling self: the need to repeat a significant act or image in order to reach its meaning. Dante himself is both a spirit guide to Kunitz (a precursor poet who converted life into legend in his Vita Nuova) and a Spirit Father: Kunitz' own, long-sought father at a higher level of being. Dante's “cone of light” and his return tell us about the spiraling self and its desire to transform.
If we were to inquire what image is at the center of Kunitz' funnel of self at its narrowest, we might follow another image of the spiral:
The gestures made is woven in the sleeve, The spiral echo sinks into the grain.
(“The Harsh Judgment,” p. 165)
The image here is of the knot in wood. It is a variant of the wound/mortality image in Kunitz: one that is heavily fated and static in this context. Kunitz' late poem “The Knot” enacts a triumph of renewal and affirmation over this fatal image that is both the father's death wound and all human mortality. Here the knot of “trauma” is not fixed and unalterable, for out of the very wound itself, renewal and regeneration occur:
I hear it come with a rush of resin out of the trauma of its lopping-off. Obstinate bud, sticky with life.
The spiraling self encounters a phenomenon again and again—hoping to transform it. The wisdom of repetition in regard to hard things is a lesson the natural world teaches in the late poem, “The Mulch”:
A man with a leaf in his head watches an indefatigable gull dropping a piss-clam on the rocks to break it open. Repeat. Repeat.
Later in the same poem we hear:
“Try! Try!” clicks the beetle in his wrist
We are involved not only in the repetition of actions but the repetition of words—a favorite stylistic device in Kunitz. This phrasal repetition that occurs throughout Kunitz' work is closely linked to incantation and the magical use of language as a means of transformation:
Ha! Once again I heard The transubstantial word That is not mine to speak Unless I break, I break.
(“A Spark of Laurel,” p. 146)
THE JOURNEYING SELF
There is a second, equally central version of the self in Kunitz' work, one that complements the spiraling self but discloses its own meanings and possibilities. The journeying self might be the one Kunitz is referring to when he speaks of the strategy of certain modern artists: “A few dare to submit themselves to the ordeal of walking through the fires of selfhood into a world of archetypal forms” (Order/Folly, p. 13). This version of the self emphasizes process, movement—images of journey that are linear as opposed to spiraling.
We encounter the journeying self at the very outset. In a poem from the first book, the speaker feels the need to leave a house and, in the final lines, embark on a journey:
And I shall go By silent lanes and leave you timeless here.
(“In a Strange House,” p. 232)
The final poem of this book, “Vita Nuova,” echoes these lines—“And I will go, unburdened, on the quiet lane / Of my eternal kind.” “Vita Nuova” takes its title from Dante's poem of spiritual rebirth after loss. It establishes the quest as a central structural device of individual poems as well as a theme for the work as a whole.
In “Vita Nuova” the journey is specifically concerned with the father. Later, the journey becomes an image for a metaphysical gesture:
But I fly towards Possibility, In the extravagantly gay Surprise of a journey, Careless that I am bound To the flaming wheel of my bones
(“Revolving Meditation,” p. 145)
In the image of the flaming wheel, fate (the spiral flattened to the closed repetition of circle) impinges on the freedom and optimism of the journey metaphor.
Journey in Kunitz is related to quest—to the heroic self encountering the basic conditions of its personal destiny (as in “The Approach to Thebes,” where an omniscient Oedipus journeys to the city) or the impersonal hugeness of the universe, as in “The Flight of Apollo,” where the astronaut speaks:
Earth was my home, but even there I was a stranger. This mineral crust. I walk like a swimmer. What titanic bombardments in those old astral wars! I know what I know: I shall never escape from strangeness or complete my journey. Think of me as nostalgic, afraid, exalted. I am your man on the moon, a speck of megalomania, restless for the leap toward island universes pulsing beyond where the constellations set.
The ultimate imperative of the journey is courage:
It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.
(“The Testing-Tree,” p. 92)
The journey is recognized in later Kunitz poetry as the appropriate governing metaphor for the legend of being: it is the truest story of our consciousness. The salmon on his journey upriver to spawn and die is an image of ourselves, our creature selves. He is pulled forward by desire, pulled backward in imagination by nostalgia, but he exists “in the state of his shining”—that is: in the active intensity of the journey itself. There is no rest, and no goal. Finally, even death is regarded as “the threshold of the last great mystery”—a mere marker the heroic journeyer will pass and pass beyond:
no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
(“The Layers,” p. 36)
“The Layers” is no doubt the penultimate poem of the journey. It begins:
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray.
In the midst of this poem celebrating the journey of self, we find a precise image of the spiral (here partly repudiated by the ambiguous adjective “scavenger”) and the static constellation of key images which the spiral moves above:
and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.
The dominant journey image returns:
Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me.
This journey has purpose, if only in its own courageous acceptance of the process itself, and is contrasted with a purposeless and meaningless form of journey in which “I roamed through wreckage.”
Kunitz has always arranged the sequence of his poems within a book with the utmost care. It is therefore significant that the first poem in a very late book is a major poem of the vertically rising spiraling self (“The Knot”) and the final poem is metaphorically governed by the journeying self (“The Layers”).
Because the journey takes place inside history and time, it has an implied beginning and end. Kunitz tends to focus his poems in mid-journey, even when the end is foreknown as in “The Approach to Thebes.” Why? At one level Kunitz is deeply fatalistic—“the verdict's bitten on the brazen gates,” Oedipus says of his future (“The Approach to Thebes,” p. 112). It is possible to say that death ends all journeys—and against the tension of that fate, Kunitz protests with the power of imagination to transform or the self itself to metamorphose. Out of the great negation comes the heroic affirmation of being:
Let be! Let be! I shake my wings and fly into its boughs.
(“The Knot,” p. 1)
The human self journeys from beginning to end. But because of imagination, we are both more and less than human: we can descend to the creature self or fly upward as the angel/bird/winged demon of the final lines of “The Knot.” In other words, the vertical nature of the spiraling self is not simply linked to trauma's recurrence but also to the way the imagining self eludes its fate in time.
SURVIVAL AND SELF
In Kunitz' work the questing self is a self determined to survive against the odds of “the hurt / Which is unanswerable [and] fill[s] the brow / with early death” (“Beyond Reason”). The themes of identity and a surviving self merge in later Kunitz:
My name is Solomon Levi, the desert is my home, my mother's breast was thorny, and father I had none.
The sands whispered, Be separate, the stones taught me, Be hard. I dance, for the joy of surviving, on the edge of the road.
(“An Old Cracked Tune,” p. 87)
In this poem's persona we recapitulate the characteristics of the parental dynamic in Kunitz' imaginative life: the rejecting mother, the almost mythically absent father, and the psychic consequences for the son's identity—the ambiguous lessons of isolation and “hardness.” But the final resolution is again one of affirmation: the sheer act of survival becomes a joy and a motive for being.
In the later work, intensity of being and intensity of desire fuse and become the animating force of the surviving self, as seen in “Journal for My Daughter,” where Kunitz depicts himself as a “white-haired prowler” haunting his daughter's dreams and life:
the folded message in his hands is stiff with dirt and wine-stains, older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Daughter, read: What do I want of my life? More! More!
Or in the climactic incantation of “The Knot” where the repeated exclamation exists paradoxically as both a plea for the life force to desist and an affirmation of that very life force in all its intensity: “Let be! Let be!”
For Kunitz the quest for identity involves encounters with such painful aspects of the human condition as suffering, trauma, fear, loss, rejection, and mortality: those aspects of the human condition that most threaten the self and its search for meaning. These aspects are encountered in the arena of the dramatic lyric and a representative struggle ensues, out of which the self emerges as the human embodiment of being. A touchstone for the self's encounter with negating forces might be a statement by Paul Tillich, which Kunitz quotes in his 1977 Columbia magazine interview: “the self-affirmation of a being is stronger the more non-being it can take into itself” (p. 5).
THE PRIVATE AND THE PERSONAL IN LYRIC POETRY
When Baudelaire speaks of the poet as a kind of “public dreamer,” he is describing both the nature of a kind of lyric poem and the curious burdens it puts on the poet and the facts of the poet's life. If the dream is a model for the process and the product of a certain kind of lyric imagination, then how is the lyric poem to be reconciled to a higher order than the self? Kunitz has endorsed Gerard Manley Hopkins' statement that he desires a poetry which retains “the taste of self,” and his own program, the “conversion of life into legend,” is a precise statement of such a poet's task in expanding the implications of lyric poetry without denying the central, centralizing reality of the self.
A major lyric poet such as Baudelaire, Rilke, or Yeats gambles on his ability to dramatize the personal issues of the life in such a way that we as readers gain access to them and yet they retain the tension and intensity of private crisis. An important audience aspect of this endeavor is curiosity: we want to know about other lives; we want to hear stories about other lives. The power of curiosity can operate in the poet's favor almost as a magical spell when the story is presented in compelling language as in Coleridge's “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:
He holds him with his glittering eye— The Wedding-Guest stood still, And listens like a three years' child: The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone: He cannot choose but hear.
The other aspect, which rests with the poet, is his ability to exteriorize the drama of the life and give it aesthetic structure. It is a test of the power of this kind of lyric poet's imagination—whether or not he can dramatize the private tensions, crises, images, and events of his life in such a way as to make them meaningful and accessible to others.
Yeats succeeded in assimilating facts and events of another person's life into the ongoing themes of his poetry: Maude Gonne is a dramatics persona in his work and undergoes even further imaginative transformation to appear as Helen of Troy. In Baudelaire we see mythological structures and references, but we also see a version of “warring opposites” or “polarized contradictions” (the ideal and the real world; the dream and the reality of “The Double Room” of Paris Spleen), a strategy that also appears in early Kunitz. One of the main functions of literary allusion (e.g., the Neoplatonic and Christian references in early Kunitz) is as a storehouse of publicly accessible images that can mediate between the poet's private world and the public world of the reader.
Privacy ultimately translates as failure in lyric poetry. The poem must be rooted deeply in the personal, and yet some level of universality of human experience must be posited and located, either consciously or unconsciously, by the poet in the work. The poem must go from the level of life to the level of legend.
In one of Kunitz' rare commentaries on a poem of his own (“Father and Son”), we have a lucid statement of the connection between life and legend (i.e., poem) that is central to his ethos as a poet:
I do not propose to launch into a full-scale autobiography here, but I am ready to say that all the essential details of the poem are true, as true as dreams are, with their characteristic fusions, substitutions, and dislocations.
(Order/Folly, p. 124.)
We have here the meeting of outer and inner reality, life and legend. We also have the dream as a model for the transformation process (what Kunitz calls “conversion”). The process is complex, involving fusion, substitutions, and dislocations: the powerful processes of the associative imagination that are central to Kunitz' art. These processes are irrational but intelligent; as Freud believes, dreaming is that mode of thought employed by the mind when it is asleep.
To say that such a poet is egocentric or narcissistic is to miss the point and the purpose of such poetry. The “I” of such a poem is also a transformed “I,” a dramatized figure whose movement through the language of the poem is a representative human quest for meaning in a particular set of circumstances. Such a poet cannot escape the power of certain events in his life, but he can transform, through imagination, these events in such a way that they crystallize and constitute meaning.
One may be, as Auden says of Yeats, “hurt into poetry”—but poetry is hurt transformed. Kunitz is hurt into his quest, and the quest discloses level upon level of meaning as it spirals outwards from its source in pain. Lines of Yeats on the power of imagination and self-transformation seem relevant here:
The friends that have it I do wrong When ever I remake a song, Should know what issue is at stake: It is myself that I remake.(5)
The dramatic lyric poet knows that the “I” of the poems is not limited by the conditions of the “I” of the life: the poet's quest is to remake the “I” into that form of meaning known as the poem. The self, the “I” of the poems, is the figure that enacts the drama, but the poet's belief is in imagination (which transforms) and in poetry itself. What poetry accomplishes is the embodiment of the transformed life beyond oblivion and change, in the crystallized permanence of form and the eternal present of its telling.
The dramatized lyric I am describing consists of at least three parts: the life, those subjective and objective facts to which the poet is compelled to be faithful; the legend, that level of the human story that is shared and is in some way universal or archetypal; and conversion, the dynamic process that transforms life into legend and which poets are prone to call imagination. Life and legend, when successfully functioning in a poem, are parallel levels of being. A curious thing about the dramatic lyric is that we do not find it satisfying or compelling if it takes place entirely on the level of legend; it must have what Hopkins called “the taste of self.”
In connection with conversion, a quotation from Kunitz serves to emphasize the lyric poet's faith in the power of magical language (here the key image) and his personal yet universally comprehensible motive: “It's curious how certain images out of the life—not necessarily the most spectacular—keep flashing signals from the depths, as if to say: ‘Come down to me—and be reborn!’” (Order/Folly, p. 305.)
Kunitz' poems often ponder or enact the process of transformation and are consciously concerned with spiritual renewal through transforming imagination. Such a poem will sometimes contain the dross (the “litter”) in order to transform it at poem's end, as in “Revolving Meditation” or “My Surgeons,” both from Selected Poems. Keats' notion, expressed in a letter of May, 1819, that this world is not a “vale of tears,” as religion misconceives it to be, but “a vale of soul-making” speaks directly to the poet's self-appointed task of self-transformation and spiritual growth through imagination.
FORM AND THE DRAMATIC LYRIC: STORY, SYMBOL, AND SELF
A poet whom I respect a great deal once announced to me that “all personal tragedy is in fact metaphysical tragedy.” I responded that to me the converse seemed true: “All metaphysical tragedy is in fact personal tragedy.” The two of us represented two profoundly differing temperaments; his abstracted the tragic encounters of his personal life; mine personalized phenomena which, tragic or not, are part of the human condition. I thought at the time that these temperaments could not be reconciled, could not coexist in one consciousness or one poetry.
Kunitz, in his best work, resolves themes on both a personal, psychological level and a metaphysical level, and with equal authority. When the legend of the beloved and mother is followed forward through Kunitz' work, it culminates psychologically in “The Magic Curtain”—where the beloved replaces the mother and love and forgiveness replace angry intransigence. At the metaphysical level, it resolves itself in “A Spark of Laurel,” where “mother and mistress” are recognized as one, and identified as the source of tragic (fatal) poetry; siren and Clytemnestra: the dark, compelling muse.
If “The Magic Curtain” resolves itself as story (the human, linear level), then “A Spark of Laurel” resolves itself as symbol (the transcendent, vertical gesture). Story and symbol are the two central forms of meaning available to poetry structured by nonrational intelligence.
When Tolstoy remarks that “all happy families resemble one another,” he is acknowledging the necessary and experienced link between disharmony and story. Where there is no disharmony, no discrete centers of energy, there can be no interesting story. The drama of the dramatic lyric necessitates conflict and contraries. When in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” Blake says, “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human Existence,” we might add that they are necessary to human story as well. At the formal level, the contraries of story polarize language: make it tense, intensify it. Without the tension-creating quality of disharmonious story, language would simply dribble down the page.
In Kunitz' poetry, the drama can be an interior drama such as the primordial conflict of heart—mind, or some other polarity such as memory versus oblivion. When it is external, it might be that most ancient of dramas: he—she. The main point is that a fundamental structure of the dramatic lyric is that of a story in which two centers of energy (often two characters, sometimes a character and a landscape or object) enact a drama that polarizes and intensifies language while the story moves through time (down the page) toward some resolution of its conflict. A lyric poet who fails to discover or posit this essential underlying framework of contraries may be forced to exaggerate the sensuous, nondiscursive aspects of language (e.g., “The Lost Son” of Roethke or many of the poems of Hart Crane).
We often speak of a poet's gifts, certain innate talents that discipline and experience can develop but cannot substitute for. Among the most frequently mentioned are a “good ear” (i.e., a sensitivity in hearing and employing sounds), a gift for metaphors, and a feel for compelling rhythms. I would assert that, in the case of the dramatic lyric, a gift for formal unity should be included in the list of talents or gifts the ideal poet is blessed with. If we acknowledge the existence of organic form as Coleridge defines it, we must account for it as an innate predisposition and possession of the poet's consciousness, not just of the individual poems the poet produces.
In the dramatic lyric, the gift for formal unity is inextricably tied up with the self. The self is that central, centralizing force that constellates all the elements of language and experience into that peculiar form of meaning called the poem. The image I would use for this “self” and its role is derived from chemistry: it is possible under certain conditions to create a supersaturated chemical solution in which molecules are held in suspension and do not precipitate out. When a piece of string is lowered into a beaker of this liquid, the molecules cling to and crystallize around the string. That string is the self lowered into the supersaturated solution of the unconscious: language clings to it in forms as absolute and precise as the internal structure of each crystal, yet as seemingly random as the attachment of one crystal cluster to the next along the string.
The self is a given quality of consciousness, a gift. The lyric poet possesses it and must possess it in order to create lyric poetry that has the unity and wholeness we require of all art. Like all gifts and talents, it is possessed in greater degree by some poets than by others, some lack it almost entirely and strive to compensate for it through learned skills.
Keeping in mind one of Kunitz' definitions of the key image (“You have at the center of your being a conglomeration of feelings, emotions, memories, traumas that are uniquely yours, that nobody else on earth can replicate. They are the clue to your identity”), we can say that for a lyric poet the self means having access to a lifetime's key images, images which form the structures of consciousness and the structures of poems.
It is difficult to say exactly where and how this self exists in the life of the poet. It is certainly not the ordinary ego-I of the poet's daily existence. Perhaps we can locate and ponder it best by studying the transformed “I” that enacts the drama of the poem, because it is there—in the poem—that we see the self as the active, formative, form-giving principle of the lyric. Even when the “I” is not overtly present in the poem, the self is present: each word is its footprint in the snow of the page. To return to the earlier image—even when the self is not manifest, it must be there within the language of the poem, just as the string is present within its sheath of crystals.
Having proposed a psychological model for the underlying structure of Kunitz' work, it is necessary to say that we need not adopt any particular theory of identity development through the interaction of family members. By the time Kunitz left high school for college in 1922, he had already read Freud. In his essays and interviews, Kunitz rarely mentions psychological figures or theories, although when Jung's name was brought up by an interviewer, Kunitz mentioned being favorably impressed by an essay on individuation.
Selden Rodman, Tongues of Fallen Angels (New York: New Directions, 1974), 99. 96–98.
“The Poetry Miscellany,” Salmagundi (1978), 8:30.
As Schiller says in his description of the elegiae mode in poetry. “The content of poetic lamentation can therefore never be an external object, it must always be only an ideal, inner one, even if it grieves over some loss in actuality, it must first be transformed into an ideal loss” (The Naive and Sentimental in Poetry).
William Butler Yeats, The Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats (Stratford-on-Avon: 1908), vol. 2, unpaged proem. This is the only appearance of this poem previous to the Variorum Edition.
SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz Shares ‘Next-to-Last’ Poems, Essays with Readers,” in Chicago Tribune, December 22, 1985, p. 39.
[In the following review, Idema offers a favorable assessment of Next-to-Last Things.]
There is an appropriateness, somehow, in turning to Next-to-Last Things in this, the waning of the year. It is that kind of book. Portrait of the artist as an old man. One pictures the 80–year-old poet rummaging among the scraps of his late harvest, musing over what to reject, what to save, fretting over a word or phrase that at the moment seems somehow vagrant, smiling to himself at the felicitousness of “Seedcorn and Windfall” under which he groups the lesser pieces at the end, reluctant finally to let anything go. The penultimate title of the book rings wistful. It seems to say, I'm not quite finished.
“To a poet of my age,” he writes, “each new poem presents itself in a double aspect, as a separate entity demanding to be perfected and, conversely, as an extension of the lifework, to which it is joined by invisible psychic filaments. In this latter aspect, all the poems of a lifetime can be said to add up to a single poem … one that is never satisfied with itself, never finished.”
There is beauty and wisdom in this modest book, although its ultimate success may be measured by how many readers it sends to the bookstores in search of more comprehensive Kunitz collections. Having The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 at hand while reading Next-to-Last Things is helpful, even essential. The new book contains only a dozen short poems; the bulk of the text consists of essays and reflections on life and on poets and poetry—Whitman, Keats and Lowell most prominently—with several references to poems of his own that are not included. Particularly in an interview that appeared in a 1982 issue of Paris Review and is reproduced here, significant works from the poet's long but comparatively unprolific career are discussed in specific detail. Assuming the general reader's familiarity with them is assuming too much.
On the other hand, while there are rich rewards to be had from searching out vintage Kunitz in previous collections, perusing this slim new sampler is not without its own pleasures. The poems that open the book are leaner than those from the early and middle years, narrower on their pages. “I've tried to squeeze the water out of my poems,” Kunitz says in the interview. Some of them are serene and melancholy, as you might expect. Most reflect the sky-and-weather environment of his Provincetown summer home, where he is most comfortable confronting “the great simplicities.” But the best ones are full of action and vivid imagery. “Raccoon Journal,” for all its humorous celebration of this precocious night prowler, has a preternatural ring to it, while “The Wellfleet Whale,” without being the slightest bit obvious, is full of the wonder and dread of Herman Melville.
There aren't many poets of Kunitz's generation still productive; still around, even. Robert Penn Warren comes most readily to mind. But I am more reminded of Robert Frost (though he would be 110 if he were still alive!), particularly in the discussions of the nature of poetry, its basic properties. Both poets insisted that an independent life-force is part of a good poem's essence. Frost noted “a course of lucky events” that a poem takes, “finding its own name as it goes” before it “ends in a clarification of life … a momentary stay against confusion.”
Kunitz says in the Paris Review interview: “A poem has secrets that the poet knows nothing of. It takes on a life and a will of its own. It might have proceeded differently—toward catastrophe, resignation, terror, despair—and I still would have to claim it.”
SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz: ‘American Freethinker,’” in Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 1987, p. B2.
[In the following essay, D'Evelyn provides an overview of Kunitz's career and discusses the poem “Day of Foreboding” from Next-to-Last Things.]
Put aside the Pulitzer Prize (1959). Put aside the years as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, the praise for his translations from Andrei Voznesensky and Anna Akhmatova, the prestige of editing the “Yale Series of Younger Poets,” the election to the 50–member American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, the chancellorship of the Academy of American Poets, the years spent in the echoing classrooms of major universities.
Put aside the generations of poets he has survived, especially the tormented one identified with his friend Robert Lowell. Put aside the still-fresh laurels of the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, awarded him last month, along with New York State's Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets.
“Great events are about to happen. …” So begins a little poem from Stanley Kunitz's most recent book, Next-to-Last Things (the Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1985). As poems go, it's a modest-looking thing, almost archaic-sounding, maybe a translation from Old English. It helps put things into perspective.
In a way, Kunitz always goes with the flow: traditional forms in the early poetry, when they were popular; looser-looking ones since the '60s.
In a way, Kunitz had to go with the flow. After graduating summa cum laude and winning prizes and taking his master's from Harvard (he says he apprenticed with Alfred North Whitehead), he was denied a teaching position because “Anglo-Saxons would resent being taught English by a Jew.” He went home—Worcester, Mass.—and became a reporter on the Worcester Telegram.
After the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and executions, he quit and carried Vanzetti's letters to New York in search of a publisher. The Red scare made it impossible. He got a job editing literary biographies, was married and moved to the country, was drafted (a non-affiliated pacifist), and didn't teach his first class, at Bennington College, Vt., until 1946. So Kunitz is not a creature of the academy.
Recently he discussed the origins of a poem he published in 1944. It's called “Fathers and Sons.” It's about the way sons turn away from fathers, toward their own futures. He doesn't mention the fact that his father committed suicide in a public park some months before he was born. He says, “I had no intimation then that the theme that had been given to me would soon be haunting the imagination of a whole generation of poets.” He goes through some sample poems, then turns back to Homer for “a more constructive archetype.” The modesty (“the theme that has been given to me”) and the long view are typical.
Kunitz's intellectual independence goes back to his mother. She was, he says, “one of the pioneer businesswomen, a dress designer and manufacturer.” He does not recall being kissed by her during his childhood. He never doubted her “fierce pride” in his academic and literary accomplishments. Her heroes were Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell.
Kunitz calls himself “an American freethinker.”
Kunitz's recent poems at their best are like pieces of driftwood. Shaped by enormous impersonal forces, they seem to have been deposited on the page, stripped and worn, polished by wind, sun, water, rock, time: by history, intellectual and natural.
In “Day of Foreboding,” the laconic style is deceptive. The rhythmic flatness—a waste to an English ear—gains sculptural relief by the brevity and, wholeness of each line.
At closer range, “unprecedented” is comic-tragic: That's where, after the thick irony of the opening, the poem takes off. The gnomic line “My bones are a family in their tent” may recall Kunitz's early love of Yeats. But it stands, alone, and has been nicely prepared for by the word “picked”!
“Uncertain”—flat, again—is almost dogmatic. Still, it's the climax. The emotion of the poem crests there, to break and withdraw in the last line, the short line made almost infinitely long, and quite moving, by the little word “long.”
This is more than Kunitz's fabled skill. This is wisdom, bleached of transcendentalism, yet drenched in “transformation and transcendence,” which Kunitz calls the “two infallible touchstones of the poetic art.”
“Day of Foreboding” puts his long, not uneventful life in perspective by turning toward the future.
Like other poems in Next-to-Last Things, it makes me think of that old saw Hamlet quotes: “the readiness is all.”
SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz: The Poetic Adversary,” in Washington Post, May 12, 1987, pp. D1, D6.
[In the following essay, Kastor presents an overview of Kunitz's career and accomplishments, and reports Kunitz's comments on his work and the role of the poet.]
Stanley Kunitz has always written deep into the night and through to morning and, when desperate publishers plead for an overdue essay from the 81–year-old poet, as they lately have been, the nights grow even longer. Over the last three, he has slept less than six hours. “The world's quiet then,” says Kunitz. “I feel that splendid isolation, which is fructifying, replenishing.”
And he does somehow manage to look replenished by those nights filled with writing, nights that have, over the last six decades, made him a dean of the poetic scene and won him the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and, this year, the Bollingen Prize. He will read at the Folger Shakespeare Library tonight at 8.
Isolation has been a constant in Kunitz's life, from a lonely childhood, scarred by his father's suicide just before Kunitz's birth and spent in a house where birthdays were not celebrated and “I would not admit I cared / that my friends were given parties,” to the years writing in the isolation of the country, through decades of little popular or critical recognition. And if for the last several decades he has received the accolades of the established literary world—including appointment as consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress in the '70s—he remains a gracious yet defiant man who says he is closer to today's younger poets than those of his own generation—“I feel they're too old”—and has patterned his intellectual life on the model of William Blake.
“Blake stood very much for what I have aspired to stand for,” says Kunitz, who selected the contents for The Essential Blake, a newly released pocket-sized book designed to make the often intimidating British poet more accessible. “He was a radical intelligence. He opposed the king. He applauded the French and American revolutions. He was violent in his feelings about child labor, the exploitation of women. This was the background and some of it seeps into the poems. He was a maverick outside literary circles, unappreciated in his lifetime. He's a hero, and meanwhile, he was writing these marvelous poems.”
The poet, Kunitz feels, must continue to stand in that “adversarial relationship.”
“The most elementary of our adversarial relationships are in terms of the power of the state, which has never been so great in the history of mankind,” he says. “That power can destroy us all. It's a terrible power to entrust to people who are not spiritually great, that's all there is to it. You see it in the callousness, self-aggrandizement, insensitivity to the plight of the poor. In the general level of ethical conduct, the state has become an abomination. The Vietnam war—I was very hot about that, as I am about our policy in Nicaragua. All such difficulties lead one to feel more and more separated from the heads of state and the conduct of the state.
“The poet can't change anything, but the poet can demonstrate the power of the solitary conscience. It's an example. Any gain, even the conquest of a small part of oneself, is a triumph.”
In his 1976 poem “The Lincoln Relics” Kunitz wrote:
Mr. President, in this Imperial City, awash in gossip and power, where marble eats marble and your office has been defiled, I saw the piranhas darting between the rose-veined columns, avid to strip the flesh from the Republic's bones.
“This is part of the whole problem—so-called—of modern poetry,” he says. “It's true it has lost its general audience. It isn't that there aren't readers. There are some, but they are isolated. Your only constituents as a poet are in the university world, the college world. That's too limited. It's stultifying in a way that mature persons in society, those who are our leaders know nothing about poetry, don't read it. I think they are damaged because they don't stretch their imaginations.”
A small man in an overlarge brown suit, Kunitz sits in an unceasingly gray, boxy Washington hotel room. Venetian blinds clack; the spring wind is rushing to get in. Back in his Greenwich Village solarium, Kunitz's plants are blossoming, and in Provincetown his carefully nurtured garden waits for the summer arrival of the poet and his wife, painter Elise Asher.
“I really need some green around me or I perish,” he says, smiling. “Nothing makes me as happy as to get out there and grub with my hands. It is very important to have an understanding of the body, a love of the body, a whole enjoyment of one's physical self as much as one's mind.”
And the advice he gives beginning poets is imbued with such sentiments. Know more than poetry, says the man who for years worked as a newspaper reporter, edited reference books, served in the Army in World War II and never sought a tenured position at the universities where he taught.
“I've never accepted tenure because I don't believe in it,” he says. “I don't think that poets ought to become academicians. I also feel that kind of security and responsibility to an institution is a threat to the imagination, to the free play of the imagination.”
Kunitz was born in Worcester, Mass. After graduating from Harvard summa cum laude, he was indirectly informed that he would not be welcome to stay on as a teaching assistant because Christian students would bridle at being taught by a literature teacher who was Jewish. He left Harvard and in 1930 published his first book of poems, Intellectual Things. Heavily influenced by the 17th-century metaphysical poets, Kunitz wrote short poems thick with metaphor and came to be known for his mastery of craft—for what seemed to some an overreliance on craft. Poet and friend Michael Ryan has described that early poetry as taking “the risk of pitching the tone too high for human ears, the language becoming so dense that the act of reading becomes an act of translation.”
“I always get angry,” Kunitz says, laughing, about the inevitable questions about his dedication to craft. “I wasn't trying merely to be clever and to juggle ideas and ironies. I was, even in those very earliest poems, really trying to find out who I am, where I am going, why I am here. I still ask the same questions.”
But if the questions stayed the same, the tone and form changed in the late '50s and early '60s. With The Testing-Tree, published in 1971, his style grew more colloquial, still rich but less obscure, and the stories and pain of his childhood began to appear explicitly in the poems.
In “Three Floors,” collected in The Testing-Tree, he wrote:
Under the roof a wardrobe trunk whose lock a boy could pick contained a red Masonic hat and a walking stick.
Bolt upright in my bed that night I saw my father flying the wind was nothing on my neck, the windowpanes were crying.
“If I didn't change, I'd become a terrible bore, even to myself,” Kunitz says, That's what I mean about entering into the experiential world—every new adventure of the heart or the mind modifies your state of being.
“The difficulty is that to change one's style is an arduous task. I think in one of my speeches I say it's easier to change one's life than to change one's style. You tend to repeat the patterns of your expression and even your mannerisms, syntax, your prosodic pattern and the rest. But if it no longer excites … All you know is you're dissatisfied if you're going through the same paces again. There has to be some sort of leap, a leap of the soul, really. So you can have joy in it again.”
In “The Layers,” Kunitz wrote:
In my darkest night when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
And now, Kunitz is taking the leap once more. He is now working on poems that he says “return to song, just pure song … I'm in the midst right now of a shift. I can't define it yet, but that's why I'm working on these songs. I think something is emerging out of them that will be recognizably different, and yet a continuation.”
Kunitz once said, “I feel that I am not only living now, but also in other times, past and future. Now is one of the locations of my life, but so is my childhood and, beyond that, the childhood of the race. Even my own death is part of my occupation.”
In “Passing Through—on my Seventy-Ninth Birthday,” Kunitz addresses his wife, who has brought birthday celebrations into his life.
Sometimes, you say, I wear an abstracted look that drives you up the wall, as though it signified distress or disaffection. Don't take it so to heart. Maybe I enjoy not-being as much as being who I am. Maybe it's time for me to practice growing old. The way I look at it, I'm passing through a phase: gradually I'm changing to a word. Whatever you choose to claim of me is always yours; nothing is truly mine except my name. I only borrowed this dust.
SOURCE: “The Wild Braid of Creation,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCVI, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 137–49.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient discusses aspects of “strangeness” and the imagery of animals and elements in Next-to-Last Things.]
In poetry strangeness is essential, whether of word, figure, or development. It is inseparable from the intense concentration that justifies special linear and rhythmic dispositions of language; these dispositions, in turn, cast an eclipse-strange light back on the words. Prose is daylight, poetry entering or emerging from the dark of the moon. …
I have written as if strangeness ought to be potent in poetry—both strong and fertile. What of the authority of Stanley Kunitz, who seems to imply otherwise when he asks what at his age (the date was 1977, when he was seventy-two) is “left for you to confront but the great simplicities. … I want to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare. I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world”?
The thirteen poems in Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (more strictly, twelve poems, for the prose piece “Tumbling of Worms” should not be passed off as a poem) are “natural” seeming enough for artifacts, and fairly luminous, deep, and spare. And the strangest, “The Abduction,” is an early work. Nonetheless all the poems resonate with strangeness, for Kunitz is as aware as anyone that poetry is rooted in the gestural life of the physical mind, and that “the body, in its genetic code, holds the long odyssey of the race,” indeed that “poems rise out of the swamps of the hindbrain, ‘the old brain,’ dragging their amphibian memories behind them” (I quote from one of the fine essays in the new book, The Wisdom of the Body). [Dennis] Schmitz's woman soaking off animal blood in the stream, and [Colin Way] Reid's Daphne drinking and rising rootedly, are, in this regard, allegorical illustrations.
In such instances poetry implicitly declares its filiations with the realm of the animals and the elements. Tactilely so, when Kunitz says of two snakes surprisingly “entwined / in a brazen love-knot” in chilling September, “At my touch the wild / braid of creation / trembles.” The oxymoron of “wild braid” and the generalizing possessive “of creation” constitute the necessary, archaizing imaginative wildness. Again “Raccoon Journal” creates a frisson through evocations of manic hoots and dark encroachments (“On the back door screen / a heavy furpiece hangs, / spreadeagled, breathing hard …”). The theriophobic sexual menace implicit in “spreadeagled, breathing hard” is instinctively right. For Kunitz the physical “creation” still bristles with primitive messages; more than an irate gardener beset by raccoons, he's a throwback to the green man.
He knows that loneliness, too, is essentially strange. The loneliness both of the creative artist and of the aged man. On this subject the best of the new poems are “The Image-Maker” and “The Long Boat.” The first, typically a bit uneven, is superb at the close:
Seductive Night! I have stood at my casement the longest hour, watching the acid wafer of the moon slowly dissolving in a scud of cloud, and heard the farthest hidden stars calling my name. I listen, but I avert my ears from Meister Eckhart's warning: All things must be forsaken. God scorns to show Himself among images.
The conceptual wild braid of “Seductive Night!” and “acid wafer” is brilliant; less so, but interestingly complex, and helping to save the one weak segment (the sentimental “heard / the farthest hidden stars / calling my name”), is the superposition on the bidding stars of the forbidding Meister Eckhart. “The Long Boat” is almost equally ambivalent about the seduction of the cosmic edge of loneliness, the temptation to disappear back into the elements. A boat snaps its moorings, the subject tries “at first to wave / to his dear ones on shore, / but in the rolling fog / they had already lost their faces.” Overcome with tiredness, he is
content to lie down with the family ghosts in the slop of his cradle, buffeted by the storm, endlessly drifting. Peace! Peace! To be rocked by the Infinite! As if it didn't matter which way was home; as if he didn't know he loved the earth so much he wanted to stay forever.
On the one hand a blood-draining, [Samuel] Menashe-like allegiance to “family ghosts,” and on the other the contrary persistence of an image-maker. The language is plain, the lineation casual (which is what Kunitz means by “natural”), and even imitatively supine. Both are bobbingly related to the commonplace. But, equally important, both are buoyed by the fantastic element of fable, the strangeness of what at once is and is not itself: a strangeness like that the human mind feels before the distorting mirror of the animal world, or before the curiously familiar and unfamiliar elements. Before the slop of the cradle. Before the knowledge that it doesn't matter which way is home.
The summoned and seductive strangeness in poetry is the shivering invisible body in the denims of the words—a body that is other to the conscious mind and to ordinary uses of language; a body that, the curious twists of history aside, is animal or vegetal or elemental, and already passing back into the stream.
SOURCE: “An Interview with Stanley Kunitz,” in Gettysburg Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 193–209.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1990, Kunitz discusses his early life, formative experiences, education, beginnings as a poet, literary relationships, and his approach to writing and experiencing poetry.]
Stanley Kunitz, who will turn eighty-seven on July 29, 1992, is the reigning dean of American poets. Not only is he still writing, but he is writing as well today as he ever has, as is evident from the new poem, “Chariot,” published below. The third child of Solomon Z. Kunitz and Yetta Helen Jasspon, Stanley Kunitz was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. He earned his B.A. from Harvard in 1926 and his M.A. in 1927; at his first graduation, he won the coveted Lloyd McKim Garrison Medal for Poetry, was awarded highest honors, and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation, Kunitz worked briefly for the Worcester Telegram and then, from 1928 to 1943, served as editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin. His first book, Intellectual Things (1930), was praised both for its “fresh utterance” and for its “intricate and metaphysical” style. From 1943 to 1945 Kunitz served in the Air Transport Command of the United States Army, and in 1944 he published his second volume, Passport to the War.
A Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1945 allowed Kunitz to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a year, and in the autumn of 1946, at the urging of Theodore Roethke, he returned to academia by beginning a three-year teaching stint at Bennington College in Vermont. Since then he has regularly taught at many places, but—by design—only on a year-to-year basis, and never with tenure. While Kunitz was filling in for Roethke as poet-in-residence at the University of Washington (1955–56), he taught the young James Wright. His Selected Poems was published in 1958 and won for him the Pulitzer Prize in 1959. Kunitz began his twenty-two-year association with Columbia University in 1963, and in 1968 he helped to organize the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts; he will work there again this summer, for the twenty-fifth consecutive year.
In 1967 Kunitz visited Russia as part of a cultural exchange program, reading his poems and lecturing. Thus began his deep commitment to the poetries of oppressed peoples: his translations of Anna Akhmatova and Andrei Voznesensky are particularly notable. When The Testing-Tree was published in 1971, Kunitz was praised for revising and enlivening one of the most-recognizable styles in American poetry. He himself explained that “as a young poet I looked for what Keats called ‘a fine excess,’ but as an old poet I look for spareness and rigor and a world of compassion.” The publication of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 in 1979 won for Kunitz the Lenore Marshall Prize, signalling his ascension to the top of his field. When Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays was published in 1985, critics responded by saying that “Mr. Kunitz is a living treasure” whose spirit “is sensual and mythic, cosmic in its deep searchings for connections between the worlds of nature and man”; he is “the finest living American poet.”
With his wife Elise Asher, Stanley Kunitz spends his winters in New York City and his summers in Provincetown; his flower garden is both one of his great passions and one of the primary attractions of Cape Cod. He visited Gettysburg College on the twelfth and thirteenth of March, 1990, to read his poems and to visit classes in creative writing and contemporary American poetry. The interview was conducted in his apartment in New York on the third of May, 1990.
[Stitt:] What sort of childhood did you have?
[Kunitz:] As I look back on it, my main impression is of how lonely I was. Aside from school, where of course I did have a degree of companionship, it was a childhood without much company outside the household itself, largely because, for so much of that time, we were living far out at the edge of the city without any neighbors. My main refuge was the woods that lay behind the house, where I wandered every day. That is where I invented the game I write about in “The Testing-Tree.” I would throw three rocks at the tree, and the results would determine my fate. In retrospect I realize that those three throws of the stone against the patriarchal oak reveal much of the meaning of my life, at that point and in the future. If I hit the target with only one stone, somebody would love me. If I hit it twice, I should be a poet. And if I hit it three times, I should never die. That was the game, and I think it expresses my deepest yearnings.
How old were you at that time?
I must have been in my early teens. Thirteen or fourteen.
It is interesting that you should have wished to be a poet at that age. When were you first conscious that this was your desire?
It is hard for me to define exactly. I was writing from the very beginning, from the moment I went to school. Writing was what gave me the most gratification. I was also reading omnivorously. Every week I would walk to the public library, about three and a half miles from where we lived, and I would pick out this great bundle of books. The librarian would say, “Now, Stanley, you are permitted to take only five books, no more. That's the limit.” So I would wrestle with the problem of which five books out of this big bundle I should take. The regulation was that you could do this only once a week; I do not know why there was such a limitation. But I would always be back a day or two later, wanting five more books. So eventually she consented to bend the rules and let me have those extra books. Then I would trudge all the way home and devour them. My taste was indiscriminate. I did not know what I was reading—I just grabbed anything that caught my eye.
I take it this was going on even before you were twelve.
Yes, it started early. I still have—on yellow sheets of sketch paper—a collection of short stories I wrote at the age of eleven, recounting my adventures in the far north. All of them are very detailed, very tragic and desperate. They are about survival. I am mushing through snow and ice with my team of huskies. We are lost in this terrible storm, and one by one they start dropping off, dying of the cold. Finally, there is just one left and we sort of keep each other warm. No doubt I was influenced by Jack London.
That is a lonely story, a story without companions, and it reminds me of another great loneliness in your life. A moment ago you referred to the “testing-tree” as a “patriarchal” tree. I am aware that you grew up in a single-parent home. How aware were you as a child of the absence of your father? How aware were you of how he left you?
I do not remember exactly how or when I learned that he had committed suicide a few weeks before I was born. There must have been a prior state of innocence, but I cannot recall it. It is as though I had plucked the knowledge of his death out of the air.
My most vivid memories are of stumbling by accident on a few bits of information. In my tenth or eleventh year, I was rummaging in the attic among old garments and trunks and some odd pieces of furniture. In one of the trunks I found my father's Masonic robes—apparently he was a thirty-second degree Mason—and some documents pertaining to his membership in that order. I have written about this discovery—which I kept secret then—in my poem “Three Floors.”
On another occasion, something far more dramatic happened. Rummaging again in the attic, I came across a pastel portrait that I knew immediately, intuitively, was a portrait of my father. I brought it down to show to my mother. Her instant reaction was to slap me and tear the likeness into shreds. This was out of anger, I am sure, but not anger directed at me. My mother wanted to erase my father out of her memory. She never referred to him, never spoke the slightest word of him. And that one gesture was the only manifestation of her emotion about him that I ever saw. I never dared question her, dreading the consequence. This of course made him all the more mysterious and important to me. I was compelled to create a mythical father to replace the real father I never had. This mythical being is the one who has dominated my imagination and my poems through all the years.
Did anybody else in the family ever mention him?
The only person I could talk to was my older sister. She was only six when he disappeared, so her memories were limited. I tried to pump her for information, but she had little to offer. The detail that I remember most clearly relates to my father's funeral. At the cemetery, when my mother became hysterical and tried to leap into the grave, our family physician—whose name was Dr. Nightingale, all so mythic—restrained her and said, “Be quiet! Don't forget, you have a lot to do with this.” Now that is my sister's story, I do not know how accurate. Late in my mother's life, actually forty-six years after my father's death, I persuaded her to write an informal memoir. She was able to describe her life, in exact detail, up to the moment of her marriage, but at that point she froze. She could not write another word.
Let me go back to what you were saying about your early reading and writing. Was Worcester the sort of community that would support that kind of activity on the part of a very young man?
It was hardly an ideal environment. The Worcester that I knew was largely an immigrant city. It was built on seven hills, like ancient Rome—as the town fathers liked to boast—and each hill was inhabited by a different ethnic group: Irish, Swedes, Armenians, Italians, Jews, etc. Each group was isolated from the others. In fact, you were apt to encounter animosity and even some violence if you strayed into the wrong neighborhood. I bitterly resented the all-too-visible signs of parochialism and sectarianism and vowed to make my escape at the first opportunity. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, with its depressing picture of the frustrations of small-town existence, was a book that reinforced my determination.
In high school, I founded a literary magazine called The Argus, in which I published early poems and other writings. In the old WASP section of Worcester, there was a group called The Browning Society, staunch survivors of what had once been a flourishing network of chapters. I have no idea how it came about, but as a young poet and editor I was granted the privilege of joining them. The elderly ladies of the Society, in their prim hats and long dresses, drank tea and discussed the poetry of Robert Browning in reverential terms. That was my first taste of the literary life, that invitation of The Browning Society.
Let me add that despite the reservations I have expressed about the Worcester environment, I remain forever grateful for the quality and breadth of instruction. I received in the local schools, particularly at Classical High, a sort of magnet school, though the term hadn't been invented yet. I still treasure the hand-inscribed copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations that the faculty presented to me at graduation. No prize since then has meant as much to me. Those teachers, I believe, were superior to almost any you would find today in the public school system. I'm not even sure you could find their equivalent in the private sector.
Was there a special teacher at Classical High School who encouraged your poetry?
One such teacher was Perry Howe, the coach of the debating and declamation teams. In those days debating and declaiming were taken very seriously—there were inter-school competitions in both categories, and silver cups were given to the winning teams. I was chosen captain of teams that successfully defended Classical's championship record. These were big events, held in the main auditorium of the city, with overflow audiences of students and parents in attendance. One of our first debates was on the subject of granting suffrage to women; fortunately, we drew the right side. Perry Howe helped me to overcome my native shyness and taught me how to project my voice.
I am indebted most of all of Martin Post, whom students joked about because of his love of poetry. One day he tossed aside the textbook from which he was reading to us a set of soporific quatrains—you know, the kind of didactic verse they fed to youngsters then—and reached into his pocket, saying, “I want you to hear some real poetry.” That was my introduction to Robert Herrick: “Get up! get up for shame! … / Get up, sweet slug-a-bed and see / The dew-bespangling herb and tree.” And those other unforgettable lines: “Whenas in silks my Julia goes, / Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes.” I had never heard such delightful music. Right after school I dashed to the public library on Elm Street and took home Herrick's poems. I have been smitten with them ever since.
In another session of his class, Martin Post went over to the piano, struck a sequence of bass notes, and asked us, “What color did you hear?” In the midst of the snickers, when I saw that nobody else was tempted to respond, I raised my hand. The bottom notes, I said, were black, but a bit higher in the scale they moved toward the purple. Then Mr. Post put me to the test with the high, tinkling notes at the other end of the keyboard. I told him the topmost notes sounded white or crystal, moving downward toward the yellow. He turned to me and said, “Stanley, you're going to be a poet.” Years later I read about the new findings by psychologists in their study of sensory perception. At birth all our five senses are fused; their differentiation is a developmental process. So that synaesthesia, the translation of one sense into the language of another, is tantamount to a return to a state of innocence. It is one of the great metaphorical resources of the poetic imagination. What was it Emily Dickinson wrote?: “To the bugle, every color is red.” I don't know where Martin Post got his information.
Tell me something more about the magazine you founded, The Argus. How long did that go on and how much writing did you do for it?
I must have been a sophomore when I started it. Publication continued for a good many years after my departure. Eventually the school shut down: classical education was no longer considered to be essential. Somewhere I have a file of The Argus tucked away. Among my contributions, I can recall, were parodies of Poe's “Raven” and Longfellow's “Excelsior.” I suppose that parody was my way of learning metrics, as effective a discipline as any I know of. Perhaps, too, I was already beginning to distance myself from the nineteenth century worthies who dominated the literary landscape.
How did you happen to go to Harvard after high school?
This was the period in which there were heavy restrictions on the number of Jews in the colleges. Even as valedictorian of my class, I had no assurance of being admitted to the college of my choice, especially since I needed financial assistance. The Principal of Classical High School, Kenneth Porter, had his heart set on my going to Amherst, but failed to persuade his alma mater to accept me. Fortunately, Harvard—which I scarcely dared dream of—came through with the grant of a handsome scholarship. This despite its notorious two per cent quota.
I recall that you were an English major at Harvard. Did you receive any encouragement there as a writer?
In my second year I took a course in composition with visiting professor Robert Gay. His requirement was the submission of a one-page typed manuscript every day, Monday to Friday, on any topic of our choice—an heroic assignment, since he read and commented on every paper. After a month or so, he wrote on one of my papers, “You are a poet—Be one!” That was an even clearer signal than Martin Post had given me, and I tried, as best I could, to apply myself accordingly. In my senior year I was awarded the Garrison Medal in Poetry. During my graduate year, 1927, I took a course in versification with Robert Hillyer, but not with any appreciable benefit, since I resisted the mechanics of his approach to prosody.
Alfred North Whitehead came to Harvard, from England, while I was still an undergraduate. I knew his work and was eager to study with him, but his only offering was in advanced mathematical theory and philosophy. When I inquired about auditing his lectures, I was told that as an English major with inadequate scientific background I did not qualify. So I went to Whitehead himself. He examined my record and asked, “Why do you want to study with me?” I replied, in the firmest tones I could command, “Because I admire your work extravagantly and because I hope to be a poet.” He looked at me in some astonishment and said, “You're in.”
But I ended up bearing no great love for Harvard. This is an old story now, but I don't want it forgotten. After graduating summa cum laude, I assumed I would be asked to stay on as a teaching assistant. When I inquired of my counselor why I had not been approached, he said that he had wondered about it himself and would discuss the matter with the head of the department, Professor John Livingston Lowes, who was famous for his book on Coleridge and his course on the Romantic poets. He came back, looking embarrassed, and delivered his message, carefully giving each syllable equal weight: “What I've been told is simply this—‘Our Anglo-Saxon students would resent being taught English by a Jew.’” That really shocked me. I felt crushed and angry. At that point I abandoned all thought of an academic career. How could I foresee then that eventually I would thank heaven for having been deflected from that course? After I received my master's, I left Harvard for good. During the previous summers I had been working as a cub reporter on the Worcester Telegram. Now I returned to Worcester as a full-fledged member of the staff and a few months later became assistant Sunday feature editor.
How did all that come about?
At Harvard, since I needed to supplement my scholarship income, I applied to Captain Roland Andrews, editor of the Worcester Telegram, for summer employment. It did not strike me as absurd that, in order to impress him with my qualifications for a job as cub reporter, I enclosed an essay I had written on James Joyce. This must have been in 1924, shortly after the publication in Paris of Ulysses, a book judged then and for an entire decade to be obscene and unfit for American consumption. I still wonder what an old-school conservative New Englander could have made of my panegyric. Nevertheless, I got a letter back from Captain Andrews saying, “You certainly can write. There's a job waiting for you. Come in whenever you are ready.”
My major assignment on the Telegram was to report on the last-ditch effort to save Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti from the electric chair. Like tens of thousands of others, I passionately believed that this pair of Italian immigrants had been condemned to die, not because they were proven guilty of murder during the course of a payroll robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts, but because of their radical politics. Their case became the cause of a whole generation of writers and artists, who joined the demonstrations in the streets. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem of outrage whose title, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” was picked up as a battle cry. I was sent to interview the judge of the trial, Judge Webster Thayer, a mean, little, frightened man who hated what he called “these anarchistic bastards.” In the end, all the efforts to reverse the conviction or to secure clemency failed. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in August 1927. It seemed to me the closing of a chapter. After consulting with members of the defense organization, the Committee for Justice, I decided to leave my job and go to New York in the hope of finding a publisher for Vanzetti's proud and eloquent letters, the ones he wrote in prison. A few months later I arrived in Manhattan and made the rounds, beating on every publisher's door. But my mission was a failure. Because of the Red scare, nobody would touch so controversial a project. Besides, I was young and unknown, just the wrong person to enlist support for this risky enterprise. The letters needed and, luckily, found a better advocate in the person of Felix Frankfurter, whose sponsorship insured that a dead man's voice, his poignant broken English, would yet be heard. As for me, I had to face the hard reality that I was jobless in a strange city, without friends or prospects.
As I recall, you ended up working for The H. W. Wilson Company, the great library publisher.
It was not what I had hoped for, but it was my last resort. That was 1928, and the Depression was coming on. I tried every literary publisher and newspaper in New York. The letters from my editor in Worcester to the editors of the Times and the Herald Tribune did not get me past the reception desk. Finally, when I was virtually penniless and did not know how I could survive, I spotted a blind ad in the Times for a “correspondent”—whatever that might mean—at a publishing house. That led me eventually to the sprawling plant of The H. W. Wilson Company, uptown is the Washington Heights area, near the Yankee Stadium. The Wilson Company is the leading publisher of reference works for the library profession, The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature,The Cumulative Book Index, and countless other invaluable tools. The founder and president, an entrepreneurial Scotsman, who had started the business in the back room of his Minneapolis bookstore, was still in charge, running the show like a family shop. Halsey W. Wilson was obviously impressed with my credentials and indicated I might be the right person for the job. I asked what the job involved, and he said writing letters. When I expressed some diffidence about this prospect, he commented, “Well, maybe we can find something better for you. I'll let you know in a week.” True to his word, he called to offer me the job, for twenty-eight dollars a week. I had been earning forty in Worcester, so I did not think this was great progress. Nevertheless, I told him I would report for work the following Monday. In the meantime, Alfred Knopf called me up—I had been to see him, and he had not been very encouraging. But now he said, “I think, on later consideration, that we can use you.” I said, “I’ sorry, but I've given my word.” Maybe that was a great mistake. Who knows what might have happened if I had gone to the great house of Knopf?
So were you a correspondent, did you work at home?
I was given a desk in a vast loft with people sitting at open desks; there were no enclosures of any kind. It was like going back to the nineteenth century, to a Dickensian world. Even the president—well, he had some filing cabinets stacked around him, but otherwise nothing separated him from his staff of several hundred employees, most of them doing indexing of various kinds. When I came in for work on the first day, one of the editors approached me and asked who I was. I told her my name and introduced myself as a new employee. She said, “You'll have to punch in on the time clock.” I recoiled in absolute horror: “Oh no, I can't do that.” She said, “Everybody punches the time clock.” I stood my ground: “Nobody told me.” She said, “Well, you'll have to see Mr. Wilson.”
“What is the trouble?” he asked. When I told him, he said, “Everybody does it. Nobody has ever complained.” I asked him, “Do you punch a time clock?” He replied, “No, but I'm the president!” I said, “Well, I'm only me, but it goes against my grain.” We looked at each other for a few minutes. At last he said, “If I make an exception for you, it would not be good for my relations with other people in the office. But I'll tell you what: suppose somebody else punches the time clock for you, and you don't have anything to do with it.” I said, “That suits me.” Looking back, I can only marvel at his tolerance and patience.
Then I sat at my solid oak desk for three long days, and nothing happened. Nobody gave me any work to do, not even a single letter to answer. I was a correspondent who didn't seem to exist. Was this a test of some sort? When Kafka appeared in translation some years later, I had a sense of déjà vu reading him. It was embarrassing for me to have to go back to Mr. Wilson to complain how useless I felt, but he gave no sign of being vexed or surprised. “What would you like to do?” he asked. I had been studying the firm's operations and did not have to hunt for a reply. My first suggestion was the publication of a library periodical that—without repeating the details now—would be livelier and more literary than the trade competition. My other proposal went something like this: “It's amazing that there's no standard reference work available in this country, or anywhere for that matter, on contemporary world authors. I visualize an illustrated series of books on writers, presenting biographical, critical, and bibliographical information for ready reference, in encyclopedic format.” “Go ahead,” said Mr. Wilson. “Let's see what you can do.” So that was how the Wilson Library Bulletin,Twentieth Century Authors, and the whole multi-volumed Wilson Author Series got their start. They are still flourishing, but of course I am no longer connected with them. That's ancient history.
I take it that you were also working on your poetry at this time?
I was working on the poems that constituted my first book, writing them at night and feeling good when they began to appear in various magazines, including Poetry,The Nation,The Dial,Commonweal, and The New Republic. Early in 1929 I put my poems together and sent them in the mail to the biggest publishing house in the country then: Doubleday, Doran. Only a few weeks later I had a telephone call from an editor who identified himself as Ogden Nash; he had read my poems with pleasure and wanted to congratulate me on the acceptance of my manuscript. Would I please come in to talk things over? So that is how I got my first book published. I felt that I was fortune's child. By the time Intellectual Things came out, in the spring of 1930, I was abroad.
What was Ogden Nash like?
Soft-spoken and amiable, keeping his witty persona under wraps—but I never got to know him well. I should explain that my foreign adventure was made possible by a free-lance arrangement with Mr. Wilson. Living abroad then was extraordinarily cheap. I remained in France and Italy for about a year.
Did you return then to The H. W. Wilson Company?
Yes, but not for long. My taste of freedom had spoiled me for office routine. I decided to move to a run-down farm in outer Connecticut that could be acquired for a pittance. “I suppose this will be goodbye,” I said to Mr. Wilson. He paused for a moment before replying: “Not necessarily. There is always the U.S. mail. We can send manuscripts and other materials, and you can continue to do your work in the country, just as you did in Europe.” But then he added, “Of course, you'll have to take a cut in salary.” I was back, financially, where I had started. Nevertheless, I felt enormously relieved.
You mentioned your sense of isolation from any kind of literary community in your early days. Was that isolation absolute?
Not by this time. But keep in mind that in those days there were no creative writing programs, no poetry readings, few arts organizations or fellowships. Poets tended to work in isolation unless they were motivated to meet by a convergence of political passions. The old established writers were, as a rule, indifferent or hostile to the new upstart generation. If I have spent so much of my life trying to build a sense of community among writers and artists, it is largely because I know from experience how much the lack of it means. And yet I realize as well that I have been luckier through the years than most and am accordingly grateful for the many acts of friendship and generosity and hospitality that have eased my journey. In 1928, when I still thought of myself as a stranger in New York, I was invited, out of the blue, to be a guest at Yaddo. This was shortly after it had opened its doors as an artists’ colony. I was one of the first to enjoy its lavish hospitality.
Really? How did that come about?
I suppose that without realizing it, I was beginning to acquire some sort of underground reputation. More to the point, I was seeing a girl who knew Lewis Mumford, and I believe she told him about me and showed him some of my poems. He and Alfred Kreymborg were editing a publication called The American Caravan, which collected the new writing of the day. They asked me to contribute to it, and they also recommended me to Yaddo.
What was Yaddo like then?
It was still shaping itself, and there were not many people there. The guests included Kreymborg himself—rather an avuncular figure in contemporary poetry at that time, editor of an avant-garde magazine called Others. One special attraction to me was a poet in her thirties, Helen Pearce, a great beauty, whom I courted and later married, disastrously. Then there was the playwright Hatcher Hughes and a painter named Carl Schmitt. Only two others, I think. I was by far the youngest there. It was a fateful visit, though it lasted only two or three weeks, when I had my encounter with a ghost, an incident that has become part of the Yaddo legend.
Yes. Here's what happened. Yaddo is a big, baronial estate, and the great house, with its old-world, stone architecture, built for the ages, could be the setting for a Gothic novel. My bedroom was upstairs in the spacious tower room. One night, while I was lying in bed reading, I heard something scratching at the casement window. It must be the scraping of a branch, I thought, and went back to my book. The scratching continued. I rose, went over to the window, and looked out on the silent landscape. There was nothing suspicious in sight. I went back to bed and turned off the light. It was well after midnight. The moment I stretched out, the scratching began again, growing louder and louder. I got up again and again found nothing. I used all my willpower to ignore what was happening, even putting a pillow over my head, but the noise sifted through, clawing at my ears. I gave up trying to sleep and sat up straight in bed.
Suddenly, the wall I was facing became eerily luminous, and a mottled shape appeared on it—a winged creature, suspended from a pendulum, which kept swinging back and forth in a wide arc. The tempo of the scratching on the casement accelerated, the pendant bird swung faster and faster, and the glowing wall began to pulse. I was spellbound, terrified.
And then I heard the glass shatter! Everything went wild.
In panic I turned on the bedside light. The wall showed me its usual blank face; the closed casement was perfectly intact. I crept out of bed and fled downstairs. I lay down on the sofa in front of the enormous stone fireplace and spent the rest of the night there.
In the morning I went back to my room, where everything looked serene. I was too shaken to reveal my story. Then at breakfast, Elizabeth Ames, the founding director of Yaddo, said to me, “Stanley, wouldn't you like to make a tour of the painting gallery? You'll be interested, I'm sure, in the family treasures.” Like everything else at Yaddo, the paintings—mostly nineteenth-and early twentieth-century portraits—belonged to the estate of Spencer and Katrina Trask. The tour consisted largely of anecdotes about the subjects of the portraits, several of them illustrious or wealthy friends of the Trasks. I was only half-listening when at one point I found myself standing mesmerized—I did not know why—in front of a portrait of a delicate young girl. “Who is that?” I asked. “The daughter of the Trasks,” said Mrs. Ames. “She was at the center of the great tragedy of their marriage.” And she continued: “One summer evening this lovely child disappeared. She was last seen walking down the path to the pond at the foot of the rose garden. When they instigated a search for her, they found her floating among the lilies; she had fallen in and drowned.” I had a premonition of the answer, but I asked the question, “Can you tell me where she slept?” Mrs. Ames said, “Yes, in your room.” I thanked her, packed my bags, and left Yaddo.
How did you happen to meet Theodore Roethke?
In the late thirties, when I was living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—this was after the breakup of my marriage with Helen Pearce—Ted drove down in his jalopy from Lafayette College, where he was teaching, and knocked at my door. He was wearing a voluminous raccoon coat, and he had my book, Intellectual Things—much of which he knew by heart—under his arm.
He was very large, very formidable, and he stood on the doorstep reciting lines out of my poems. Then he said, “May I come in? I'd like to talk with you.” With an introduction like that, he was more than welcome. Of course, he had also brought his own poems with him in manuscript. He was working on the poems that were to constitute his first volume, which I titled for him, Open House. It was clear to me from the start that Ted was a force of nature, a real poet. The poems he was writing then were by no means great—they were quite formal, somewhat imitative, and restricted in range. But there were signs everywhere of his ultimate destiny.
He was the first poet I had met whose passion for poetry was like mine—who had the same rather terrifying immersion in the poetic medium and who had read everybody. Through the years we learned a lot from each other, though I, being a little older and having already published, was certainly at first in the position of being more his mentor than he was mine. Later he was to open doors of the imagination for me, particularly during the period when he erupted into the poems of The Lost Son. To me those were the most important poems written by anyone in my generation.
I would like to turn more toward talking about your own poetry. You have said something elsewhere that intrigues me. I think this might have to do with poetry, but maybe not. Apparently you played the violin as a child, and then you gave it up—because you resisted playing other people's music.
Would you have kept it up if you could have played your own music?
I doubt it. My deep, sensuous delight in language made me feel that this was the art I was born for. Once I became absorbed in poetry, I lost interest in playing the violin.
Perhaps the connection would be between the way a violinist can physically feel the music and the way you feel about language.
All the arts, in varying degree, are somehow connected with the human body. The violin tucked under the chin—what an intimate and comforting sensation! I must tell you about my teacher, Margaret MacQuade, who invested so much hope in me. She had been a favorite pupil of the famous Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysayë, and he had presented her with one of his violins, saying, “Pass it on some day to your best student.” I still have that violin—a beautiful, old, Italian instrument—and I feel guilty about its lying there in my closet, abandoned and unused. Perhaps I have made amends by trying to pass on to some of the gifted young poets who have worked with me the sense of having inherited, if only metaphorically, the equivalent of Ysayë's violin.
You once said, “The language of the poem must do more than convey experience, it must embody it.” Does that mean for you the physicality of language?
Definitely. The poems that mean most to me are the ones to which I respond physically as well as intellectually or aesthetically. When we say that we are moved or stirred or shaken by a poem we are describing a kinaesthetic response to fields of verbal energy. In the dynamics of poetry, all the sounds are actions. It is as though some intrinsic gesture of the soul itself were being expressed through the resonances of language. In that context the marriage of sense with sound seems to me to be a deep metaphysical action.
Is this why you love the Metaphysical poets so much, and why your own work has been grouped with that of the new metaphysical poets?
I don't care much for these groupings. Through the various stages of my work, I've been put into some rather strange company. But seriously, I'm inclined to think of myself less as a metaphysical than as an existential poet. To me, the struggle of words to be born, to arrive at the level of consciousness, is like the struggle of the self to become a person. I think that what the poet is trying to do is to bring words out from the darkness of the self into the light of the world. That is like the primordial act of creation, what Coleridge meant when he spoke of the repetition in the finite mind of the infinite I AM.
As you were talking about the physicality of the language, which would seem to imply the necessity of a rich verbal texture, it occurred to me to ask if you have that same feeling about your more recent poems, those beginning with The Testing-Tree.
Some years ago, in commenting on my later work, I said I was trying to write poems with a surface so simple and transparent that you could look through them and see the world. I didn't mean to suggest that I had lost interest in the orchestration of the world within. Texture is more than a superficial phenomenon and is not to be confused with the maintenance of a high style. My main concern is with psychic texture, which is a deeper and more complex thing.
When you compose your poems, is there that same sense of actual physical engagement?
I have never known how to compose poems except by saying them. The problem always has been to discover a rhythm on which I can ride. When that happens, I am on my way. A poem springs to life when its energy begins to flow from one's deepest wells.
In my interview with him, James Wright quoted you as having said to him when he was a young poet: “You've got to get down into the pit of the self, the real pit, and then you have to find your own way to climb out of it. And it can't be anybody else's way. It has to be yours.”
Very sound advice!
Do you write regularly, say a little bit every day?
How do you know when it is time to write a new poem?
I have never been able to sit down and write a poem as an act of will. My poems seem to have wills of their own. They keep their own schedules secret, and they don't answer the phone. They usually come to me at night with a phrase or image that starts troubling my sleep, gradually hooking up with other words and images, often counter-images, searching—as I've already indicated—for a controlling rhythm. It's a slow process.
Have you ever had poems come to you ready-made, a kind of spontaneous perfect composition?
Miracles happen now and then, but not if you count on them.
I am going to name a few poems and see if you have anything to say about the story behind the poem or its genesis: “End of Summer.”
That's one I happen to have written about. It dates back to the time I was living in Bucks County. I was hoeing in the corn field when I heard a clamor in the sky—it was the season for the wild Canadian geese to be flying south. Great v-shapes, constellations of them. Something in that calling of the birds disturbed me. I dropped my hoe, ran into the house, and started to write. After the geese delivered their message to me, they flew out of the poem. They told me to make an important decision, to change my life, and I did. It is a poem about migration.
How about the poem “No Word”?
That's simple. I don't believe anyone has ever asked me about it before. I was waiting for a telephone call from someone who meant a lot to me, and the call did not come. Well, it did finally come, but too late.
How about “Open the Gates”?—Jim Wright's favorite of your poems.
“Open the Gates” originated in a dream. The landscape suggests the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, from which I am fleeing—at least that was my interpretation on waking. In the climactic action, the monumental door I knock on is the door of revelation. Many of my poems speak of a quest, the search for the transcendent, a movement from darkness into light, from the kingdom of the profane into the kingdom of the sacred. As a rule, I don't feel I'm done with a poem until it passes from one realm of experience to another.
Your interest in politics is profound, as we see in your devotion to poets who have lived under totalitarian governments. But your poems are never overtly political.
Well, almost never. I maintain that to live as a poet in this society is to make a definite political statement. The politics is inherent in the practice of the art, as well as in the life. At the same time I feel that poetry resists being used as a tool. The truth is that we are suffering from an excess of political rhetoric and a dearth of the compassionate imagination.
SOURCE: “Life between Scylla and Charybdis,” in Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz, edited by Stanley Moss, Sheep Meadow Press, 1993, pp. 128–36.
[In the following essay, Ryan offers an analysis of Kunitz's poem “My Sisters” and discusses Kunitz's views on the social, moral, and personal significance of poetry.]
The life of a poet is crystallized in his work, that's how you know him.
This is one of the poems by Stanley Kunitz I love the most:
Who whispered, souls have shapes? So has the wind, I say. But I don't know, I only feel things blow.
I had two sisters once with long black hair who walked apart from me and wrote the history of tears. Their story's faded with their names, but the candlelight they carried, like dancers in a dream, still flickers on their gowns as they bend over me to comfort my night-fears.
Let nothing grieve you, Sarah and Sophia. Shush, shush, my dears, now and forever.
The poem is beyond comment, or underneath it, at least in the language of criticism, which is “a kind of translation,” as Eudora Welty says, “like a headphone we can clamp on at the U.N. when they are speaking the Arabian tongue.” “My Sisters” resists this translation exceptionally well because its Arabic is silence—the silences of the past, of lost time, death, and eternity. These are different silences, I think, and one of the accomplishments of the poem is that it differentiates them, it makes them distinct and present and felt as such, and then gathers them into that tender, heartbreaking final sentence—“Shush, shush,” a comforting gesture, a wish for silence as relief from sadness or grief or a child's night-fears (and so calling back to stanza two), a wish for silence as relief from frailty and mortality. Just as the past becomes present (through the agency of “the candlelight they carried” that “still flickers”), and the comforted finally becomes the comforter (and vice versa), that last gesture transforms the preceding silences into one silence that includes not only the poem's characters but also its readers. At least this reader. It makes me feel the intimate texture of the simple, inexhaustible fact that—as Kunitz put it in an interview—“we are living and dying at the same time.”
The way it does this is primarily nondiscursive, through structure, movement, music, and drama. “The best part” of a poem, Frost said, is “the unspoken part.” Almost all of “My Sisters” is unspoken in this sense, like Hardy's “During Wind and Rain,” which so exceeds its commonplace idea, that human beings are mortal, by embodying its emotional truth in structure and rhythm, refrain and variation, in the voice that begins each stanza and begins the poem, “They sing their dearest songs,” and the voice that invariably answers and closes the poem, “Down their carved names the rain-drop plows.”
“My Sisters” has two voices, too, but their function and relationship are very different from those of Hardy's poem. The voice of the first stanza frames the rest of “My Sisters” like one of Vermeer's half-opened windows that filter and admit the light in which everything appears at once palpable and numinous. It strikes me as a voice out of nowhere, from the wilderness of inner space, not the same “I” that speaks the second and third stanzas but given terrestrial life by the second “I.” “There is an aspect of one's existence that has nothing to do with personal identity, but that falls away from self, blends into the natural universe,” Kunitz wrote in A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly. This, I believe, is the first “I” of “My Sisters,” appropriately distinguished by italics from the personal “I” who has memories and affections and a life in time; one of the dramatic undercurrents of the poem is probably their blending together “into the natural universe” of silence.
In any case, the first line—“Who whispered, souls have shapes?”—sets the tone. It echoes in my ear “Who said, ‘Peacock Pie’?”—the beginning of a strange, wonderful poem by a strange, sometimes wonderful poet, Walter de la Mare, who is much loved in England and mostly unread in the United States. De la Mare's is another poem in two voices, one that questions and one that replies, a mechanical arrangement meant to go nowhere, unlike “My Sisters,” which moves great distances gracefully “like dancers in a dream.” “My Sisters” is, in fact, a miracle of movement, traveling from the impersonal undervoice of the opening to the intimate direct address of the ending, invariably immediate and increasingly dramatic. Is it this movement over the fluid three-beat lines marked by irregular rhymes and half-rhymes which makes the form feel like a membrane that can barely contain an overwhelming grief and sweetness? The way the three-beat line is used is a joy to look at closely. The second sentence of the second stanza, besides being a wonder syntactically and lodging in the dramatic image so it won't be forgotten, is cut into lines of extraordinary rhythmical beauty and function. “Like dancers in a dream” is the pivotal line of the six-line sentence. The return to the strict iambic trimeter after the rhythmical variation of the previous three lines physiologically and psychologically brings the line home. The satisfaction of the rhythmical expectation mounting since the last strict iambic trimeter (“who walked apart from me”) is bonded to content, and the image of the “dancers in a dream” acquires the authority of that satisfaction. “Like dancers in a dream” also immediately reestablishes the ground beat, the rhythmical context for the lines following it. “Still flickers on their gowns”—another iambic trimeter—reinforces this, but unlike the previous three lines it isn't end-stopped, a subtle variation, but enough with the line's slightly increased duration to echo the ground beat yet still keep the rhythm fluid. Now, in the next line, when the second beat occurs before it “should”—“as they bend over me”—that moment takes on terrific emphasis, even if, especially if, this emphasis is registered subconsciously while we are attending to the drama, the meaning of the words. The gesture of bending becomes palpable beneath its description or representation.
Also, the subconscious rhythmical effect is so powerful at that moment, it keeps us locked in the remembered scene to a degree that makes the astonishing move into direct address after the stanza-break feel simple and natural. This kind of pivot or “turn”—what Petrarch called the “volta” between the octave and sestet of the sonnet—seems inherent to poetic form, and there are all sorts of turns in all sorts of poems, but this one, because of its marriage of solidity and wildness, seems to me inspired: “Let nothing grieve you, / Sarah and Sophia.” And, by saying the names, the story that had “faded with their names” is restored; the sisters are given life, as in a ritual of the dead, at least for the ritualistic, rhythmic time of the poem. Their silence is shaped and, in the poem's last gesture, accepted and honored.
A great deal could be written about how the last stanza uses the established iambic trimeter to depart from it, but I want to look at only two lines, both examples of foreshortening but of different kinds. The first line—“Let nothing grieve you”—has three beats but a syllable missing in a strategic position. The unexpected silence extends the long vowel of “grieve”; because of the metrical pattern, the word literally must be given more time than it normally takes to say it, just as the syllable “you” acquires a stronger stress than it would have in conversation. If there were an unstressed syllable between “grieve” and “you,” for example, “Let nothing grieve for you,” the glide of the long ë—Emily Dickinson's favorite vowel, like a scream—wouldn't require extension because the sound would be encased in the iambic trimeter. As it is, the held note makes a very affecting music.
And the last line of the poem, working within and against the metrical grid, is even more effective and affecting: “Now and forever.” Period. Two stresses and a feminine ending. In the ensuing silence after the last, unstressed syllable, after all those three-beat lines, the final beat never comes. Its absence is palpable, as if the silence itself were stressed, an endless incompletion, a longing for something missing, something lost.
The wealth of mystery in the poem, a good part of which is acquired through its rhythm and music, is not obscured by the slightest mystification. Its depths are discovered and displayed in a language absolutely simple and clear, words, as Wittgenstein said, “like film on deep water.” Kunitz himself said in The Paris Review interview: “I dream of an art so transparent you can look through and see the world.” He surely has already accomplished this, and much more, in “My Sisters.”
Stanley Kunitz was eighty last July. As much as a young poet could learn about writing poetry from his poems, he or she could learn about the vocation of poetry from his prose. The book to mark his birthday appropriately includes poems and essays. But his life with poetry has not been confined to writing. For Kunitz, poetry is a spiritual discipline, a way of being and knowing oneself and the world, and he has purposefully presented himself as an example in a century when it has probably never been harder to live a poet's vocation and never been easier to cultivate a poet's “career,” pathetic as such a “career” is next to those valued by corporate society.
In this regard, though his style was initially suffused with Hopkins and the Metaphysical Poets, the figure of John Keats in his “vale of Soul-making” has been Kunitz's main spiritual guide. In “The Modernity of Keats,” first published in 1964, he wrote that Keats's “technique was not an aggregate of mechanical skills, but a form of spiritual testimony.” And this observation is recast as Kunitz's central assumption a decade later in the foreword to A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly: “One of my unshakeable convictions has been that poetry is more than a craft, important as the craft may be: it is a vocation, a passionate enterprise, rooted in human sympathies and aspirations.”
Theoretically, it may appear that this vocation could be a private affair between the poet and his or her own soul, as it surely was for Emily Dickinson and for Hopkins, though even in the latter case this was not necessarily by choice. Hopkins wrote to his friend Dixon in 1878: “What I do regret is the loss of recognition belonging to the work itself. For as to every moral act, being right or wrong, there belongs, of the nature of things, reward or punishment, so to every form perceived by the mind belongs, of the nature of things, admiration or the reverse.” And, later in the same letter, more from the gut than from the Jesuit: “Disappointment and humiliation embitter the heart and make an aching in the very bones.”
How many poets have sooner or later been poisoned by this bitterness? It's clearly from the desire and need for an audience that disappointment and humiliation and worse have inevitably come. Yet even if this desire and need were eliminated in the poet's heart, “Art is social in origin” (as Jane Ellen Harrison says bluntly in Ancient Art and Ritual), and poetry still retains its fundamental social character, even when the difference between the sale of five thousand copies, of a volume of poems, which is unusual, and fifty thousand copies, which is almost unheard of, is the difference between minute fractions of one percent of the population. In response, poetry can and sometimes has become hermetic, opaque, precious, and prosaic; it can become difficult—as Eliot said it must be in this century—like a child suffering from lack of attention and love. It can refuse to give pleasure, even to the poet who writes it. And the figure of the poet may become the poète maudit, Gérard de Nerval walking his lobster on a leash and hanging himself with a shoelace, dandified, flippant—or doomed, as in the sad incarnation of Delmore Schwartz in an essay entitled “The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World”:
In the unpredictable and fearful future that awaits civilization, the poet must be prepared to be alienated and indestructible. He must dedicate himself to poetry, although no one else seems likely to read what he writes; he must be indestructible as a poet until he is destroyed as a human being.
In the absence of an audience, are the available choices either killing the poetry or killing the poet? It's interesting and moving to watch how poets have tried to negotiate this Scylla and Charybdis in their lives and ideas and work. In his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800),” Wordsworth internalizes the conflict between the poet and a culture which has abandoned him because his original social function is served by more efficient institutions and technology. Wordsworth tries to rescue the poet's social role by asserting that “the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.” Yet, in the same essay, having imagined this grand audience out of the thinnest air, he admits that, in fact, the Poet's “own feelings are his stay and support.”
For poets since the Industrial Revolution, Wordsworth articulates the predicament, but his solution is a formula for solipsism or, as Keats charitably called it, the “Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” Grandiosity (“the vast empire,” etc.) and isolation (“his own feelings are his stay and support”) can only feed and increase each other, and, if their marriage is insular, can only breed bombast. They can kill the poet's soul and consequently his art, and can even become—as in the case of Delmore Schwartz and the dominant figures of Kunitz's generation—a risk to his life.
This danger is exactly what Whitman is addressing in this great passage from his “Preface” to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:
The soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride and the one balances the other and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other. The inmost secrets of art sleep with the twain.
The poet's “own feelings are his stay and support” for Whitman, too, but his “measureless pride,” essential to enduring the lack of an audience and its economic and psychological implications, is offset by a “sympathy as measureless” for other people and even for other things outside of the self. This is the crucial counterweight to the solipsism that is Whitman's explicit currency, and from the tension between then he makes his poetry: “The inmost secrets of art sleep with the twain.” Tested by poverty and loneliness to the degree that, as Kunitz quotes him in “At the Tomb of Walt Whitman,” he sometimes felt his poems “in a pecuniary and worldly sense, have certainly wrecked the life of their author,” the balance of “measureless” pride and sympathy is nonetheless the key to Whitman's spiritual discipline and probably to his survival.
It is also a remarkably accurate description of Stanley Kunitz. His poetry, his character, and his ideas are born of these polarities. From his new book, Next-to-Last Things:
If it were not for [the poet's] dream of perfection, which is the emblem of his life-enhancing art, and which he longs to share with others, generations of men and women would gradually sink into passivity, accepting as their lot second-rate or third-rate destinies, or worse. If one is to be taught submission, in the name of progress or national security, it is redemptive to recall the pride of one [Keats] who averred that his only humility was toward “the eternal Being, the Principle of Beauty, and the Memory of great Men.”
The paradox, of course, is that a “life-enhancing art” which the poet “longs to share with others” isn't subject to the modification, opinion, or response of any other human being—“the eternal Being, the Principle of Beauty, and the Memory of great Men” being ideas—much less of any audience at large. And if the idea of the poet's preventing “generations” from sinking “into passivity” sounds like Wordsworth, in an earlier essay and somewhat different mood, Kunitz, shows himself to be fully aware of the hazards of such “measureless pride”:
One of the dangers of poetry, certainly, is grandiosity. Let us not deceive ourselves: a poet isn't going to change the world with even the most powerful of his poems. The best he can hope for is to conquer a piece of himself.
In Kunitz's view, the spiritual discipline of poetry implies and incorporates the poet's social function. The poet is “an embodiment of resistance”:
resistance against universal apathy, mediocrity, conformity, against institutional pressures to make everything look and become alike. This is why he is so involved with contraries.
He is “the representative free man of our time”:
The poet, in the experience of his art, is a whole person, or he is nothing. … He is uniquely equipped to defend the worth and power and responsibility of individuals in a world of institutions.
Consequently, and most pointedly:
The poet speaks to others not only through what he says but through what he is, his symbolic presence, as though he carried a set of flags reading Have a Heart, Let Nothing Get By, Live at the Center of Your Being. His life instructs us that it is not necessary, or even desirable, for everyone to join the crowds streaming onto the professional or business highway, pursuing the bitch goddess.
In other words (though a paraphrase is hardly needed), the poet's vocation has an important social function even if his poetry is drowned out by the noise of TV, movies, commercials, and factories spuming forth new products. It's a vocation inherently subversive to corporate ideology, spoken symbolically and by example:
Poets are subversive, but they are not really revolutionaries, for revolutionaries are concerned with changing others, while poets want first of all to change themselves.
If those dedicated to social change through civil disobedience spend a lot of time in jail, the poet's dedication to changing himself implies a life of internal exile in a society built for profit, in—as Ronald Reagan calls it—“the age of the entrepreneur.” Kunitz's most recent statement, in The Paris Review interview, is also his most urgent:
Evil has become a product of manufacture, it is built into our whole industrial and political system, it is being manufactured every day, it is rolling off the assembly line, it is being sold in the stores, it pollutes the air. …
Perhaps the way to cope with the adversary is to confront him in ourselves. We have to fight for out little bit of health. We have to make our living and dying important again. And the living and dying of others. Isn't this what poetry is about?
In this light, a poem as apparently apolitical as “My Sisters” takes on political content and becomes a political gesture, ineffective as it may be against the million movies and TV programs in which life is sentimentalized and death is trivialized. The political nature of poetry has no more to do with subject than with its rendering, in making us feel living and dying are more important than property and “the national interest,” in using language clearly and accountably, unlike the way politicians and commercials use it. Insofar as the poet's vocation is a public act, it can be an act of conscience with a social function, though the border between public and publicity in this media culture needs constant checking. If the vocation of poetry Kunitz describes were arranged in a line, it would look like his characterization of “the power of the mind”: “to transform, to connect, to communicate”—the first (“to transform”) being the poet's relation to himself in his spiritual discipline, the second (“to connect”) his relation to the world and to others, and the third (“to communicate”) his social function, both through his poetry and his “symbolic presence.” Of course, it isn't a line. It's all these at once.
This outline of Kunitz's ideas really is “a kind of translation” from “the Arabian tongue” of his prose. He certainly never presents them this systematically. They have more vitality and nuance combined with his many other convictions, concerns, and affections. Reading his essays, I get a transfusion of his indomitable spirit, his “fierce hold on life,” which is much more important to me than my agreement. There are excellent reasons, for the sake of the poetry itself, to try to rescue its social function, even when from all appearances it has none. Poets from Horace to Sidney to Eliot have tried to do so, finding themselves at the edge of exile within the versions of civilization in which they lived. For Kunitz, poetry is a manifestation of hope and life, for the culture as well as for the individual—this is the source of its power and poignance. He argues for the essential seriousness of poetry, and for clarity and depth and music at a time when intelligent critics, perhaps unconsciously reflecting the political atmosphere, indulge triviality and obscurity and praise superficial linguistic invention.
In the best poetry of out time—but only the best—one is aware of a moral pressure being exerted on the medium in the very act of creation. By “moral” I mean a testing of existence at its highest pitch—what does it feel like to be totally oneself?; an awareness of others beyond the self; a concern with values and meaning rather than with effects; an effort to tap the spontaneity that hides in the depths rather than what forms on the surface; a conviction about the possibility of making right and wrong choices. Lacking this pressure, we are left with nothing but a vacuum occupied by technique.
In exactly this sense, Kunitz's example to poets of my generation is a moral example, put forward consciously with an awareness of the hazards of doing so. He has said, “The poet's first obligation is survival,” by which he means spiritual as well as literal, knowing from experience the conflicts between the two for a poet in this culture: “No bolder challenge confronts the modern artist than to stay healthy in a sick world.”
Visiting Stanley Kunitz a few years ago, during a difficult period, I made the standard complaints about the poet's life that anyone who has been around poets has heard a thousand times. That means he had heard them a hundred thousand times, and maybe even voiced them once or twice when he was living in absolute obscurity on almost nothing, as he did for over twenty years. But he listened until I was finished, and then replied, “But, Michael, poetry is something you give to the world.” If I'm ever able, as Chekhov said, “to squeeze the slave's blood out of my veins,” this is the type of blood I would replace it with.
SOURCE: “A Visit to the Poet's Studio,” in Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz, edited by Stanley Moss, Sheep Meadow Press, 1993, pp. 144–54.
[In the following essay, Mitchell reflects on the organic processes, universal revelations, and “ecstatic” voice in Kunitz's poetry, particularly that in Next-to-Last Things.]
A couple of months ago during a long night of insomnia that seemed the price paid for my recent dislocation from New England to South Florida, I reread Dante's Vita Nuova and Stanley Kunitz's Next-to-Last Things (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985). It was not only the fact that, once again, I was starting my life over that returned me to Dante and, for that matter, to Kunitz whose poems bear witness to his own powerful drive for spiritual renewal and transformation. I chose these writers because I had read them so often I knew they would give me an alternative to geographic place: they were a familiar intellectual soil I was already rooted in and a soil made all the more hospitable by my own numerous underlings, asterisks, personal jottings penciled in margins. Here, said each marking, was a place I had stopped and thought and dreamed before. As I settled into that long reading, first one, then the other book spread open in my lap, the night itself opened up around me. Nights in South Florida, I was to learn that night, are not really dark, but different shades of blue. When I glanced up from my reading, there was the swimming pool, clearly visible, an eerie pale blue in the artificial light of the courtyard; and beyond the swimming pool and the rustling date palms, a deep water canal, sometimes navy, sometimes a muddy violet—colors not so much seen as sensed whenever a rhythmic slap of waves against the dock signaled the passing of a boat on its way to the Intracoastal. My move to Florida has coincided with the start of the rainy season, and at intervals during that night, torrents of rain would suddenly gush, plummet, and pour in columns so thick it was hard to tell whether the rain was falling or growing up from the earth, stalactite or stalagmite?—and then as abruptly as it had begun, the rain would stop. Sometimes a bird let fall long plumes of song, though with the source of the singing invisible, it seemed as if the air had become saturated with music, as well as with water, and at intervals had to spill down in trills and rivulets of song. Other times, birdsong arced, then dropped like a flare, the music momentarily illuminating the farthest reaches of the night: I was seeing all the way to the Keys where Florida trails off into dots and dashes—the geographic impulse tapering into archipelagoes, into the Dry Tortugas where the state finally dives into wild waters of the Atlantic or else lifts on a sudden updraft, soaring with the black frigate birds above the last malarial outpost, Fort Jefferson, where Dr. Samuel Mudd, guilty of setting the broken leg of Lincoln's assassin, wrote long letters home to Maryland and his wife.
During that night I felt lost within the enormous flatness of Florida, a terrain so filled with water—lakes, swamps, inlets, rivers, irrigation canals—that from the air, much of the state appears in continual motion; and at the same time, I felt the proud possessor of a geography that seemed to contract as easily as it could expand: the state suddenly reduced to that hand-sized piece I loved to snap into the jigsaw puzzle map of the United States I was given for my ninth birthday—Florida, an exciting Benadryl pink against the deep wooden blue of the Atlantic. It was within this shifting terrain that I read Next-to-Last Things, a book which is itself unusually concerned with shape shifting. “I will try to speak of the beauty of shapes,” says Socrates in a passage from Plato's Philebus that provides the epigraph for the book's first section of thirteen poems. The shapes Socrates has in mind are the primal lineaments of the natural world and geometry: “straight lines and curves and the shapes made from them by the lathe, ruler or square.” With this passage, we are close to the Platonic notion of ideal forms, those primordial figures from which the concrete, sensuous world is copied. And with ideal forms, we are in the studio where creation begins.
What Henry James called “the sacred mystery of structure” has always been of crucial importance for Kunitz. Accumulative, circular, dialectical—these, he told his poetry workshop students at Columbia University, are the three basic patterns that shape meaning in poems. As Kunitz explained each fundamental pattern, I felt as if the keys to the universe had just been handed over to me. And, in a way, they had. For these structures inform not only works of art, but also the natural world, and are probably a part of the human brain in the way that the dark spot that draws the bee deep inside the flower is probably a part of the bee's eye. In Next-to-Last Things, shapes abound, sometimes as dimly felt presences—
Out there is childhood country, bleached faces peering in with coals for eyes.
Other times as distinct, recognizable forms—
On the back door screen a heavy furpiece hangs, spreadeagled, breathing hard, hooked by prehensile fingers, with its pointed snout pressing in, and the dark agates of its bandit eyes furiously blazing. Behind, where shadows deepen, burly forms lumber from side to side
But it is not the shapes of living figures, or even the shapes of phantasms, that preoccupy Kunitz in this book. What fascinates him is the shape of human consciousness, the shifting shapes of the poet's mind at work, its “rush of forms”—that place of becoming I think of as the poet's studio.
As early as his first book, Intellectual Things (1930), Kunitz was concerned with mind, and in a tightly packed sonnet, entitled “Organic Bloom,” he expressed three ideas which were to turn up again and again in his work, though it is only now in Next-to-Last Things that these ideas are fully explored. Listen, first, to the early sonnet:
The brain constructs its systems to enclose The steady paradox of thought and sense; Momentously its tissued meaning grows To solve and integrate experience. But life escapes closed reason. We explain Our chaos into cosmos, cell by cell, Only to learn of some insidious pain Beyond the limits of our charted hell, A guilt not mentioned in our prayers, a sin Conceived against the self. So, vast and vaster The plasmic circles of gray discipline Spread outward to include each new disaster. Enormous floats the brain's organic bloom Till, bursting like a fruit, it scatters doom.
To begin with, this sonnet shows Kunitz attempting to find visual shapes for mental processes. In another poem from the same book, “This Very Tree,” Kunitz speaks of “the candelabrum of pure thought,” and in still another, “Mens Creatrix,” he writes, “Brain, be ice, / A frozen bowl of thought.” Second, “Organic Bloom” shows Kunitz connecting processes of thought with organic processes that work in cycles: like fruit, the thinking processes appear to ripen—then burst. In another poem from Intellectual Things, “Motion of Wish,” the wish, which is “sprung from the brain,” goes “through evolutions of the seed.” Like the Creation of the Lurianic Kabbalah which works on a triple rhythm of contracting, bursting apart, and healing, the creative process for Kunitz is combustive, culminating in explosion. And there is another important connection with Kabbalistic tradition. In Lurianic thought, the vessels of Creation break because what God has to say, His name, is too strong for His words; in “Organic Bloom,” the brain bursts because, like the vessels of Creation, it is unable to contain its own thinking processes. Which brings me to my third point. “Organic Bloom” pictures the mind continually evading and escaping itself, paradoxically extending beyond its own contours. While in this early poem the mind's expansiveness takes a Freudian form, with forgotten—or repressed—guilt and sin relegated to regions of mind still uncharted, nearly fifty years later, Kunitz's fascination with inclusiveness turns up again, this time stripped of all psychoanalytic thinking. In a conversation with Chris Busa, reprinted in this volume, Kunitz says: “I sometimes think I ought to spend the rest of my life writing a single poem whose action reaches an epiphany only at the point of exhaustion, in the combustion of the whole life, and continues and renews, until it blows away like a puff of milkweed.” When I read this passage, I immediately thought of “Organic Bloom.” As in that early poem, the thinking process, for Kunitz, is still organic, its rhythms comparable to the cycles of plant life. There is been the same combustive energy, the thinking process exploding, blowing away “like a puff of milkweed.” And finally, there is the same desire for inclusiveness, a need to record the mental processes of a lifetime in a single poem. Kunitz himself has observed: “Occasionally, I am astonished to find, through all the devious windings of a poem, that my destination is something I've written months or years before, embedded in a notebook or recorded on a crumpled scrap of paper, perhaps the back of an envelope. That is what the poem, in its blind intuitive way, has been seeking out. The mind's stuff is wonderfully patient” (A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly).
But while the model Kunitz proposes for a single poem is reminiscent of “Organic Bloom” in some ways, in other respects it is very different. Where the sonnet stressed the compactness of the brain, the more recent model emphasizes the vast realms of space human consciousness contains—and not only because this single poem would follow the action of the whole life. Kunitz has replaced the image of fruit with the image of the milkweed pod. When milkweed explodes, the seed-bearing puffs do not blow away all at once; they lift into the air at rhythmic intervals, blowing away gradually, fitfully. And the journey they trace in the air includes not only the puffballs but the spaces between their eruptions; just as in passages of music where there are many rests, the pauses are meant to be heard and the listener must feel the musicians playing the silences as well as the notes. When, in his conversation with Busa, Kunitz talks of organizing his poems spatially—“I follow the track of the eye—it's a track through space”—I see those puffs of milkweed, the intervals between them. Poets’ models, the blueprints or maps for poems they hope to write, are peculiar because they tend to combine qualities that are essentially incompatible. In a poem that has always impressed me as Elizabeth Bishop's own aesthetic model, she describes a monument that would certainly never stand, but that brings together through its architectural peculiarities contradictory elements in her own style, which combines the exotic with the domestic, the highly ornate with the plain:
Then on the topmost cube is set a sort of fleur-de-lys of weathered wood, long petals of board, pierced with odd holes, four-sided, stiff ecclesiastical.
And there is a poem by A. R. Ammons, “The Arc Inside and Out,” which reconciles in the image of “periphery enclosing our system with / its bright dot,” Ammons's own opposing needs: the minimalist need for “the impoverished diamond” and the “heap shoveler's” need for sheer “plentitude.” Kunitz's model implies a need to give form to consciousness itself—to stand somehow outside the workings of his own mind so that he can discover the shape of what is essentially elusive because it is in a continual state of becoming; or, as Kunitz succinctly stated the paradox in an early poem, “Change”—“Becoming, never being, till / Becoming is a being still.” Combustive, agitated, explosive—Kunitz's model is primarily kinesthetic, the whole life danced out, with the image of the milkweed giving visual form to a process that is at first felt inside the body as rhythm. “Even before it is ready to change into language,” Kunitz says, “a poem may begin to assert its buried life in the mind with wordless surges of rhythm and counter rhythm. Gradually the rhythms attach themselves to objects and feelings” (A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly). To discover the rhythms by which the mind beats out its thoughts, to find the pattern in what is continually moving, dying and renewing—all this is implied by Kunitz's model for a poem that would record the combustion of the whole life. Unlike other models of artistic inclusiveness—Marcel Duchamp's Box in a Valise (1941), for example, which contains miniature reproductions of nearly all his works—Kunitz's model is not stationary, but in motion: it pulses with thought.
As I read Kunitz's Next-to-Last Things during my long night of insomnia, it seemed to me that the single poem whose action continues and renews until it blows away like a puff of milkweed was quite possibly this book. For one thing, Next-to-Last Things has “world enough, and time” to be that poem, more world and time than any of Kunitz's previous books. Though its first section is made up of only thirteen poems, that section alone enacts a drama that moves simultaneously through three different levels of time—personal, mythical, and creative. With the first poem, “The Snakes of September,” the speaker is in a garden that could be Kunitz's own garden at 32 Commercial Street, but we are also reminded of that other mythical Garden by two snakes entwined “in a brazen love-knot,” as if defiant of the Fall. With the last poem, “The Wellfleet Whale,” there is again a personal experience drawn from Kunitz's own life, his encounter with a fin back whaler, foundered and dying on well fleet beach, an encounter which appears to be a manifestation of a greater mythical event. Because many phrases in the poem—phrases like “news of your advent,” “keepers of the nightfall watch,” “hour of desolation,” and “huge lingering passion”—allude to Christ's Passion and because the tourists and souvenir hunters who crowd around the whale, carving initials in its flanks and peeling strips of its skin, recall the crowds of Christs's tormentors depicted in the great Renaissance paintings by Brueghel and Bosch, this poem, like the first in this section, enacts a mythical as well as a personal drama: a drama that takes in the grand sweep of Christian time from the Creation to the Passion—and also redefines one aspect of that drama, the Fall. For Kunitz, the Fall does not seem to be caused either by human pride or human yearning for more knowledge (Kunitz is too fearless a transgressor of limits to accept such interpretations). Rather, the Fall is displaced from the Garden, which remains defiantly innocent, to the scene of Christ's death on the cross; that is, the Fall coincides with the loss of our greatest human ideals, with the loss of those figures that, like the whale—“pure energy incarnate / as nobility of form”—embody beauty, majesty, grace, with the loss of those ideal forms that thrill us, stirring our wonder and awe. When the speaker of “The Wellfleet Whale” expresses his sense of loss—“You have become like us, / disgraced and mortal”—I feel as if a curtain has suddenly been ripped, as if the very fabric of life has been torn. Whatever the reader is going to do with this profoundly disturbing revelation will require time, and therefore the book wisely provides no more poems. Instead of comfort, it offers the reader another mode of thinking entirely: the second half of the book consists of a rich variety of prose genres—essay, memoir, conversation, and journal entry—all sustaining a kind of fugal dialogue with one another, as well as with the poems in the opening section. While several memoirs extend the poet's personal history with rich remembrances of close friends, the poet Robert Lowell and the artist Philip Guston, and even take the reader back to Kunitz's childhood with the story of his mother, Yetta Helen Dine, the major thrust of the prose, it seems to me, is toward an exploration of the creative process, as particularized in Kunitz's own experiences. Not only do several of the essays explore the origins of some of Kunitz's poems, but through the inclusion of so many different prose forms, this section seems to embody the creative impetus of the thinking process itself, as mind continually finds new shapes to renew itself. From the more intuitive thinking of the earlier poems, this section shifts to the more cognitive, more rational thinking of the essay. From the more extroverted thinking of conversation and interview, to the more introspective thinking of the journal. These forms of thinking even vary as to how much silence—or space—they include, with the more fragmented journal entries awash in silence, a veritable archipelago of thoughts where mind trails off into the wild waters just beyond the limits of rational thinking, into what Kunitz might call “clouds of our unknowing.” As in this journal entry: “When the Tzartkover Rabbi, celebrated in Hasidic lore, was asked his reason for failing to preach torah for a long time, he gave as his answer: ‘There are seventy ways of reciting Torah. One of them is through silence.’” By contrast, the conversation with Busa, which incidentally provides the best interview of Kunitz that I know of, is tightly packed, the voices of poet and interviewer spiraling around one another, braiding into intricate patterns of thought which suddenly unravel into a new design.
Because the book's second section not only explores the creative process as a discussable subject, but also embodies that process through its own shape shifting, certain poems in the first section, which themselves are concerned with poetic composition, are suddenly reactivated by the prose pieces. The reader goes back to “The Round,” a poem which dramatizes through its own circular structure the poet's cyclic activity, his daily round, with its deep immersions in writing; as the poem closes, the speaker is scribbling on the blotted page the very words that began the poem—“Light splashed.” What Kunitz envisioned in an early poem—“The end and the beginning in each other's arms” (“Open the Gates”)—is now fulfilled through the form of “The Round,” which, like the mythical uroborus, that circular snake which grasps its own tail in its mouth, wraps around itself. “The Wellfleet Whale” provides another look at the creative process. The poem begins with a journal entry, not a simulated journal entry, but a real excerpt which can be found in an earlier collection of Kunitz's prose pieces, A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly. Beginning with the journal account allows Kunitz to overcome certain technical problems: for example, it frees him to plunge immediately into a lyrical address to the whale because he can count on the journal notation to ground the reader in all the necessary narrative information. But the journal-entry beginning also accomplishes something else. It allows the reader to discover those places where the poem has changed and transformed the original anecdote. As the reader compares the journal's account of Kunitz's encounter with the whale with the poem's account, reading re-creates the process of poetic composition, that wonderful period of indeterminacy where even the poem's structure is in a state of flux. To discover that the poem has substituted a we for the first person singular point of view of the journal is to reach that place in the creative process where a decision was made, where the possibility of a crowd scene suggestive of the crowds that milled around the dying Christ may first have occurred to the poet. Where the journal entry is anecdotal, verging on insight, the poem is interpretative, and the world it presents charged with meaning.
I suspect that it is the way in which the second section of Next-to-Last Things returns us to the poems of the first section, inviting us to read those poems through its own interest in the creative process, that finally provides the comfort which “The Wellfleet Whale” at first denies. As Yeats wisely understood, “All things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay.” The second section invites us to enter into the history of the poems in the first section, to explore the layers of experience they shape and transform: to reread “The Abduction,” this time knowing something about its origins in Kunitz's reading on UFO adventures; to return even to a poem from an earlier book, “Green Ways,” this time with the knowledge of Keats's influence on Kunitz's imagination. To read the poems in this way is to unsettle them, to return them to that place of pure becoming, that “terrible threshold” where the poet hears “a rush of forms” (“Open The Gates”). Next-to-Last Things is more filled with process, with the action of the mind, with poems caught in the act of becoming than any other Kunitz book, which is my other reason for thinking that this book is the combustion of a whole life. Most poets feel regret over what gets left out of their poems, and Kunitz, I think, is no exception. “Language overwhelms the poet in a shapeless rush,” he writes. “It's a montage, an overlapping of imagery, feelings, thoughts, sounds, sensations, which have not yet submitted to regimentation” (A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly). The shapeless rush has energy, excitement, vigor: the mouth filled with the poem in all its rich simultaneity, none of the wild feathers plucked. Some of the greatest poets have tried to preserve in their poems the shifting shapes of pure becoming when the poem dazzles with kaleidoscopic possibilities. Chaucer's dream poems, for example, appear to simulate early, rougher stages of their own composition, thus recording, or seeming to record, a series of broken-off attempts: they grow around these earlier versions the way a tree grows around its own rings. But it was especially Dante who sought to preserve the emotional state that accompanied the writing of those poems addressed to Beatrice. That strange book, the Vita Nuova, alternates between sections of poetry and sections of prose, with the prose sections describing the circumstances of poetic composition. Since these circumstances often place a feverish, love-sick Dante at celebrations, banquets, and funerals where he is surrounded by shifting crowds of young women, Beatrice's friends, finally, those crowds which keep reforming, flowing into new shapes, become a metaphor for Dante's state of creative flux and seem as much a part of the poet's visionary experience, his own teeming mind, as a part of his quotidian experience. So imperceptibly do vision and reality shade into one another in the Vita Nuova that at times it is impossible to tell them apart. Dante keeps the reader positioned at that edge where the creative impulse keeps surging up, an edge so fine it is like an imaginary number, the square root of minus one, that symbol i which Leibniz called “an amphibian between being and nonbeing.”
Perhaps it was my reading the Vita Nuova during the same night that I read Kunitz's book that made me especially sensitive to what I had missed on previous readings: the way so many of the poems in Next-to-Last Things seem to catch the very moment when they were first heard or glimpsed or sensed. The poems straddle that edge where the nonverbal rush of forms is first translated into words. Listen to the beginnings of two of the poems, “The Snakes of September,”
All summer I heard them rustling in the shrubbery outracing me from tier to tier in my garden, a whisper among the viburnums, a signal flashed from the hedgerow, a shadow pulsing in the barberry thicket.
and now “The Image-Maker,”
A wind passed over my mind, insidious and cold. It is a thought, I thought, but it was only its shadow. Words came, or the breath of my sisters, with a black rustle of wings.
The poems begin at the threshold of perception where seeing and hearing scorn the sense organs. Such poems upset the reader's orientation, for there is always more out there, they suggest, than the reader at first supposed. To a great extent, it is the forms and shapes that keep looking in at the poems's speakers, like the “heavy furpiece” pressed to the screen door in “Raccoon Journal” and “the bleached faces peering in / with coals for eyes” in “The Abduction,” that make the reader so keenly aware of realms of space that keep growing vast and vaster, realms that elude human knowledge. But another, perhaps more important factor, is the way the poem's speakers keep pressing for a knowledge of their world that continually escapes them:
Some things I do not profess To understand, perhaps not wanting to, including whatever it was they did with you or you with them that timeless summer day when you stumbled out of the wood, distracted, with your white blouse torn and a bloodstain on your skirt.
The woman described in the opening lines of “The Abduction” now lies beside the poem's speaker, as mysterious, as unknowable as the UFOs that perhaps abducted her into outer space—or the men, “a dumb show retinue / in leather shrouds” who, more probably, gang-raped her. All the speaker has to offer the reader—and himself—are what the woman he loves has pieced together with him over the years; that is to say, what he has to offer are interpretations of an event that may itself be a fiction. “What do we know,” the speaker concludes, “beyond the rapture and the dread?” What do we know, in other words, beyond the emotions stirred up by our own versions of the world, our own myths? With the concluding question, inner space becomes as vast and unknowable as outer space. And like the man depicted in “The Long Boat,” whose “boat has snapped loose / from its moorings,” the reader is also set adrift, “rocked by the Infinite!”
When I started to read Next-to-Last Things, I had expected to hear a voice I already knew, the generic Kunitz made familiar by all the particular encounters I have had with him—as his student at Columbia University, as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, as audience at many of his poetry readings. Instead, I heard someone or something else, a thrilling presence, disembodied as the bird song that kept erupting into my long night of insomnia. In a fascinating exchange that is preserved in Busa's interview of Kunitz, poet and interviewer distinguish between “the varied voice of personality, the voice that speaks in the context of a dramatic situation,” and the voice of incantation, made up of sound and rhythm. The voice I heard that night was neither the voice of personality nor the incantatory voice, but a more impersonal, universal presence that seemed to sound from the beauty of shapes, from the primordial structures of the thinking process itself. I call this the ecstatic voice, and by ecstatic, I do not mean what I think many people mean when they use that word incorrectly as a synonym for euphoric. I am using ecstatic in its root sense to mean standing outside of or apart from or beyond one's usual self or one's usual sense of the world. The ecstatic voice articulates the shifting shapes of pure becoming, of mind exceeding itself, and is kin to the grand, protean structures of the natural world; those thunderheads that pile up on the horizon during Florida's rainy season, cumulonimbus balanced on cumulonimbus, mountainous altars to abundance, altars so affluent they can afford to spend themselves in further expansions, puffing up into anvil-shaped towers, until suddenly the altar topples, itself the sacrifice, spilling down as rain. While I sensed the ecstatic voice everywhere in Next-to-Last Things, I heard it especially in “The Image-Maker,” a poem that seems miraculous to me in the way it moves at the very limits of consciousness, and in its closing lines, even extends a little beyond those limits through the sheer efforts of envisioning them:
I listen, but I avert my ears from Meister Eckhart's warning: All things must be forsaken. God scorns to show Himself among images.
Though the image-maker averts his ears from the master's warning, the reader of the poem, who now conceives of an imageless form of thinking, who probes its possibility, feels as if some boundary has just been transgressed. Perhaps the poem has led the reader to imagine life after death, a realm of shapes so pure they scorn particulars. Wherever the reader has been led, it is not a place visited before. The brain has just advanced into its own uncharted territory, paradoxically exceeding its own limits.
SOURCE: “Survivors' Stories,” in New Leader, October 9–23, 1995, pp. 14–15.
[In the following review, Pettingell offers a positive assessment of Passing Through.]
Stanley Kunitz has proved to be the survivor of his generation of poets. Born the same decade as Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, W. H. Auden, and Robert Penn Warren, Kunitz continues, at 90, to flourish as a writer. To mark his latest chronological milestone, Norton has published his ninth collection of verse, Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected. The book brims with the enthusiasm and energy we have come to expect from its author. True, Kunitz’ themes can be dark. He views many subjects with irony, sometimes outright skepticism, occasionally outrage. What most impresses itself on the reader, however, is his imagination: perpetually curious, eager for fresh revelation. In “The Round,” he confesses, “I can scarcely wait for tomorrow when a new life begins for me, / as it does each day. …”
Passing Through opens with Kunitz’ brief affirmation of the craft he has practiced for seven decades: “In an age defined by its modes of production, where everybody tends to be a specialist of sorts,” he writes, “the [poet] ideally is that rarity, a whole person making a whole thing.” Against the widespread belief that literature is merely self-referential, and “poetry makes nothing happen,” Kunitz champions verse as “spiritual testimony, the sign of the inviolable self consolidated against the enemies within and without that would corrupt or destroy human pride and dignity.” Disturbed “that 20th century American poets seem largely reconciled to being relegated to the classroom,” he declares: “It would be healthier if we could locate ourselves in the thick of life, at every intersection where values and meaning cross, caught in the dangerous traffic between self and universe.”
The poems that follow live up to those pronouncements. “Around Pastor Bonhoeffer” evokes the heroism of the eponymous German pastor and ethicist, who was martyred by the Nazis, to exemplify the kind of engagement with real problems Kunitz admires. Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined the plot to kill Hitler even though it meant lying, dissembling, and putting both his family and himself in danger. He resolved to “risk his soul in the streets / … in God's name cheating, pretending, / playing the double agent, / choosing to trade / the prayer for the deed.” The poet holds up the churchman for being willing to face the ambiguities and pain of existence head-on, to forgo the ideal of holiness and make the sacrifice involved in dirtying his hands with a necessary act. Kunitz similarly transforms an old anti-Semitic music hall song into a paean to Jewish endurance. At the end of “An Old Cracked Tune” the speaker asserts, “I dance, for the joy of surviving.”
“Words for the Unknown Makers” (written on the occasion of the Whitney Museum's 1974 American Folk Art exhibition) glories in slaves who carved cigar store Indians and little girls who worked intricate samplers, in traveling portrait painters and Shaker artisans, and in the legions of women who quilted, stenciled, embroidered, hooked rugs, or wove. All “pass from their long obscurity, through the gate that separates us from our history, a moving rainbow-cloud of witnesses in a rising hubbub.” By leaving us creative expressions of themselves, each tells us something about ourselves, about the human desire to make a splash of color on the drab fabric of the ordinary, to joyously defy adversity, even heartbreak.
Amplifying his theme—“the telling of the stories of the soul”—Kunitz includes some of his resonant translations of Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. Like his own poems, they show people willing to risk their freedom and the well-being of those dearest to them in order to win a greater liberty, and to speak out for those who cannot or dare not.
Along with its social statements, this collection offers much that is appealing on the author's childhood. “The Magic Curtain” brings back the wonder created by early movie palaces. “The Testing-Tree” recalls the imaginative games Kunitz created in boyhood, several of which unconsciously reproduced ancient rituals. A schoolboy terror—that the earth would be destroyed by a celestial object—is remembered in “Halley's Comet.” “My Mother's Pears” chronicles the day Kunitz helped plant a tree that still produces fruit eight decades later.
The poet's sense of connectedness to nature extends to the animal kingdom. Some of the most endearing passages in Passing Through concern “Jonathan, the last of the giant tortoises on wind-beaten St. Helena,” who sulks like the exiled Napoleon; raccoons at the poet's Provincetown, Massachusetts home; snakes mating “in a brazen love-knot”; and fierce-looking tomato hornworms who turn out, at least as Kunitz envisions them, to have more in common with us than one might think at first.
The finest of these animal poems, “The Wellfleet Whale,” was inspired by a 1966 encounter with one of the gargantuan mammals when it beached itself on Cape Cod. Kunitz conveys both the awe inspired by the creature in its agony, and the growing sense of kinship felt by those who stood around it during its slow death listening to its eerie rumblings and wails, helpless to relieve the suffering:
Toward dawn we shared with you your hour of desolation, the huge lingering passion of your unearthly outcry, as you swung your blind head toward us and laboriously opened a bloodshot, glistening eye, in which we swam with terror and recognition.
Just as the dying whale captures the beauty and fear of being alive, Stanley Kunitz’ humanism illuminates Passing Through. On his 90th birthday he has given us a wonderful present.
SOURCE: “The Poems of Stanley Kunitz Confront ‘The Great Simplicities,’” in Chicago Tribune Books, December 31, 1995, p. 4.
[In the following review, Christie offers a positive assessment of Passing Through.]
Yes, lately we've been intrigued by a poetry infused with the postmodern, by its skeptical deconstructions and complexities. But how it refreshes and affirms to reconnect with a voice, an aesthetic, that risks caring.
“What is there left to confront but the great simplicities? I never tire of birdsong and sky and weather. … I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world,” states Stanley Kunitz in the opening comments to his Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected.
Winner of this year's National Book Award, Passing Through is Kunitz's ninth collection and coincides with the celebration of his 90th birthday. Leave the metadiscourse to some other generation, Kunitz is “in league with that ounce of heart / pounding in my palm” (“Robin Redbreast”).
The volume brings together most of Kunitz's best poems from the later years and includes several new poems that engage with his abiding themes: time's legacies, nature and loss. He here displays the kind of intelligence and precision that hone the lyric moment. Throughout the wide sweep of years we see this rare lyric sensibility at work, as Kunitz purely sketches an instant in time, making a “noble, dissolving music” from a cross-grained knot in the opposite wall, a day spent fishing at Quinnapoxet, a dragonfly or a quarrel. His brief poem “The Catch” is perfect example of the purity of his epiphanies and their intensity of vision:
“It darted across the pond / toward our sunset perch, / weaving in, up, and around / a spindle of air, / this delicate engine / fired by impulse and glitter, / swift darning-needle, / gossamer dragon, / less image than thought, / and the thought come alive. / Swoosh went the net / with a practiced hand. / ‘Da-da, may I look too?’ / You may look, child, / all you want. / This prize belongs to no one. / But you will pay all / you life for the privilege, / all your life.”
But Kunitz's world is not merely a world of lyric beauty and natural enticements, of “blue-spiked veronica” and his “late bloomers / flushed with their brandy”—Kunitz keeps a lush, seaside garden of wide renown. Aware of poetry's place through the “millennial ordeal,” he insists that poetry “is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul. This would seem to be an introverted, even solipsistic, enterprise, if it were not that these stories recount the soul's passage through the valley of this life—that is to say, its adventure in time, in history.”
Kunitz's poems go beyond personal history and the testimony of individual spirit. They speak as witness to history's greater deeds and misdeeds. In poems like “The Lincoln Relics” and “The Mound Builders,” Kunitz offers quiet commentary on those moments compelling and threatening to humanity, from the disgrace of Richard Nixon to nuclear testing. In “Around Pastor Bonhoeffer” about the German pastor (co-conspirator in a failed plot to murder Hitler), Kunitz writes in the persona of the pastor: “… if you permit / this evil, what is the good / of the good of your life?”
A luminous and deep accounting of the times to which he has belonged, Kunitz's poetry reminds us that the best art stakes its claim in crossroads territory, at the resonant intersection of the private and the public. And in these later poems we do sense a voice that has crossed from world to world.
Everywhere are the figures of such journeys: Orpheus, Proteus and the Wellfleet Whale in the remarkable poem of the same name:
You prowled down the continental shelf, / guided by the sun and stars / and the taste of alluvial silt / on your way southward / to the warm lagoons, / the tropic of desire / where the lovers lie belly to belly / in the rub and nuzzle of their sporting; / and you turned, like a god in exile, / out of your wide primeval element, / delivered to the mercy of time. / Master of the whale-roads, / let the white wings of the gulls / spread out their cover. / You have become like us, / disgraced and mortal.
We sense, too, a voice looking back on what it has made: “I walk into the woods I made / my dark and resinous blistered land, / through the deep litter of the years” (“River Road”). The speaker in “The Long Boat” lies down, absolved of a life's burdens that suggest Kunitz's own: “conscience, ambition, and all that caring.”
What Kunitz has made has been always generous and full of ardor. In the book's final poem, “Touch Me,” he asks what makes the engines of the crickets go, what makes a life go, and answers “Desire, desire, desire.” This desire for the world and its details has distinguished Kunitz's poetry. He may invoke Orpheus, whose music brought the trees to blossom, but many readers will be left with an image of Kunitz himself as the lamplighter in his “Lamplighter: 1914,” the man who raises an orange flame and touches the lamps “one by one, / till the whole countryside bloomed.”
SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz,” in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, by Bill Moyers, edited by James Haba, Doubleday, 1995, pp. 239–55.
[In the following interview, Kunitz discusses formative events in his life and career, his approach to writing poetry, the origin of several of his poems, and the significance of poetry for the artist and society.]
Stanley Kunitz begins his ninetieth year with a new collection of luminous, life-affirming poems. Still wrestling with basic themes—“the world's wrongs and the injustice of time”—and still joyfully rearranging the sounds of language as he does the flowers in his garden, Kunitz has received nearly every honor bestowed upon a poet, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 and appointments as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (now called poet laureate) and poet laureate of New York. He was a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Massachusetts, and of Poets House in New York City. He is also a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
[Moyers:] Do you remember the first time you truly experienced words, somehow, as part of your being?
[Kunitz:] I used to go out into the woods behind our house in Worcester, Massachusetts, and shout words, any words that came to me, preferably long ones, just because the sound of them excited me. “Eleemosynary,” I recall, was one of my favorites. “Phantasmagoria” was another.
I grew up in the South where Lincoln was not as revered as he was elsewhere. I remember the sound of that language, even to this moment:
George Washington was a great big boss, He rode himself around on a big white horse. Abraham Lincoln was a goddamn fool, He rode himself around on a skinny old mule.
When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher, Miss McGillicuddy, had assigned us a composition on George Washington to celebrate his birthday. I still remember my sensational beginning: “George Washington was a tall, petite, handsome man.” Whether or not I suspected what “petite” meant, I found it too elegant to resist. Miss McGillicuddy, whose French vocabulary may have been no better than mine, thought my composition was fabulous and every year from that point on into the next generation she used to read it to her new classes as a literary model. I spent a good part of my childhood exploring language, trying to find a new word every day in the unabridged Century Dictionary that was one of our household's prized possessions. And I haunted the public library. The librarian said sternly, “Five books. That's the limit you can take, Stanley. Five for the week.” When I came back in a couple of days, she insisted I couldn't read that much so fast, I convinced her I had, and wangled permission to haul away five more. She was really a kind soul.
Were these books of poetry?
Some were. Of course, my taste in poetry was indiscriminate. Tennyson and Whittier and Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley and Robert Service all seemed to offer equal enchantments. When I was graduated from elementary school, as class valedictorian, the poem I chose to recite for the occasion was Kipling's “Recessional”:
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!
By then I knew that language was tremendously important to me. I already felt drawn to the community of poets.
Once in East Africa on the shore of an ancient lake, I sat alone and suddenly it struck me what community is. It's gathering around the fire and listening to somebody tell a story.
That's probably how poetry began, in some such setting. Wherever I've traveled in the world, I've never felt alone. Language is no barrier to people who love the word. I think of poets as solitaries with a heightened sense of community.
But, Stanley, is your community limited to other poets?
I should be sad if that were true.
Have you ever changed a poem you wrote long ago?
There are a few old poems I've tinkered with, correcting a word here or a phrase there that was obviously wrong, but I think it's foolhardy to attempt radical revisions of early work. You are no longer the poet who wrote those lines in his troubled youth. Time itself is stitched into the fabric of the text.
What has happened to the music of poetry? Why does poetry now simply lie there on the printed page, which you have called “a very cold bed”?
One of the problems with poetry in the modern age is that it's become separated from the spoken word. When you ask students to read a poem aloud, you find they have no idea of the rhythm of the language, its flow, inflection, and pitch. They do not understand that stress and tonality are instruments of meaning. Is the fault wholly theirs? Poetry has strayed far from its origins in song and dance. With its gradual retreat into print and, currently, into the academy, it is in danger of becoming a highly technical and specialized linguistic skill. It has already lost most of its general listening audience.
Is it possible that the rock musician is the poet of our day?
It's a commentary on the state of our culture that the vast audience for rock and other varieties of pop seems to be quite satisfied at that level of communication. It doesn't feel a need for poetry. That disturbs me because poetry explores depths of thought and feeling that civilization requires for its survival. What does it signify that the mass of our adult population cares as little for the poets of the great tradition as it does for the moderns? The consoling thought is that children are still impressionable and ready to receive poetry, ready to make it part of their lives. But that's before they are spoiled. Our educational system had failed us in that respect, among others.
I think back on the poems I read in high school—Shelley, Keats, and Byron. They rhymed. They had meter. That's not true anymore.
Certainly it's easier to remember verse that has a fixed rhyme scheme, a regular beat, and a standard length of line. Much of the pleasure we derive from the poetry of the past, regardless of its quality, is due to the fulfillment of expectations. But that's precisely the kind of aesthetic satisfaction that the most representative and seminal imaginations of this century taught us to question. Right now we seem to be entering a more conservative phase, but I'm not ready to greet the dawn of a neoclassical age.
Do people quote your poems?
Not by the tens of thousands, but I've heard of some who do. Perhaps it's relevant to note that I was trained in the metrical tradition or, rather, I trained myself, since there were no creative writing programs in those days. At a later stage I became a lapsed formalist, choosing to write by and for the ear, without preimposed conditions. I trust the ear to let my rhythms go where they need to go. The ear is the best of prosodists.
These lines of yours come to mind—I wish you'd comment on them.
I dance, for the joy of surviving, on the edge of the road.
That's the ending of “An Old Cracked Tune,” a poem that had its origin in a scurrilous street song remembered from my youth. The butt of the song's mockery was a stereotypically avaricious and conniving Jewish tailor. The very first line—the one I appropriated—went: “My name is Solomon Levi.” It didn't occur to me until later that Solomon was my father's given name and that he was a Levite, a descendant of the priestly house of Levi. When the line from that odious song popped into my head, I wondered, “Can I redeem it?” And so I wrote the poem.
“AN OLD CRACKED TUNE”
My name is Solomon Levi, the desert is my home, my mother's breast was thorny, and father I had none.
The sands whispered, Be separate, the stones taught me, Be hard. I dance, for the joy of surviving, on the edge of the road.
You must have been repelled by the anti-Semitism.
It hurt me and left a scar. The bigotry of this country early in the century cut deep into our social fabric. And it persists to this day, as an ugly racist infection. I'm not implying that this was in mind when I started to write that poem. Poems don't tell you why you need to write them. Perhaps you write them in order to find out why. My driving impulse was to embrace a wounded name.
Why did you call the poem “An Old Cracked Tune”?
I've never thought about it—the title came with the poem. “Old tune” must allude to the source of the poem, as well as to its being a sort of ancestral song. “Cracked” tells something about the speaker's age and voice and maybe about his state of mind.
Do you remember the original lyrics?
No. Only the first line and “zip-zip-zip” out of the refrain. The one person on earth, to my knowledge, who remembers that song is Richard Wilbur.
Yes, and he can sing several stanzas of it—more, I guess, than I've ever wanted to remember. He may have heard it at Harvard years after I did.
Anti-Semitism cost you a teaching position at Harvard.
According to the illustrious head of the English Department in 1927, the year of my M.A., Harvard's Anglo-Saxon students would resent being taught English literature by a Jew.
What did you do?
I left Harvard in a state of rage and confusion. After a brief start as reporter for the Worcester Telegram, my hometown paper, I came to New York—this was on the eve of the Great Depression—and went to work for the H. W. Wilson publishing firm. There I became editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin and initiated a series of biographical dictionaries that are still standard works of literary reference. In 1930 Doubleday published Intellectual Things, my first book of poems.
What did you mean when you said you wanted to “redeem” the man in the poem?
I hoped to restore his dignity by identifying with him. Like him, the poet in our society is a marginal character, dancing on the edge of the road, not in the middle where the heavy traffic flows. Maybe one of the secrets of survival is to learn where to dance.
You took something bitter and turned it into something joyous.
Poetry has a great digestive system and can consume and recycle almost anything. It is the poet's persona that gives meaning to the process. For years I've been telling young poets that the first important act of the imagination is to create the person who will write the poems. And that's not the end of it. We have to invent and reinvent who we are until we arrive at the self we can bear to live with and die with. Art demands of the artist the capacity for self-renewal. Without it, art withers. And, of course, so does the life.
There is an erotic quality to poetry—creative and re-creative. Do you make love to the word?
Every new poem is like finding a new bride. Words are so erotic, they never tire of their coupling. How do they renew themselves? In their inexhaustible desire for combinations and recombinations.
Is it hard work to write a poem?
Is it hard? I think poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world.
What makes it such a struggle?
Because in our daily lives we enslave words, use them and abuse them, until they are fit for only menial tasks and small errands.
You have to kill a lot of clichés, don't you?
You have to remove the top of your head and plunge into the deep waters of the buried life in order to come up with words that are fresh and shining. Poetry isn't written on schedule. A poem that occupies less than a page may take days, weeks, months—and still want more attention to set it right. You know, that's not very practical in the world's terms.
The world is so meagerly supportive of the poet. How do you keep going?
A poet has to be cunning in the world's ways, too. Poets who flunk their lessons in the art of survival either drop out or die young. Above all, we need to buy time, meditation time, but not at the world's price. One of the strategies I've learned is to stay alive when the rest of the world is asleep. When I shut the door of my study, the clocks stop ticking. A few minutes seem to pass, and suddenly it's dawn.
On what are you meditating?
You don't choose the subject of meditation, it chooses you. But you have to put yourself into a state of readiness. You have to move into areas of the self that remain to be explored, and that's one of the problems of maturing as a poet. By the age of fifty, the chances are that you've explored all the obvious places. The poems that remain for you to write will have to come out of your wilderness.
Yes, the untamed self that you pretend doesn't exist, all that chaos locked behind the closet door, those memories yammering in the dark. …
You have said that certain images are “key images.” Are these memories of childhood?
Usually so. I believe that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of images associated with pivotal moments. That cluster is the key to one's identity, the purest concentration of the self. Poetry happens when new images of sensations are drawn into the gravitational field of the old life.
In “Three Floors,” which is one of my favorite poems, you are remembering your childhood.
Mother was a crack of light and a gray eye peeping; I made believe by breathing hard that I was sleeping.
Sister's doughboy on last leave had robbed me of her hand; downstairs at intervals she played Warum on the baby grand.
Under the roof of a wardrobe trunk whose lock a boy could pick contained a red Masonic hat and a walking stick.
Bolt upright in my bed that night I saw my father flying; the wind was walking on my neck, the windowpanes were crying.
That poem is one of several stemming from the suicide of my father a few weeks before I was born. My mother kept just a few of his relics in a trunk in the attic, including a red Masonic hat and a walking stick, which figure in the poem. The time was World War I, when I was about ten. Another poem, “The Portrait,” returns me to that attic, discovering a portrait of my father. When I brought it down to show to my mother, she tore it up.
And your mother slapped you for finding it, as the poem says?
My mother never forgave my father for killing himself, especially at such an awkward time and in a public park, that spring when I was waiting to be born. She locked his name in her deepest cabinet and would not let him out, though I could hear him thumping. When I came down from the attic with the pastel portrait in my hand of a long-lipped stranger with a brave moustache and deep brown level eyes, she ripped it into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard. In my sixty-fourth year I can feel my cheek still burning.
Do you think she slapped you because you found the portrait or because she held you responsible for your father's death?
Her anger was directed at him, not at me. She wanted to expunge his memory. No mention of him ever crossed her lips.
For a long time you did not write about it.
In “Father and Son,” written in my mid-thirties, I pursue and ultimately confront his image. It was an act of liberation for me.
Of whom is the portrait a portrait? Your father, your mother, yourself? Or is it the portrait of an experience, a memory?
You are perfectly right to imply that it is more than my father's portrait.
How do dreams play a role in the creating of poetry?
In their fluidity and illogic, dream images readily translate into poetry. Everything in “Quinnapoxet,” for example, came to me in a dream—not the words, but all the images.
I was fishing in the abandoned reservoir back in Quinnapoxet, where the snapping turtles cruised and the bullheads swayed in their bower of tree-stumps, sleek as eels and pigeon-fat. One of them gashed my thumb with a flick of his razor fin when I yanked the barb out of his gullet. The sun hung its terrible coals over Buteau's farm: I saw the treetops seething.
They came suddenly into view on the Indian road, evenly stopping past the apple orchard, commingling with the dust they raised, their cloud of being, against the dripping light looming larger and bolder. She was wearing a mourning bonnet and a warp of shining taffeta. “Why don't you write?” she cried from the folds of her veil. “We never hear from you.” I had nothing to say to her. But for him who walked behind her in his dark worsted suit, with his face averted as if to hide a scald, deep in his other life, I touched my forehead with my swollen thumb, and splayed my fingers out— in deaf-mute country the sign for father.
Two people come into view, and a woman says, “Why don't you write?” The other is wearing a burial suit. Is he your father?
That's the image.
You salute him. That is a reconciliation?
The recognition of a bond. As if to say, we belong to each other.
And you dreamed this.
From beginning to end. Then I began exploring what I had dreamed. In an illustrated article on sign language for the deaf I found the hand gesture I had made in my dream. It is the most reverential of all the signs for father.
Do you think there's special wisdom in dreams?
Poets have always loved the language of dreams—it's so full of secrets.
Do you sometimes think you're carrying on a conversation with ancestors you never knew?
The arts, by their nature, are our means of conducting that dialogue. Where is the history of the race inscribed, if not in the human imagination? One of my strongest convictions is that poetry is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul. We keep asking Gauguin's famous set of questions, “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” The echo that mocks us comes from the Stone Age caves. The poem on the page is only a shadow of the poem in the mind. And the poem in the mind is only a shadow of the poetry and the mystery of the things of this world. So we must try again, for the work is never finished I don't think it's absurd to believe that the chain of being, our indelible genetic code, holds memories of the ancient world that are passed down from generation to generation. Heraclitus speaks of “mortals and immortals living in their death, dying into each other's lives.”
The other night, at your reading, young people were approaching, and they had very special applause for “End of Summer.”
“END OF SUMMER”
An agitation of the air, A perturbation of the light Admonished me the unloved year Would turn on its hinge that night.
I stood in the disenchanted field Amid the stubble and the stones, Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me The song of my marrow-bones.
Blue poured into summer blue, A hawk broke from his cloudless tower, the roof of the silo blazed, and I knew that part of my life was over.
Already the iron door of the north Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows Order their populations forth, And a cruel wind blows.
That poem came to me in mid-life when I was living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The occasion is still vivid in my mind. I was out in the field, hoeing down an old standard of corn. Suddenly I heard a commotion overhead. A flock of wild geese, streaking down from the north, rattled the sky with their honking. I stood in the field, gazing upward with a sense of tumult and wonder, for something had been revealed to me: the story of migration had become my story. At that moment I made one of the most important decisions of life. I dropped my hoe and ran into the house and started to write this poem. It began as a celebration of the wild geese. Eventually the geese flew out of the poem, but I like to think they left behind the sound of their beating wings.
Why did you use the word “perturbation” in the second line, “A perturbation of the light”? Why not “commotion” or “disturbance” or “flurry”?
There's more wingbeat in “perturbation.” I might add that the rhythm is intentionally persistent, relying largely on the interplay between open and closed vowels.
An agitation of the air, A perturbation of the light Admonished me the unloved year Would turn on its hinge that night.
Did you speak the lines?
I always speak the lines. That's how I write my poems.
You said that you heard the geese and looked up and responded instantly with a decision. That couldn't have been an intellectual decision. Your body said something to you which was triggered by the geese.
I saw the writing in the sky. Don't forget that there were soothsayers in ancient times who practiced divination by studying the flight of birds.
I remember seeing your poem about the moonwalk, “The Flight of Apollo,” in The New York Times.
“THE FLIGHT OF APOLLO”
Earth was my home, but even there I was a stranger. This mineral crust. I walk like a swimmer. What titanic bombardments in those old astral wars! I know what I know: I shall never escape from strangeness or complete my journey. Think of me as nostalgic, afraid, exalted. I am your man on the moon, a speck of megalomania, restless for the leap toward inland universes pulsing beyond where the constellations set. Infinite space overwhelms the human heart, but in the middle of nowhere life inexorably calls to life. Forward my mail to Mars. What news from the Great Spiral Nebula in Andromeda and the Magellanic Clouds?
I was a stranger on earth. Stepping on the moon, I begin the gay pilgrimage to new Jerusalems in foreign galaxies. Heat. Cold. Craters of silence. The Sea of Tranquillity rolling on the shores of entropy. And, beyond, the intelligence of the stars.
You have a long memory, for that was in 1969. The Times had asked me for a poem in tribute to man's first landing on the moon, and fortunately I had one at hand, having written it in the days before Apollo 11 was launched. When I saw the actual landing on TV, I felt I had already been there. There was no need to change a word. I've always been fascinated by space exploration, so that it seemed quite natural for me to imagine myself a stranger on earth seeking a new home in the skies. Eventually, I suppose, the human race will have to move from this planet and settle elsewhere in the galaxy, for this planet will die.
Beyond this planet, as you say in the poem, is “the intelligence of the stars.”
Simply on the basis of probability. I cannot believe that planet Earth is the only blob of dirt in the firmament that supports life.
There is a man in one of your poems who “carries a bag of earth on his back,” and it reminds me that you are a gardener who likes to work with his hands. What does gardening have to do with poetry?
It has everything to do with poetry. When I work in my garden I feel that it is myself being planted, nourished, reborn. I am enchanted with every step in the process of making things grow. In the grand view, I see gardening as a ritual drama, in which the whole cycle of death and rebirth is enacted annually. But that doesn't prevent me from undertaking the most lowly tasks and truly enjoying them, even weeding and grubbing. It strikes me that gardens and poems are equally unpredictable, given the vagaries of weather and imagination. A plant behaves beautifully one summer. The next summer it turns gross and invasive. Or languishes in the heat, disfigured and splotchy with mildew or succumbs to the voracious appetites of cutworms and beetles and slugs. In the civilization of the garden such specimens must be treated as outlaws. Out with them! The making of a garden requires the same kind of ruthlessness as the making of a poem.
I like the image of growing a garden as you grow a poem, as you grow a self. “Passing Through,” the poem you wrote on your seventy-ninth birthday, implies a process of changing. In your later poems you write with much more simplicity and economy than in your early poems. Why is that?
—ON MY SEVENTY-NINTH BIRTHDAY
Nobody in the widow's household ever celebrated anniversaries. In the secrecy of my room I would not admit I cared that my friends were given parties. Before I left town for school my birthday went up in smoke in a fire at City Hall that gutted the Department of Vital Statistics. If it weren't for a census report of a five-year-old White Male sharing my mother's address at the Green Street tenement in Worcester I'd have no documentary proof that I exist. You are the first, my dear, to bully me into these festive occasions.
Sometimes, you say, I wear an abstracted look that drives you up the wall, as though it signified distress or disaffection. Don't take it so to heart. Maybe I enjoy not-being as much as being who I am. Maybe it's time for me to practice growing old. The way I look at it, I'm passing through a phase: gradually I'm changing to a word. Whatever you choose to claim of me is always yours; nothing is truly mine except my name. I only borrowed this dust.
In a curious way, age is simpler than youth, for it has fewer options. In the beginning, life seems to offer us infinite choices, a bewilderment of opportunities. We have no certainties about our destination, or a path that will lead us there. We might become a scientist, or a theologian, or a farmer, or a poet. Who knows? Every time we make a significant choice—affecting, let's say, our education, or career, or involvement with others—we reduce, exponentially, the number of choices left to us. Finally, we arrive at the realization that the only remaining choice of any consequence, if it can be considered a choice at all, is between living and dying. This simplifies, as it purifies, the operation of the mind. What could be more natural than for the mature imagination at sunset to move toward economy of style and gravity of tone? When I read the late work of Hardy or Yeats, I get the distinct impression that the life of the poet is already passing into his poems.
Your once said that you were living and dying at the same time, but when you reach a certain age aren't you dying faster than you're living?
I prefer to say, as I do in “Passing Through,” that “gradually I'm changing to a word.” The beauty of that transaction is that it involves a transfer of energy, not a loss. I'm conditioned to believe that the word is less perishable than its creator.
In another poem you ask, “What do I want of my life?” And you answer, “More! More!”
That's from an earlier poem—but I still subscribe to the sentiment.
Before we met today I was listening to Mozart's Piano Concert No.21 and I thought, that's immortality. The musician has given way to the music. What about poetry?
I follow Coleridge in believing that the sense of musical delight, together with the power of producing it, is the gift that marks the poet born. When Keats wrote in one of his letters, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination,” he was defining for all of us the ground of that music. Let me tell you about a twelfth-century Chinese poet named Yang Wan-li, one of the four masters of Southern Sung poetry. One day he gathered his disciples around him and addressed them in this fashion: “Now, what is poetry? If you say it is simply a matter of words, I will say, ‘A good poet gets rid of words.’ If you say it is simply a matter of meaning, I will say, ‘A good poet gets rid of meaning.’ But, you say, if words and meaning are gotten rid of, where is the poetry? To this I reply, ‘Get rid of words and meaning and there is still poetry.’”
Scholars have been wrestling with that test for centuries. I think that Yang is telling us that poetry is more than a product of human intelligence and craft. It is an intrinsic element of the beauty and mystery of existence, something we take in with the air we breathe. We take it in and then we give back some semblance of it in our art.
SOURCE: “To Turn Again,” in Parnassus, Vol. 21, Nos. 1–2, 1996, pp. 215–29.
[In the following positive review of Passing Through, Yezzi provides an analysis of recurring “key images” and archetypes in Kunitz's poetry and comments favorably on Kunitz's effort to construct a “personal mythology.”]
When asked by Christopher Busa in The Paris Review interview if he felt differently about translating the poems of Baudelaire, whom he could never know personally, than about translating the work of various contemporary poets, Stanley Kunitz replied “I know Baudelaire too.” Taken literally, Kunitz's contention might set a more speculative imagination to flights of wild conjecture. (“All poets are contemporaries,” he has said.) Think of the possible combinations of acquaintance that such time travel would allow. What species of exquisite naughtiness could Hart Crane and John Wilmot hatch, left to their own devices in the Ramble in Central Park? Allen Ginsberg would not think it strange to see Garcia Lorca pricing summer fruit or Whitman pawing the ground chuck in the fluorescence of a Berkeley grocery. Mightn't Ovid have benefited from Archibald MacLeish's diplomatic acumen in helping to grease his return to Rome from Tomis on the Black Sea? Literary gatherings would take on added luster: “Wystan, I'd like you to meet Quintus Horatius Flaccus—Oh, I see you're already acquainted.” Such reveries aside, Kunitz has something more serious in mind. To say that one may know poets long dead implies a transubstantiation between the flesh-and-blood poet and his incarnation on the page; this mystery manifests itself in the dual meanings of corpus—the physical body, a body of work (the Greek soma splits the same way). For his part, Kunitz has long been aware of the numerous intersections between the life and the work: “The life of a poet is crystallized in his work, that's how you know him”; or, as he put it on another occasion, “A poet's collected work is his book of changes”; and, finally, this Jungian distillate, “[Poetry] has its source, deep under the layers of a life, in the primordial self.”
At ninety, Stanley Kunitz has more layers to his life than most. Accumulated in those layers are the poems of nearly three quarters of a century, alongside which stand interviews and essays, the products of a mind occupied not only with poetry but the teaching of it. Traced accurately, Kunitz's pedagogical reach might encompass more contemporary American poets and poetry than any other living individual's; and, as his students and acolytes—Lucie Brock-Broido, Susan Mitchell, Louise Glück, and Michael Ryan among them—take on their own students (Brock-Broido now teaches in the Columbia writing program, where she once studied with Kunitz), his influence continues to grow exponentially. Marie Howe has said of his mentoring powers, “How can I tell you what he's taught us? I can't stand here and tell you that he fussed with my commas and line breaks. He changed my life. He changed the lives of so many of us.” As many artists will attest, to work on technique is to work on the bugbears and shortcomings in the self; poetry is “interwoven with the tissue of the life.” In Kunitz's Socratic phrasing from the preface to his most recent book, Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected, the poet puts it this way: “Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.” If poetry and the life are inextricable, then there can be no summary division between Kunitz's work as teacher and his work as a poet. The heuristic impulse applies to the making of poems as to the teaching of them: both endeavors function as aides to discovery. While, of necessity, Kunitz's discussions of verse take on a character distinct from his poems, both are mined from the same vein. Where the poems are highly refined, their metal hammered to a near transparency, his broader, more sententious reflections on the writing life display both the raw materials and by-products of the verse. His numerous interviews trade phrases with the poems; poems crystallize journal entries and bits of conversation. Here we get a further sense of soma—the life/work as a whole organism as opposed to its discrete parts.
2. “I STAND ON THE TERRIBLE THRESHOLD”
In the title poem of “The Layers,” a section of new poems from The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, published when he was in his seventies, the poet wrings the liquor from several of his apothegms quoted above:
Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
Here, Kunitz animates the life/work connection through metaphor. Each phase of the life marks a chapter recorded in a “book of transformations.” (All poets live contemporaneously; their quickening takes place on the page.) The final line of the poem, a credo of sorts, sounds as a refrain in Kunitz's interviews; with it he refers at once to himself and his art. This is powerful juju from a septuagenarian poet, who fifteen or so years down the line may now look back and see that he was right: His changes are not finished, and the ethos behind this continuous transformation shows no sign of flagging.
A telling facet of the poet's outlook glitters from “The Layers.” Not only is change continual for Kunitz, but often his changes are “already written.” Compare this generosity of spirit with T. S. Eliot, who is middle age could already envision a state where one “do[es] not hope to turn again.” (Kunitz states his turning not once but twice in the poem.) As A. David Moody suggests, Eliot, in “Ash-Wednesday” resigns the “hope of a renewal of youth's joy and strength.” For Kunitz, however, youth harbors the source of those primordial networks of images that give a poet the strength to live and write. Less a model than a foil, Eliot functions for Kunitz as a kind of influence manqué, someone to put his feet up against. Whereas the forty-year-old Eliot indulges his hopelessness, the seventy something Kunitz exults from deep within the layers of the life.
This striking affirmation notwithstanding, Kunitz's sterling optimism, more of the hard-won variety than the cock-eyed kind, remains burnished. Here is the first half of “The Layers” leading up to the poem's pivotal line with its insistent “turn”s:
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face.
For the writer of a personal book of changes, the scope of “The Layers” could not be much broader. Far from milquetoast lyric composed to commemorate a fleeting observation, the poem assays life in its entirety, viewed back to front. At the center of the poem gapes a doorway dividing the past from the future, advantage point from which the poet may survey his surround; from this cusp Kunitz takes stock of his beginning and his end. Richard Jackson, in an interview with Kunitz, has pointed out the abundance of “thresholds” in the poems, as in “Open the Gates”: “I stand on the terrible threshold, and I see / The end and the beginning in each other's arms.” Again an echo of Eliot clamors from the wings, but even more nearly we hear the lines of the anonymous Scots poem “Balled of Sir Patrick Spence,” which Coleridge (another poet that Kunitz could claim to know) takes as an epigraph to his “Dejection: An Ode”: “Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon, / With the old Moon in her arms / And I fear, I fear, my master dear! / We shall have a deadly storm.” Signs and portents.
A storm rises in “The Layers” as well, blowing the dust of “those who fell along the way” into the poet's eyes. The speaker stands between the jambs of “I turn, I turn,” compelled to crane his neck in order to proceed forward. Behind, milestone dwindle into an expansive distance, slow fires trail; camps are abandoned, tribes scattered; the heart feasts on loss. The G-force on that tiny yet as it streaks into the atmosphere of the poem is nearly enough to squelch it. The turn is so tenuous starting out that it must be affirmed, gaining force in the repetition. Here the poet pivots in the doorway to peer forward again, but carrying the memory of what lies behind. Chilled in the penumbra of a recalled darkness, the speaker can exult only “somewhat,” but the will to proceed remains intact. In the transformative light of the speaker's resolve, fate, that aloof prankster, appears robed like grace; at the close of the poem, the next chapter of the life “is already written,” and in fact is being written as the poet peers past the lintel to utter at once a prophecy and a plea: “I am not done. …” A typographical representation of the poem would resemble one of Herbert's “Easter Wings.” The panorama of the past narrows as the speaker approaches his peripety at the poem's center (looking back, angels—of history?—are scavengers on heavy wings); from there the view expands again, opening, however tentatively, to an assured future. Herbert, a poet to whom Kunitz has long acknowledged indebtedness, concludes his poem with this angelic feather: “Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” Kunitz, in his, is similarly “compelled” to take stock of his afflictions before proceeding onward.
The next poem in Passing Through, from the 1985 collection, Next-to-Last Things, provides another point of intersection with Kunitz's more general poetic concerns. Noticing two garden snakes sliding among the conifers in his Provincetown plot, Kunitz murmurs:
I should have thought them gone, in a torpor of blood slipped to the nether world before the sickle frost. Not so. In the deceptive balm of noon, as if defiant of the curse that spoiled another garden, these two appear on show through a narrow slit in the dense green brocade of a north-country spruce, dangling head-down, entwined in a brazen love-knot. I put out my hand and stroke the fine, dry grit of their skins. After all, we are partners in this land, co-signers of a covenant. At my touch the wild braid of creation trembles.
(from “The Snakes of September”)
Compare the end of this passage with its prose corollary, which Stanley Moss cites in his introduction to Interviews and Encounters: “All myths are the same, all metaphors are the same metaphor; when you touch the web of creation at any point, the whole web shudders.” Poetry for Kunitz aspires to the status of myth, and by placing us squarely in the center of received myth “Snakes” serpentines toward the creation of a new, personal one (“the effort is to convert one's life into legend”). The scene proceeds through dualities, a constant division of ones into twos. Structurally, the poem divides in half on the volta-like sixteenth line; here we read that it's noon, the hour dividing ante- from postmeridian. “September” situates the speaker in an equinoctial month, and one supposes it to be the 23rd, the first day of the fall (read the Fall); for in a garden where netherworldly serpents are “defiant of the curse / that spoiled another garden,” how could it be otherwise? The poem turns on “not so,” after which twos repair into ones: The two snakes twine together; the poet partners with the serpents; they become “co-signers of a covenant.” At Kunitz's deft handling of covenant, the whole web of Biblical myth shudders, from Adam to Moses to Jesus.
In the structural complexity of “The Serpents,” with its dense helix of images spiraling down through the poem, we may behold Kunitz's own braid/web of creation. If you prod one image in Kunitz, other poems register a reaction. “If we go deep enough,” the poet explains, in his interview with Jackson, “we may discover the secret place where our key images have been stored since childhood. There are chains of other images attached to them, the accretions of the years. A single touch activates the whole cluster.” This last bit is immediately recognizable as a second paraphrase of “The Layers.” While many of Kunitz's poems rework the same “key images,” poem calls to poem most explicitly in “Touch Me”:
Summer is late, my heart. Words plucked out of the air some forty years ago when I was wild with love and torn almost in two scatter like leaves this night of whistling wind and rain.
The italicized first line echoes the poet's “As Flowers Are,” from Selected Poems, 1928–1958, the contents of which are sadly omitted from the current Selected:
Summer is late, my heart: the dusty fiddler Hunches under the stone; these pummelings Of scent are more than masquerade; I have heard A song repeat, repeat, till my breath had failed. As flowers have flowers, at the season's height, A single color oversweeps the field.
Kunitz's images, his personal archetypes, surface and resurface throughout his lyrics; the effect can be understood, not by reading one poem as separate from another, but by considering the work—poetry and prose—as a whole. In midcareer the poet traded the masterly pentameters of “As Flowers Are” for the sui generis “functional stressing” present in the later poetry quoted thus far—a loose trimeter or tetrameter line with ample variation where the ear dictates the intervals. Early Kunitz, which comprises three volumes—Intellectual Things (1930), Passport to the War (1944), and the 1958 Selected—employs a syntax and vocabulary that to today's ear may seem wantonly mandarin. These, however, are among the poems that Yvor Winters recommended to his students at Stanford. For many of that generation, Intellectual Things, by the precocious twenty-five-year-old, with its fluent formalism and lush syntax, was a manual on how to write verse. In the mid-Thirties Theodore Roethke, who at that time had yet to publish a volume of his own, appeared on Kunitz's doorstep wearing a raccoon coat and sporting a copy of that arresting first book. Inside, after a few drinks, Roethke proceeded to pay homage by reciting several of the poems from memory.
Part of Kunitz's evolution has been to thin out the linguistic densities of his early work, finding instead a pellucidity of surface and diction; the complexities of the later poems are formed in the layers hidden from ready view, which Kunitz locates “below the floor of consciousness.” Psychological richness replaces the early emphasis on prosodic richness. One may regret (as this reader does) the loss in Kunitz of the linguistic challenges of Intellectual Things. Formal brinkmanship, daring to go too far, while not always successful, can on occasion result in lines that lodge unassailably in the mind. If Passing Through were Kunitz's first book, would a young unknown show up with it committed to memory? Lines, yes; whole poems, no. Willfully weeding the poems of their surface mystery, Kunitz has labored to cultivate a mysterious interconnectedness in the inner tissue of a given poem and even between poems.
As the redeployment of the line from “As Flowers Are” suggests, while the early style may have developed into its virtual opposite—hermetic lines in received meters replaced by a “transparent” free verse—strings of recurring images endure, clinging in the web of the work in toto: “If you understand a poet's key images, you have a clue to the understanding of his whole work.” “Key images” is a felicitous phrase considering the extent to which locks and keys and doors operate in Kunitz's poems as just these kind of clues:
“Dante!” I cried to the apparition entering from the hall, laureled and gaunt, in a cone of light. “Out of mercy you came to be my Master and my guide!” To which he replied: “I know neither the time nor the way nor the number on the door … but this must be my room, I was here before.” And he held up in his hand the key, which blinded me.
(from “The Illumination”)
Set in a Paris hotel, the poem depicts a private heart of darkness, one in which the poet finds himself disconsolate, alone in a foreign city, his funds sapped. In this self-imposed exile from his native soil, the poet's most formidable demons conspire to haunt him: the parent he has denied, the friend he's failed, the hearts he's spoiled (“including my own left ventricle”). Out of this slough, poet calls to poet. An edition of Dante's Inferno, with engravings by Gustave Doré, which Kunitz knew in his childhood, figures in several of the poems, both early and late. As much as the Florentine's chthonic epic, the accompanying images by the nineteenth-century French engraver found purchase with the poet at that formative age. Doré's first plate in the Inferno, a depiction of Dante cowering in that dark wood, renders the pilgrim much as Kunitz does in “The Illumination”: “in a cone of light.” In the first Canto of the Comedy, the sun begins to rise, illuminating somewhat the savage wilderness and briefly bolstering Dante's spirits. Soon, Virgil, whom Dante calls maestro, appears. In “The Illumination” Kunitz paraphrases Dante's greeting in an address to his master; Alighieri's Paris incarnation, however, falters in his role as hoped-for Virgilian guide—he too is lost—and the key he proffers is blinding.
3. “THE KEY WHICH BLINDED ME”
Each image within a given body of work operates as a valise containing not only denotative meaning but the connotations accrued from the poet's deployment of that image elsewhere; hence, the “green thought” in “The Garden” can be grasped only in terms of Marvell's use of “green” throughout the body of his poems. What, then, is this “key” that Kunitz refers to, and what is it that is locked? The image reappears in “The Testing-Tree”:
Once I owned the key to an umbrageous trail thickened with mosses where flickering presences gave me right of passage.
As in “The Layers,” the “flickering presences” of the past, in this case the spirits of Wampanoag Indians, provide Kunitz with right of passage, but, as he discovers in “The Illumination,” the specters of the past, seen in that poem as private failings, can withhold imprimatur; in any case, they must be dealt with. In the early poem “Open the Gates,” in which Doré's images loom large, the poet again confronts his past as a requirement for stumbling forward:
Within the city of the burning cloud, Dragging my life behind me in a sack, Naked I prowl, scourged by the black Temptation of the blood grown proud.
Here at the monumental door Carved with the curious legend of my youth …
Before being admitted, the poet must decipher the conundrum posed by his youth; the information he needs to untangle this curious legend—his life—he has carried with him on his back.
Depending from this chain of images rattles a passage from “The Portrait,” which Kunitz has called, along with “The Layers,” a poem of origins:
My mother never forgave my father for killing himself, especially at such an awkward time and in a public park, that spring when I was waiting to be born. She locked his name in her deepest cabinet and would not let him out, though I could hear him thumping.
Locked as it is the deepest cabinet, the specter of the lost father lurks as the oldest and most powerful in Kunitz's poetry of personal legend. Perhaps it is the mother's willful internment of the memory of her husband (later in the poem, she tears up her son's pastel rendering of his father) that has caused this ghost to pace the floorboards of Kunitz's poetry. The father, however, as in the last line of “Father and Son,” often makes no reply; in answer to his son's entreaties for his return, the father offers only “the white ignorant hollow of his face.” The image recalls Dante via Doré. In the Vita Nuova, a title Kunitz borrows for one of the poems written in his twenties, Dante employs his own “key” image: “Here me and then consider: am not I / The keep and key / Of all the torments sorrow can combine.” Certainly this heartsick questioning lies in the same register as the description of the mother's locked cabinet with its grisly contents; it bespeaks the same desolate horror of that Paris hotel room; it feeds at the feast of losses glimpsed from the center of “The Layers.”
4. “ALL MYTHS ARE THE SAME”
If there is a peculiarity, not quite a flaw, in Kunitz's later style of freighted imagery, it is the way a poem sometimes changes gears too quickly, leaving the reader behind, as the poem speeds on toward revelation. At the end of “The Snakes of September,” the poet moves from the particular to the universal, as the “wild braid of creation trembles” at his touch. The poem earns its conclusion on the level of meaning, but there is something overripe about that “wild.” This rapid tonal shift to an ecstatic register jars, and for an instant our attention is diverted to the machinery of the poem working slightly too hard.
In his best work Kunitz achieves these grace notes while sacrificing nothing in the build up. “The Wellfleet Whale,” a jeweled tiara of a poem, crowns the poet's achievement, and restores some of the linguistic pomp of the early poetry. The poem carries a prose epigraph, a journal entry describing the poet's encounter with a whale stranded on the beach. The whale, now in its death throes, opens one prehistoric eye to gaze on the poet. While Kunitz's long poem should be read in full, this passage from the fifth and final section, carries the signature of the whole:
Voyager, chief of the pelagic world, you brought with you the myth of another country, dimly remembered, where flying reptiles lumbered over the steaming marshes and trumpeting thunder lizards wallowed in the reeds. While empires rose and fell on land, your nation breasted the open main, rocked in the consoling rhythm of the tides. Which ancestor first plunged head-down through zones of colored twilight to scour the bottom of the dark? ..... Master of the whale-roads, let the white wings of the gulls spread out their cover. You have become like us, disgraced and mortal.
The poignancy of the apostrophe, another of the poet's characteristic moves, derives from its personification of the doomed Leviathan. As with the September snakes or the titular salmon in “King of the River,” this creature from the natural world provides the poet with an appropriate catalyst for verse. Through these beasts Kunitz may refer to the human animal: “You have become like us.”
This suitability of the subject weds the suitability of the form; the concatenating tercets of “The Wellfleet Whale,” with their restless forward motion, provide Kunitz the sweep he needs to work this scene into the necessary tonalities, from the epic to the personal. By discarding inherited prosodic forms in his later poetry, Kunitz may be likened to a virtuoso who has left off playing from score and begun to improvise. Rather than grappling with standard measures, the poet relies on his own sense of a line's musicality to set the needed length and number of stresses. Echoing Blake, an abiding poetic forebear, and fellow seer, Kunitz notes, in an interview, “I must create a system myself or be enslaved by another man's.” Freed from rigid metrical contracts, this poet may better find the unique vessel appropriate to each poem. Oddly, Kunitz works out his two finest poems, “The Wellfleet Whale” and “The Testing-Tree,” in the same pattern of tercets wrought in numbered sections. This expansive form heightens the music of Kunitz's line:
You have your language too, an eerie medley of clicks and hoots and trills, location-notes and love calls, whistles and grunts. Occasionally, it's like furniture being smashed, or the creaking of a mossy door, sounds that all melt into a liquid song with endless variations, as if to compensate for the vast loneliness of the sea. Sometimes a disembodied voice breaks in as if from distant reefs, and it's as much as one can bear to listen to its long mournful cry, a sorrow without name, both more and less than human. It drags across the ear like a record running down.
(from “The Wellfleet Whale”)
Kunitz here submerges an ars poetica: “liquid song” sung “to compensate for the vast loneliness of the sea” could serve as the jacket blurb to this Selected. In the above passage we hear the whole symphony of Kunitz's musicianship: the pizzicato strings of “clicks and hoots and trills”; the legato horn of “location-notes and love calls”; the tympanic percussion of “a record running down.” All of this elegiac music, ostensibly for the dying mammal on that Cape Cod beach, borrows certain measures from the poet's life: as with Margaret in Hopkin's “Spring and Fall,” it is Kunitz that he mourns for, making “The Wellfleet Whale,” in its sweep and intimacy, the most far-reaching and potent of his many personal myths.
Part of the power of myths derives from our inability to pinpoint their exact meaning and message; they cannot be distilled to one-line thematic essence. Myth may be paraphrased, alluded to, stolen from, reworked, but its meanings resist the sound-bite; they are not fables with appended morals. In this sense, Kunitz's attempt to create a personal mythology, his legends of origin, has been wholly successful. More than isolated lyrics, the poems resonate, cross-pollinate, call to one another, and will not be reduced to incidental music. The dangers in writing a highly personal poetry of origins—dangers succumbed to by a number of Kunitz's epigones—include sentimentality and solipsism (the “who cares?” factor), which Kunitz's poems, happily, avoid. What registers instead emanates from the molten center of life-long experience, images transformed to poetry by their mystery and complexity, conveying human warmth, wisdom, and the poet's dearly held resolve to turn again, which is living itself.
SOURCE: “The Ladybug and the Universe,” in Georgia Review, Vol. L, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 386–403.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen comments on the task of the reviewer and offers a favorable evaluation of Passing Through, including close readings of two poems, “Three Floors” and “Touch Me,” from the volume.]
Every Sunday morning we watch CBS's Sunday Morning. Well, almost every Sunday morning. With The New York Times waiting, I wait, somewhat impatiently, for the final minute of the show—that minute where Charles Kuralt used to say, “I leave you now near Omaha, on the banks of the Missouri,” and the camera would simply sit there, looking at the long sweep of the river on a clear day in November with the sun lowering itself in the west. Then, a goose or two would come into the range of the lens, followed by more until the screen was filled with geese wheeling and banking, skein upon skein threading themselves through each other, the air filled with yelping as they came in to land. Or else he'd say, “I leave you in the mountains of Vermont,” and the camera would start up close, focused on ice melting, so that a drop would slowly form, take on solidity and weight, tug at its own surface tension, elongate, then drop to the stream below—over and over, the accumulated shedding of winter until, finally, the camera would carefully pull back, and we'd see a rushing stream and then, at last, the mountains in the distance.
Those moments mattered. In a busy world—one in which we do all too little sitting in the middle of the forest, or standing at the edges of rivers—they put us in touch with ourselves. With the self who had once been the child on her stomach in the grass watching the precarious progress of a ladybug, or the adolescent suddenly struck by the ever expanding universe as ranges of hills unfolded before her and the wind made the only sound for miles around, lonesome and austere. You only need to have had one of those moments in your life—one clear, fixed point at which you fit yourself into the larger world—for that final minute of CBS Sunday Morning to matter. It gave you back to yourself, briefly, even as it took you somewhere new.
Things have changed a bit since Charles Osgood took over. For one thing, he comments more, can't seem to resist using words to tell us that here in the flatlands of eastern Washington we are likely to see what the Spokane saw long before the white man, etc. In other words, he directs our thoughts just at the moment when they should be most free to roam. And the camera has changed, too—more radically, and far more destructively. It's a nervous camera now. Instead of letting things come into the range of its lens, it takes on life as an active verb, flitting from branch to branch, flirting with nature. It pounces on its images—one recent Sunday I counted six different animals in less than a minute—then darts away in search of something more interesting. The eye cannot rest, cannot take in, cannot settle and savor. We are no longer participants, but spectators.
Sometimes an individual poem can act as the fixed lens of the static camera. It can put us back in touch with ourselves by inviting a sustained attention, transforming its subject by the quality of the attention being paid. Once we've entered its field of vision, that poem opens to us others by the same writer. A poem we encounter in the initial stages of becoming familiar with a writer's work can have predictive power; it acts as a genetic marker, a key to open the door. We see more because of that earlier poem; we are attuned to nuance that comes from that earlier poem. We assume a kind of direct lineage, an underlying sensibility that links one with the other.
Reviewers, almost by definition, look at an expanding universe: the world created by the poet as the poems accumulate. When we make a statement about a book, it is necessarily abstracted, defined by what we think the individual poems add up to. So we tend to forget that the way they add up is poem by poem, drop by drop, and that how we read the individual poem is the way we once looked so hard at the ladybug—with intense scrutiny, amazed curiosity, passionate response.
Interestingly, it seems to be possible to agree on the cumulative effect of a poet's work without agreeing on the particulars. Joseph Brodsky's essay “On Grief and Reason” (1994) takes a long, hard look at two poems by Robert Frost. Brodsky finds a dark vision in Frost that leads, in the end, to the isolation of the poet as maker: “he stands outside, denied re-entry, perhaps not coveting it at all. … And this particular posture, this utter autonomy, strikes me as utterly American.” But on the way to a conclusion with which I concur, Brodsky fails to read the tone of “Come In” to such an extent that he gives the poem a particularly Catholic reading. I would venture to say that “repent” (which Brodsky would substitute for “lament”) was not much in Frost's vocabulary. Yankee Protestantism would dictate an even darker reading of the poem—one where a recognition of nature's indifference eclipses any religious yearnings. And when Brodsky reads the “darkened parlor” in “Home Burial” as a metaphor for the grave instead of what it clearly is—a darkened parlor—he also takes himself (as reader) outside the time frame of the poem. The child's body is still in the parlor; the husband is outside digging the grave with an abandon that offends the wife; the reader of the poem is expected to understand the simultaneity of the events in order to preclude any tendency to “take sides.” Frost stands with the reader; to make a metaphor would be to violate his impartiality, to force meaning. The greatness of “Home Burial” has always depended on its maker knowing “not to sing.”
Both the mystery and the individuality of reviewing, it seems to me, lie in how the leap is made from the particular to the abstract. For each book, there must be several discrete moments of recognition: moments in which the poem itself acts as objective correlative, as an entry to the way the poet's world comes to meaning. You look through the viewfinder, adjust the focus, and click: the lens flies open to take in the world of someone else.
This is especially true when you are reading poets with an established body of work, poets whose work you have followed over the years. How easily your voice slides into theirs. Maybe you've heard them read in person, made some adjustments in how you hear. Maybe you've simply grown used to the cadence, the rhythm of their thoughts. But there was a time when the work was new, when you walked into a strange landscape and didn't know which way to turn. And what you did was what nearly all readers do: you let one poem speak to you so deeply that it speaks still, and goes on speaking.
“As one who was not predestined, either by nature or by art, to become a prolific poet, I must admit it pleases me that, thanks to longevity, the body of my work is beginning to acquire a bit of heft.” This sentence, from the author's note to The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, was written almost twenty years ago. Now his longevity is celebrated once again in Passing Through, marking the occasion of Kunitz's ninetieth birthday. This book collects the poems from three books (including a Selected) written after 1958. It also contains the long major poem “The Wellfleet Whale,” which appeared as a separate chapbook, as well as nine new poems. “Three Floors,” first published in The Testing-Tree in 1971, is one of those poems that serves as a lens; it speaks to—and through—the later poems.
Mother was a crack of light and a gray eye peeping; I made believe by breathing hard that I was sleeping.
Sister's doughboy on last leave had robbed me of her hand; downstairs at intervals she played Warum on the baby grand.
Under the roof a wardrobe trunk whose lock a boy could pick contained a red Masonic hat and a walking stick.
Bolt upright in my bed that night I saw my father flying; the wind was walking on my neck, the windowpanes were crying.
Over the solid warp of the poem—a strict stanzaic and rhythmical structure placed there to support the sweep of memory and imagination—the poem is a sea of shifting images and associations. In sixteen lines, Kunitz has peopled the house with ghosts. The small boy is literally caught in the middle between past (the loss of his father) and future (his sister's marriage, his own manhood). The poet re-creates the various claims on his affections as he presents the immediate moment of the poem—the darkness and the visionary sight of his father flying. The reader is drawn into the poem's emotional complex in such a way that childhood itself, with all its confusions, is awakened in memory.
“Three Floors” is a study in variation. Alternating between four- and three-stress lines (with slight differences in syllabic count), each stanza is at once familiar and surprising. There is a contrast between the strong masculine end rhymes of “hand/grand” and “pick/stick” and the haunting feminine rhymes of “peeping/sleeping” and “flying/crying.” “Whose lock a boy could pick” is iambic trimeter, but the strong beat is muted so that each word must be read in a slower, more measured cadence. The child picks at the metaphorical lock of the family, hoping to discover his own identity.
The final couplet creates a sense of closure by returning to the strict meter of the poem and, at the same time, by moving into the realm of fantasy. In this way, the make-believe sleep of the first stanza is contrasted with, and equated to, the wide-awake vision of the last. The poem thus feels complete in its metrical package even as it opens up a strange emotional world where nothing is quite what it seems. “Three Floors” itself has become a vehicle for the imagination, creating a father for the son. But even as the father is apprehended, he seems to be leaving. In a frenzy, the child perceives an elemental loss where the external world reflects his own amorphous grief. And behind loss is a question: Warum—why? The father's death, the mother's anger, the child's internalized conflict—nothing makes sense. Without an answer, the child is fated to ask this question throughout his life. The imaginative act, then, is seen as a way of discovering meaning, of making a divided house, however briefly, whole.
Twenty-five years ago, “Three Floors” harked back to a still earlier poem, “Father and Son” (1944), in which the poet searched for the lost father who had committed suicide before the son's birth—and found, at the bottom of a pond, “the white ignorant hollows of his face.” But it also pointed to a companion piece in The Testing-Tree, “The Portrait,” in which the mother jealously, even angrily, denies the child any access to his dead father. But now, in 1996, “Three Floors” seems to prefigure the new and important final poem of Passing Through.
Summer is late, my heart. Words plucked out of the air some forty years ago when I was wild with love and torn almost in two scatter like leaves this night of whistling wind and rain. It is my heart that's late, it is my song that's flown. Outdoors all afternoon under a gunmetal sky staking my garden down, I kneeled to the crickets trilling underfoot as if about to burst from their crusty shells; and like a child again marveled to hear so clear and brave a music pour from such a small machine. What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire. The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life. One season only, and it's done. So let the battered old willow thrash against the windowpanes and the house timbers creak. Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.
“Touch Me” connects directly to its antecedent, but it is a connection made as much by contrast as by similarity. What makes these two poems coalesce, for me, is sensibility—and the poet's desire to fix the moment in memory. Once again he is lying in bed, haunted by wind and rain, by the branches thrashing against the windowpanes. And once again he sees through to the heart of things. This time, however, the present is meditative as opposed to visionary. He reactivates the child whose questions haunted the earlier poem by recovering the child who paid attention to the crickets. Both poems contain the large underlying question of identity, but the later poem poses, first, the simple question of being.
Opening with a reference to a much earlier poem (“As Flowers Are”), “Touch Me” is a bit less formal than “Three Floors”; the structure is more subtle, its music even more varied, and its methods more sure. There are the same intricate rhymes—more a crochet than a weaving—slant rhymes that make a pattern like the fluid course of a soccer ball as the players work it down the field: “rain/flown/afternoon/down” and later “again/machine/done,” or the initial “air” echoed in “clear/pour/desire, desire, desire” and then, as in a reprise, caught up again in “remember”—the operative word of the poem. But the ending is not elevated as in “Three Floors,” where the poet tries to make language fill the void. In “Touch Me” he falters at the edge of the visionary, falters where the song has “flown,” pulling back from the urge to fabricate in favor of the urge to resuscitate. At the exact moment when the earlier poem would have made the transformative leap, this one settles back. The poet forgoes rhyme and rhythm in favor of statement, a deflated kind of poetry that makes the end both terrible and moving: “Darling, do you remember / the man you married?”
The line break is crucial. Because if she remembers, then he has identity; if she remembers, she connects with the person who was “wild with love”; if she remembers, she is the link between the old man, his younger self, the child, the cricket, the very earth in which he has been gardening all afternoon. She connects him to his life through touch—the very thing that was withheld in “Three Floors.” Even as he interrogates, he answers his own question: “remind,” not “show.”
The act (if it comes) will remind him of what has already been fulfilled. The gesture of poetry is superseded. “Touch Me” is a poem of completion and incompletion: poetry can only do so much, makes the link for the poet but it isn't sufficient. With great honesty and great vulnerability he admits to a need for another to restore him fully to a sense of himself, but it is a self rooted firmly in the present tense: “who I am.” Such a simple poem (a study in monosyllables almost comparable to Frost's) for such a complex thought.
Speaking of poetry as a form of blessing, Kunitz tells us (in an introduction to Passing Through, which he calls “Instead of a Foreword”) that “it would be healthier if we could locate ourselves in the thick of life, at every intersection where values and meanings cross, caught in the dangerous traffic between self and universe.” Time and again, as this volume shows, Kunitz locates himself at that intersection, still asking why and still discovering that, although it has “one season only,” life is worth the living.
SOURCE: “Short Reviews,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXIX, No. 4, February, 1997, pp. 291–93.
[In the following review, Taylor offers a positive assessment of Passing Through.]
This selection displays once again Stanley Kunitz's remarkable range and subtlety. Adding nine recent poems to work originally printed in The Testing-Tree (1971), Next-to-Last Things (1985) and “The Layers” (which appeared in the acclaimed 1979 edition of his collected poetry), Kunitz passes from retrospective appraisals of personal tragedy (“My mother never forgave my father / for killing himself … that spring / when I was waiting to be born”) to haunting metaphysical allegories, such as his anthropomorphic portrayal, in “King of the River,” of a salmon almost consciously longing for metamorphosis and transcendence. Connecting many of these otherwise disparate poems are compelling themes of innocence and love—the loss of both, the search for both. Time and again the poet depicts himself, family members, acquaintances, even the Acropolic caryatids and the mummy of Ramses the Second (as in the ironic, erudite “Signs and Portents”), striving to recover states of purity or harmony.
No poem summarizes this endeavor better than the moving final one, “Touch Me,” in which an aged narrator—Kunitz was born in 1905—kneels “to the crickets trilling / underfoot as if about / to burst from their crusty shells.” “Like a child again,” the poet marvels “to hear so clear / and brave a music pour / from such a small machine.” And so absorbed does he remain in this ephemeral phenomenon—“The longing for the dance / stirs in the buried life. One season only, / and it's done”—that eventually he must ask his beloved to “remind” him who he is. He is indeed a human being anchored, not in eternity, but rather in time. Yet hasn't his time-bounded wonder at the trilling somehow put him in touch with eternity?
This finely-crafted poetry raises this question. The poet is at once grateful for having been allowed to witness one of life's miracles and acutely aware that such experiences exacerbate the pain fostered by the knowledge of inescapable endings. In “The Knot,” for example, he praises the undying desire of a resin-oozing, cross-grained knot, imprisoned in the lintel of his door, to sprout “shoots / that crackle overhead, / dividing as they grow.” Yet his cry “Let be!” is ultimately ambiguous (and for this reason, poignant), for it is in poetry alone that a man can “shake [his] wings” and fly into the envisioned boughs. In “The Abduction,” a psychologically intricate poem about a woman's recurrent, ambivalent memory of being raped, Kunitz simply puts it this way: “What do we know / beyond the rapture and the dread?” He is by no means a despairing or an unconsolable poet, however, even when evoking “a murderous time” in which “the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.” In any dichotomy pitting the certainty of having felt something extraordinary against the uncertainty of what the feelings signify, recollected rapture inevitably outbalances skepticism and gloom. In “The Round,” for example, he tellingly depicts himself “sitting in semi-dark / hunched over my desk / with nothing for a view / to tempt me / but a bloated compost heap”; yet in this downstairs “cell” he transforms into words the “curious gladness” that he had felt earlier that morning as “light splashed … on the shell-pink anemones.” The conclusion of this insightful poem about the poetic process bespeaks a characteristic, quiet optimism: “I can scarcely wait till tomorrow / when a new life begins for me, / as it does each day.”
The act of naming necessarily simplifies, indeed diminishes, the sudden, overwhelming original perception, saturated with sense stimulators; such are the limitations of language. Yet written words can nevertheless reclaim a semblance of the enrapturing moment from oblivion. Such a “moment,” Kunitz observes in his brief preface, “is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay.” Sometimes the enchanting or bewitching past moment embodies an enduring duty that must be passed on. Kunitz recalls, for instance, how his night-fears would be assuaged by his candle-bearing sisters; now that they have died, he can return the tenderness in a lullaby: “Let nothing grieve you, / Sarah and Sophia. / Shush, shush, my dears, / now and forever.”
Motivating these poems are multifarious falls from grace. Kunitz sometimes confesses to his own misdeeds or alludes to disruptive political events; he rarely rages, however, although occasionally he is sardonic. Instead, he summons his considerable delicacy of touch with regard to meter and discreet half-rhymes to explore his—our—“disgraced, mortal” predicament. These portentous adjectives qualify the unlucky, beached, dying “Wellfleet whale,” the subject of another magnificent allegory set halfway between human society and a pristine natural world. The descriptions are scientifically precise, yet they build into troubling metaphors suggesting that—at birth, as it were—human beings are also cast up on coastal rocks and “delivered to the mercy of time.” We, too, await our “hour of desolation” Perhaps, like the stranded whale, we, too, have brought with us “the myth / of another country, dimly remembered.” Kunitz is at his most masterful when he opens up, as if through the thick wall of the material world, peepholes looking out onto such vistas.
SOURCE: “An Interview with Stanley Kunitz,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Fall, 1997, pp. 646–54.
[In the following interview, Kunitz comments on his life, work, creative inspiration, Jewish heritage, and the significance of poetry.]
On Tuesday, December 5, 1995, I interviewed Stanley Kunitz in his spacious Greenwich Village apartment, crammed with books and plants and works of art. He had just returned from a reading in Cambridge, but had found time while on the train to write some answers to my questions and referred to these texts during the interview. In the spring of 1997 we had a follow-up discussion that led to a number of revisions and additions.
Stanley Kunitz was born in 1905 and has won many honors for his poetry, including the Pulitzer, Bollingen, and Lenore Marshall Prizes, and most recently the National Book Award for Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected. In 1993, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton at a White House ceremony.
[Pacernick:] Stanley, you have said to Bill Moyers that “poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world.” Can you elaborate, especially about what makes it such a life-enhancing activity?
[Kunitz:] The experience of love and the creative act are the supreme expressions of the life force. They do more than express it; they refresh and renew it and give it back, magnified.
What have you found the hardest thing about being a poet? You're obviously saying that it's extremely important and beneficial, but I'm sure there are hard things about it.
Being a poet is more or less easy, but writing poems is difficult.
Are you talking about the formal challenge, are you talking about finding just the right word?
Making it right, in sound and sense; making it whole and true.
Are you the person who determines that? Do you feel that you, finally, are the person who knows whether the poem works?
In the long run I do. I try very hard not to be self-deceived.
What is the most enjoyable thing about being a poet for you?
The knowledge that there is nothing else I would rather do or be.
Here we are, almost at the end of the twentieth century with all these incredible technological changes, most significantly in the modes and process of communication. Is there any future for poetry in the new age?
The relevance of poetry is to the history of civilization, not to the progress of technology. Poets today can hope to do precisely what poets have always done, that is, tell the story of the human adventure, express what it feels like to be alive in this particular time, this particular place.
What does a poet need to know about craft, and are rhyme and meter still important enough to be part of a young poet's training?
I am never satisfied that I know enough about craft. I am still learning. But I think that it's important to stress that craft is not an end in itself, only a means. Only a means to gain control over language, to make it more sensitive to the modulations of one's thoughts and feelings, to improve its precision so that one won't have to tell lies.
You are someone who has written poetry of note both in traditional forms and in free verse. Do you think free verse can be taught, and is there anything coherent and plausible that one can say about writing free verse poetry?
In the first place, I don't think free verse is free. It has rather indeterminate principles, but at the least it must connect and cohere and establish a defining rhythmic pulse. As to whether traditional form is still essential, all I can say, out of my own experience, is that my early discipline in metrics and rhyme has been invaluable to me, even though I no longer tend to write in strict metrical patterns and prefer subtler internal harmonies to the click of rhyme. Incidentally, there were no graduate writing programs in my youth. I learned my craft by studying the poets around and before me.
What do you think inspired you to be a poet, and as part of that, were there poets who made you want to write poetry?
When Henry James, toward the end of his life, reflected on his long creative voyage, he identified his point of embarkation as the port of his loneliness. That is true of most of the poets I know. “A poem is solitary and on its way,” said Paul Celan, the poet of the Holocaust. What sets it on its way is the search for a community.
Do you identify with any of your contemporaries in particular? Of course one thinks of Roethke and Lowell. Are there others?
I feel close to a whole tribe of poets, young and old, but in the act of writing a poem, I have always felt alone.
Do you have any favorite poems of your own? Which are they and why?
A new poem is always the one I feel closest to, if only for a while.
“The Wellfleet Whale” is different from most of your other poems. Was your writing process in that poem different from your usual procedure?
“The Wellfleet Whale” had a long gestation period. I knew from the beginning, in September 1966, when the whale foundered in Wellfleet Harbor, that it was a significant experience, and I experimented through the years with various ways of conveying what I saw and experienced. All of them were failures. During that interval, I had an opportunity on Cape Cod to study other beached whales, went out on sightseeing watches, and read whatever seemed to me even remotely pertinent, until I began to feel I was part of the civilization of the whale. Fifteen years after the event, I was able to pull it all together and write the poem.
You succeeded in converting all that information into a significant action. Can you comment on your guiding principle of organization?
In the end, I turned to Greek drama—specifically Sophoclean tragedy—to help me solve the problem of the poem's architecture. Jane Harrison's Prolegomena clarified for me the main structural elements in the development of the action, from agon to recognition scene. It's a poem that wants to be read aloud, preferably in the open air. I guess I'm really thinking of an ancient amphitheater.
You have translated Russian poets. How did you come to the Russian poets?
I came rather naturally to them. After all, my parents were raised in Eastern Europe. My mother's forebears, who were fugitives from Spain, wandered through central Europe until they settled in Lithuania at the time of the Inquisition. Despite this heritage, I never heard Russian or any foreign language spoken in our household during my childhood. My connection with the Russian poets dates from the early sixties, when Patricia Blake, then a correspondent for Time, and the Oxford scholar Max Hayward, the outstanding Slavist of that period, persuaded a number of friends and acquaintances to undertake translations of Andrei Voznesensky's poems for an edition in English of his Antiworlds. This was the book that made Andrei famous in the Soviet Union and eventually everywhere else. There were six of us in that list of translators, and none of us, including Auden and Wilbur, knew a word of Russian, but we felt confident that we could rely on Max's literal versions and, if needed, his interpretation of the text. I felt the same way a few years later, when Max and I collaborated on the poems of Akhmatova, an exceptionally important book for me.
Did the intimate contact with Akhmatova's poems affect your own work?
I hope I learned something from Akhmatova about the management of an open style and the possibility of breaking down the barrier between the public and private poem. Perhaps I learned something more from the passion and humanity of her voice.
You recently won the National Book Award for poetry with the publication of Passing Through, the poems of your later years, including your newest work. Thirty-six years before, in 1959, you received the Pulitzer Prize. Did that earlier recognition have a significant impact on you and your career as a poet?
One doesn't write poetry for prizes, but I have to admit that the Pulitzer Prize actually changed the course of my life. It gave me self-confidence at a time when I needed it sorely. The manuscript for my Selected Poems, 1928–1958 had been rejected by more publishers than I could bear to count before Atlantic accepted it. I had been through a bad period and I was tired of being called a “poet's poet.” That sudden turn of the wheel did wonders for my morale.
Do you have any themes, concerns, subjects that matter a great deal to you and enter frequently into your work?
Actually, I never think about themes when I am writing my poems. In the usual course of events, my poems spring from the occasions of the day, something perceived as beautiful or terrible or true. When that perception attaches itself to language and rhythm, I know I am on my way, but not with any foreknowledge of my destination. Whenever I yield to the temptation to explicate one of my poems, I am astonished at all the secrets I find buried in the text. Poets are characterized less by their subject matter than by their tone of voice, their ground of feeling. When I was still at school, I picked up a volume of Keats's letters and discovered the passage in which he spoke of “the holiness of the heart's affections.” More than seventy years later, those words still light the way for me.
As I look around your apartment, I see many striking works of art, including several by your wife Elise Asher. You have written about some of your artist friends. Would you comment on that relationship?
Like so many other poets, past and present, I have a feeling of kinship with painters and their art. During my youth in Worcester, my favorite haunts were the woods, the public library, and the local art museum, and it seemed almost inevitable that I should eventually marry into the world of painters. When that happened in the fifties in New York, I inherited Elise's friends and soon felt very much a part of the emerging generation of Abstract Expressionist painters just as they were preparing to step into the limelight. They were wonderful company—lively, articulate, ambitious, hard-working, hard-drinking, gregarious, outrageous, and ready at any hour to argue about anything. Eventually, of course, success and fame and hypertension took their toll. I'm thinking, in particular, of Rothko, de Kooning, Guston, and Kline—all of them gone now. But in the early years, they seemed to embody Blake's dictum that “energy is eternal delight,” and their élan struck me as irresistible and contagious. Painters, I think, have a special gift for friendship.
Have you done any artwork yourself?
I am never happier than when I am working with my hands. In Provincetown, where we spend a good portion of the year, my toolroom and garden compete for attention with my study. If there's any odd job that needs to be done around the house, I treat it as a challenge. There was a period when I produced a number of collages and assemblages and wire sculptures, but that was when I could make a bit of free time available. These days I seem to be busier than ever.
Dante is a presence in your work. In “The Illumination,” you address his apparition as “my Master and my guide.” What is the source of your connection?
My conversation, so to speak, with Dante began very early. Thanks to my immigrant parents, our house in Worcester was the only one in the neighborhood, as far as I knew, that could boast of an extensive library. It was there that I first encountered the plays of Shakespeare, each in a separate volume, bound in red cloth, with a critical preface and an appendix of historical sources. Other well-thumbed books that I recall were complete sets of Tolstoy, Dickens, and Thackeray; the poems of Browning, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Whittier; a multi-volume set of classic histories, including Plutarch, Gibbon, Grote, and Prescott; the Century Dictionary, unabridged; Spinoza and Maimonides; and the Holy Bible, leather-bound, both Old and New Testaments, with red-ink passages and marginal glosses. But the book that enthralled me most in that library was a folio edition of Dante in Cary's translation, with the Gustave Doré illustrations. Those visual images of Hell took possession of my imagination. I used to sit in that library with this enormous folio on my lap (I was twelve years old or so), terrified by that vision of the underworld. I had nightmares. So Dante was with me at a most impressionable stage. Later, at Harvard, I studied The Divine Comedy with C. H. Grandgent, the famous Dante scholar.
The poet Gregory Orr, who has written a book about you, says the suicide of your father shortly before you were born is the central fact of your imaginative life, “that from which all else flows.” Do you agree?
Certainly the most traumatic event through my formative years.
The poem “The Knot,” which I find mysterious, does that have symbolic associations for you, and how did you come to write it?
The poem's origin is quite simple, nothing mysterious about it. Over a period of years, in our place on the Cape, I couldn't help but notice a great swirling knot that kept bleeding through several layers of paint on the lintel of our bedroom door. And the more I studied it, the more I marveled at its persistence, as though it still had a buried life, a will to grow, to become branching pine again “out of the trauma of its lopping-off.” As I lay in bed, only half-awake, it did not seem far-fetched to imagine flying into its boughs.
Another deep, difficult poem, “The King of the River.” What kind of disintegration takes place within the narrator? “You would dare to be changed, / as you are changing now, / into the shape you dread / beyond the merely human.” Are you writing of madness there, or are you writing of some other kind of transforming experience?
“King of the River” deals primarily with the aging process. The Pacific Northwest salmon gets done with it in only a few weeks. For humans, death is the most definitive of a long series of gradual transformations. That thought adds to the complication of feelings when I say in a later poem, “The Layers”: “I am not done with my changes.”
Is “An Old Cracked Tune” in some way suggestive of Jewish alienation and suffering for you?
The very first line, “My name is Solomon Levi,” is borrowed from an ugly, anti-Semitic street song recollected from my college days. Coincidentally, Solomon was my father's first name. According to what I have learned, he was a Levite, and so am I by inheritance descended from a tribe with a priestly function. Obviously, “An Old Cracked Tune” has some connection with my heritage. As for alienation and suffering, I believe that the people of the Diaspora carry the memory of exile in their blood. But don't forget that the singer of this poem closes it with a dance.
You were obviously raised to be conscious of Judaism as a religion.
I was raised in a Jewish community in Worcester. In our household the emphasis was never on religious practice, but on the ethical tradition. And so it still remains for me.
A tough question: Do you consider yourself a Jewish poet?
My sense is that the noun “poet” does not require a qualifying adjective, either Jewish or American or modern.
Didn't the Nazi death camps of World War II have a powerful effect on you?
Of course! Even Dante's vision of Hell hadn't prepared me for that monstrous reality.
It doesn't seem to enter into your poetry directly.
It's there, nevertheless, deep in the substratum of my poems. The one poem that seems to me great and terrible enough to evoke the smell of evil, the delirium, of the death camps is Celan's “Todesfugue.” Only a survivor of the camps could have written it, one whose borrowed life ended in suicide. My most explicit approach to the genocidal horror of the Hitler years is my poem in honor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that true Christian, whose failed plot against the Führer led to his death by hanging—yes, in an extermination camp. I call it, “Around Pastor Bonhoeffer.”
How would you characterize your faith? Is it an artistic faith, is it a religious faith?
I am a non-believer, but with strong religious impulses and yearnings.
Has the Bible influenced your poetry?
The Bible—Jewish and Christian, as I've already indicated—was one of the first books that I studied, page after page.
Here's big question. How does one face death and can poetry help?
One lives and dies simultaneously. It happens bit by bit, every day. I have tried to report that dialogue. In my childhood I dreaded going to sleep, because I was terrified at the thought of losing consciousness. I am less fearful of death in my nineties than I was in my teens, for the natural cycle has its own reasons, even its own dark beauty. In consider myself lucky to have been given this life.
America doesn't seem to listen to its poets. If America listened to its poets, what could it learn?
Our American culture has no poetry written into its origin. We inherited our poetry—mostly hymns and heroic couplets—from England, and we've tended, since the onset of the Industrial Age, to regard the medium itself as superfluous or frivolous, if not dangerous. Whitman clearly perceived that our myth, our great national myth, has to do with power, success, money; and he attempted to supersede it with a myth of Democracy and of himself as Democratic Man. And the truth is that he died unhappy, believing that he had failed, that his country had rejected him. We still need to understand that a nation that alienates itself from the creative imagination has already begun to wither.
You seem to agree with your mentor William Blake that the genius of the poetic imagination is the most important gift. What do you hope to still accomplish?
Oh, how do I know? I want to record whatever I feel most deeply. And I have plenty of unfinished business.
What is the most amazing thing about life?
Life itself is the most amazing thing in the universe!
What is the most amazing thing about your life?
Maybe it's that here I am, at this age, still loving this life as I did from the very beginning, and wanting more.
And finally, while many of your poems have an elegiac tone, you have survived and lived a long, rich life. Have you found light within the darkness?
Love and poetry are lights enough.
SOURCE: “Lost Worlds: Midcentury Revisions of Modernism,” in Containing Multitudes: Poetry in the United States Since 1950, Twayne, 1998, pp. 1–36.
[In the following excerpt, Moramarco and Sullivan discuss the historical context of mid-twentieth-century American poetry and provide an overview of Kunitz's literary career, thematic preoccupations, and the development of his poetic style.]
“O world so far away! O my lost world!”
—Theodore Roethke, “Otto”
“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”
—Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers”
Major midcentury poets like Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and Stanley Kunitz, born in the first two decades of the twentieth century and at the center stage of poetry by the fifties, inherited the heaviest of burdens. Not only did they work in the shadows of their towering predecessors—T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, E. E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams, who were still publishing important work—but they were not free to carry out the modernist creed of making poetry new. By now classical modernists such as Allen Tate and New Critics such as John Crowe Ransom had already defined modern poetry and restricted both its vision and its aesthetic practices. Modern poetry, they believed, should acknowledge human fallibility, the perplexing nature of existence, as well as the decline of Western civilization and the singular value of art and tradition in a decadent age. It should be ironic, impersonal, complex, allusive, and carefully wrought. As if this cramped predicament were not enough, the American poet was becoming more isolated, less tied to a complacent audience rapidly turning to mass media for its culture.
History was equally unkind. By the end of the 1950s, these poets had witnessed the Great Depression; two world wars; the Holocaust, which resulted in the death of more than 6 million Jews; the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the firebombing of cities in Germany and Japan; the specter of totalitarianism in Stalin's Russia; the intrigues of the Cold War; and, at home, the rise of the security state, McCarthyism, and the injustices of racism. The decade Robert Lowell characterized as “the tranquilized Fifties”1 offered little hope for a “brave new world.”
In addition, the poets’ lives were often as bleak. Most of the major midcentury poets suffered either a personal or psychological loss in childhood that threatened their sense of identity, belonging, and well-being. Given their private and public histories, many fell victim to various addictions, psychological breakdowns, shattered relationships and marriages, and extremely disruptive lives. A disproportionate number actually committed suicide. They were, seemingly, a cursed generation who had been born in the worst of times. Having lost their connection to a secure, comforting world, they struggled to write well and honestly and—literally—to remain alive in a hostile environment.
Out of this struggle came some very significant poetry that is often overlooked as readers pass quickly from the modernists to what Donald Allen called, in an important anthology, The New American Poetry. A closer look at these middle-generation poets reveals a group of artists who courageously faced the dislocations of their public and private lives in a manner more direct and more linked to contemporary events and to actual life than that of such classical modernists as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. For the new generation there is much less obliqueness, less insistence on “objective correlatives” (Eliot's term for poetic language that corresponds to particular emotional states) and corresponding myths and allusions; in place of these modernist literary values there is more emphasis on directly confronting the particulars of existence. These poets not only test the classical modernists’ insistence that poetry must flee from the personal but actually move closer to what would become a central strain of contemporary American poetry: an insistence on the primacy of personal experience. As they wrote more candidly about individual experience and personal history, they also explored the possibilities of a more prosaic diction and less rigid rhythms than their predecessors had used. Their difficulties were many and often overwhelming; they are not to be seen as the last vestiges of a self-satisfied but exhausted movement but as a bridge to new territory in American poetry.
As James Breslin illustrates in From Modern to Contemporary,2 earlier strains of modernism may have come to “The End of the Line”; however, in vision and form, a number of the midcentury poets pushed ahead, retaining what they found valuable in the earlier modernist models but also creating their own poetic worlds and constructs. The result, viewed after the heat of the battle between perceived traditionalists and innovators has cooled, is a body of work that is often moving and, presumably, lasting. …
STANLEY KUNITZ (B. 1905)
In 1935 Theodore Roethke arrived at Stanley Kunitz's doorsteps with a copy of Intellectual Things (1930), Kunitz's first published volume of poems. In that volume and those that followed, as well as his prose (A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly , and Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays ), the literary kinship between Kunitz and Roethke became clear: both were lost travelers seeking a new world.
Born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, the central event in Kunitz's life was the loss of his father, Solomon, who committed suicide by swallowing carbolic acid in a public park when his mother was pregnant with Kunitz.3 His mother, Yetta, was so devastated by her husband's suicide that she refused to allow his name to be spoken in the house. forced to support a family of three (two daughters and Stanley) and rescue a bankrupt dressmaking business, she became, in Kunitz's words, “a pioneer businesswoman,” who opened a dry goods store and sewed garments in the back room. Unfortunately, her business affairs, which kept her from her family, and her less than passionate nature—Kunitz can't recall ever being kissed by Yetta—made it certain that there would be little warmth from his mother. When Stanley was eight, Yetta married Mark Dine, a gentle and scholarly man Kunitz grew to love; however, he died when Kunitz was fourteen. This tragic childhood became Kunitz's major theme, his “Old Cracked Tune,” which is expressed by his speaker, Solomon Levi: “the desert is my home, / my mother's breast was thorny, / and father I had none” (87). Fate, circumstance, and tragedy, as in the Greek dramas, seemed to haunt the Kunitz household, and it was out of these dark autobiographical strands that he sought to transform his life into legend or chaos into myth and achieve “a new ordering of creation.”4
This insistence that the poet treat his personal experience as myth differentiates Kunitz from Eliot and his followers who insisted that poetry be both mythic and impersonal. “From the beginning,” Kunitz declares, “I was a subjective poet in contradiction to the dogma propounded by Eliot and his disciples that objectivity, impersonality, was the goal of art. Furthermore, I despised his politics” (Next, 89). Kunitz found it ironic that he would eventually be classified as a late convert to confessional or autobiographical poetry, since from the start his “struggle [had been] to use the life in order to transcend it, to convert it into legend” (89).
There is also a rhetorical mode of subjectivity in Kunitz's poetry that emerges in his quest to find a language and rhythm that not only communicates but, more important, also recreates past emotions and thoughts. It is not the I, the ego, that writes the poem, Kunitz declares, “but my cells, my corpuscles, translating into language the chemistry of a passion” (29). Thus, “the wisdom of the body” occurs when one thinks with one's senses and relies on the primitive, shamanistic, incantatory elements of language; for “poems rise out of the swamps of the hindbrain,” (51) and “our best songs are body songs” (53). “Key images,” Kunitz explains, also rise out of the poet's unconscious. These images uniquely mark each poet's work and come from a poet's “childhood and … are usually associated with pivotal experiences.” This “cluster of key images is the purest concentration of the self, the individuating node, the place where the persona starts” (30). By “revisiting” one's pivotal childhood experiences, “one's state of … innocence,” the poet hopes “to learn how to live with the child” (30) he once was. As Gregory Orr, poet and former student of Kunitz, points out in his critical study,5 these images enable the reader to enter Kunitz's world.
The images of the wound in “The Hemorrhage” or the haunted house in “In a Strange House” suggest his lost world of innocence, the absence of father and mother, and his present state of alienation. The image of the journey, in “The Layers,” by contrast, suggests the need to move beyond a crippling nostalgia for the past and to transcend an unrelentingly painful existence. The paradox that “we are living and dying at once” is captured in these key images, and it is Kunitz's goal “to report the dialogue” (Next, 30).
This contrapuntal music of “nostalgia and desire” is recorded in the subjective “body-language” of the poet. Kunitz's belief in the physiological nature of poetry and his stress on the poet's breath links him to poets like Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. And like Robert Bly and James Wright, Kunitz draws his key images from the deep recesses of his mind, if not from the world of dreams itself. His poetry is not only autobiographical but also expressionistic and, at times, surrealistic. Like the abstract expressionist painters, or action painters, Kline, deKooning and like the poet Roethke, with whom he was friends, he views his work as a subjective “kind of action … every achieved metaphor … is a gesture of sorts, the equivalent of the slashing of a stroke on canvas” (107).
Given his very personal approach and early metaphysical style—his difficult syntax, complex metaphors, and numerous literary and historical allusions—it is little wonder that his first two volumes (Intellectual Things , Passport to War ) were not in fashion in either the thirties, the decade of social reform, or the forties, when W. H. Auden's witty, elegant verse dominated the scene. When the confessional mode of the fifties did come about, few were aware that Kunitz had been writing highly personal poetry for nearly three decades. In an early poem, “For the Word Is Flesh,” for example, he laments his “O ruined father dead, long sweetly rotten / Under the dial …” and bitterly concludes “Let sons learn from their lipless fathers how / Man enters hell without a golden bough” (Poems, 190, 91).
By the time Kunitz published Intellectual Things (1930) he had earned his B.A., summa cum laude (1926), and his M.A. from Harvard (1927), and he had secured a job with the H. W. Wilson Company, a reference publisher in New York City, after being rejected for a teaching position at Harvard University because he was told by the English faculty that the “‘Anglo-Saxon students would resent being taught English by a Jew’” (Next, 100). At Wilson's he began a long and distinguished career as an editor of Authors Biographical Series and of such important biographical series as Living Authors and Twentieth Century Authors. His career was disrupted in 1943 when he was drafted as a conscientious objector, shuttled to various training camps, and eventually assigned to the Air Transport Command at Gravely Point, Washington.
Kunitz has identified Passport to the War as his “bleakest book.” For his “passport,” or draft notice, plunged him into the dark night of history. These lines are from “Night Letter,” a poem addressed to his beloved: “I suffer the twentieth century, / … The slaughter of the blue-eyed open towns, / And principle disgraced, and art denied.” The speaker informs his love that “The bloodied envelope addressed to you, / Is history, that wide and mortal pang” (Poems, 161). In “Father and Son,” one of his most famous and most analyzed poems, the speaker follows his ghostly father through a symbolic, dreamlike landscape that reeks of decay and death to the pond from which his father has come and to which he will return; here the son hopes to communicate with “the secret master of my blood” whose love “Kept me in chains.” He rehearses the sins and failures he wishes to confess to his father and then desperately asks his father to come back to him. Then he pleads: “‘O teach me how to work and keep me kind.’” The father, however, can only turn “The white ignorant hollow of his face” (157, 58) toward his son. There are no instructions, directions, or words from the fathers of history. The son must move beyond his obsession with his lost world represented by his suicidal father.
Selected Poems, 1928–1958 received numerous awards and established Kunitz as one of the most important midcentury poets; the volume contains a number of the most moving love poems and visionary poems of the period. They also show Kunitz to be an evolving poet: “I am not done with my changes” (36), he writes later in “The Layers” (1978), and certainly one of his more dramatic changes was the shift in style that took place in his fourth volume, The Testing-Tree (1971). Prior to this book, Kunitz's complex imagery, difficult syntax, and formal language created a texture that often proved too dense and tangled for many readers. Beginning with The Testing-Tree, however, Kunitz's verse becomes direct, immediate, and accessible as he narrates the particular events of his past and present life using a William Carlos Williams—like mode of diction, syntax, and rhythm. In “Journal for My Daughter,” for example, the informal nature of a journal is reflected in short, crisp lines and accessible diction as Kunitz renders in journal entries his experiences with his daughter: “I like the sound of your voice / even when you phone from school / asking for money” (41).
And in “The Testing-Tree,” composed in Williams's triadic or three-part line and his distinctly American diction, Kunitz sharply depicts his boyhood rituals in the fields and hills surrounding Worcester. This is his entry into the world of nature as he “followed in the steps / of straight-backed Massassoit” (90). It is here that he ritualistically tested his ability to hit an ancient and “inexhaustible oak” (a symbol of the durability of nature) with three rocks. Each successful throw would gain him a valued prize and accomplish his quest:
In the haze of afternoon, while the air flowed saffron, I played my game for keeps— for love, for poetry, and for eternal life— after the trials of summer.
The speaker, nearing death, is still haunted by his past as well as his own “murderous times” but knows his journey must continue. As a poet he recognizes that “It is necessary to go / through dark and deeper dark / and not to turn” (92). So he looks once again for his trail and also seeks again his “testing-tree” and his stones to test once more his ability to achieve love, art, and a vision of eternity.
Although Kunitz acknowledges that his basic rhythm “is essentially dark and grieving—elegiac” (Next, 96), there are clear notes of endurance, determination, acceptance, and even celebration that appear in these later poems. He is determined to “‘Live in the layers / not on the litter’” (Poems, 36). No longer alienated or homeless, he embraces a world of snakes, worms, raccoons, and gardens as well as a world of human love, social justice, and poetry. Indeed, it can be said of Kunitz that “he loved the earth so much / he wanted to stay forever” (Next, 19). In his ninetieth year, Kunitz received the National Book Award for Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected (1995). The new poems in this collection range from his crystal-clear memories of his childhood days in Worcester (“My Mother's Pears” and “Halley's Comet”) to a very poignant love poem dedicated to his wife, Elise Asher.
For nearly seventy years, Kunitz has struggled to survive the personal and historical tragedies of his time and place. That struggle is recorded in ever-changing but always exquisitely crafted poetic forms. His work is simultaneously personal, representative of an age, and universal in its mythic nature. In addition, his lasting contributions as editor, essayist, translator of Russian poets, and mentor and advocate for younger poets speak to Kunitz's dedication to poetry and his long and distinguished career.
Robert Lowell, Life Studies and For the Union Dead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), 85.
James Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). See chapter 1, pp. 1–22.
See “The Hemorrhage,” originally titled “The Man in the Park,” in Stanley Kunitz, The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 (Boston/Toronto: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1979), 163, 164.
Stanley Kunitz, Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (Boston/New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985), 36.
Gregory Orr, Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 21–41.
SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz, 95, Becomes Poet Laureate for a New Century,” in Washington Post, July 29, 2000, pp. C1, C5.
[In the following essay, Weeks provides an overview of Kunitz's literary career and poetry upon his appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States.]
Stanley Kunitz, who once said that all poetry is born of love, is the country's newest poet laureate. And its oldest. He turns 95 today. The formal announcement will be made Monday by James Billington, Librarian of Congress.
“In my work, at this age,” said Kunitz from his summer house in Provincetown, Mass., “this is gratifying and astonishing. I must say, I was not prepared for that call.”
The nonagenarian is the 10th laureate in an impressive succession. He follows in the wake of Robert Penn Warren, Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn, Rita Dove and Robert Hass. Robert Pinsky has been poet laureate for the last three years.
In a statement, Billington said that Kunitz “continues to be a mentor and model for several generations of poets, and he brings uniquely to the office of poet laureate a full lifetime of commitment to poetry.”
Kunitz has been writing verse for a long time. His first poem appeared in 1930, the same year that T. S. Eliot published “Ash Wednesday.” I've forgotten many of those early poems,” Kunitz admitted. But he remembers others quite vividly.
He believes that an artist must reckon with the age in which he lives. “‘The Layers,’” he said, “speaks to that.”
From that poem:
When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.
“I have known many of the great poets in the English language,” he said. “At least I encountered a good portion of the best poets of the 20th century.
“And I follow what is being written today in the contemporary journals,” he added. In fact, Kunitz is a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which offers residency programs to young poets and artists.
“Everything affects poetry,” he said, “including rap. I don't doubt that the poetry of the future, as even today, is influenced by the rap culture—just as in the 19th century poets who really initiated the romantic movement were influenced by the street ballads.”
Kunitz, who taught writing at Columbia University for years, has received just about every accolade available to a contemporary poet. He's won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award and countless other trophies. He's been a senior fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts, the state poet of New York and a chancellor emeritus of the Academy of American Poets. He's even been the Library of Congress's poetry adviser before. From 1974 to 1976 he served as the consultant in poetry at the library. That position evolved into poet laureate.
Those years here were tumultuous, he recalled yesterday. He wrote a poem about being at the library during Watergate. In “The Lincoln Relics,” he speaks to the 16th president:
Mr. President In this Imperial City, awash in gossip and power, where marble eats marble and your office has been defiled, I saw the piranhas darting between the rose-veined columns, avid to strip the flesh from the Republic's bones. Has no one told you how the slow blood leaks from your secret wound?
He has written 10 books of verse. He plans to write more. His collected poems will be published this fall. The one-year appointment requires very little of the title holder. Kunitz will make ＄35,000 a year, maintain an office at the library and preside over special occasions—a reading in the fall and a lecture in the spring. He will also be able to hold forth on matters poetic.
“Given my years,” he admitted, “I will not be as active a poet laureate as Robert Pinsky has been.”
Kunitz doesn't plan to live in Washington.
Other professors and poets cheered the tidings.
“He's a wonderful poet,” offered David Gewanter, who teaches poetry at Georgetown University. “He can write wonderful short poems of nature that remind you of Robert Frost. And smart and wry poems about marriage, about life, about the ongoing negotiations of adults.”
“That's astonishingly wonderful news,” said Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Taylor, who teaches poetry at American University.
“What sets Kunitz apart from most people,” he continued, “is his level of emotional intensity that historically has been difficult to maintain as one ages.”
Taylor spoke of one of Kunitz's best known poems, “Touch Me.”
So let the battered old willow thrash against the windowpanes and the house timbers creak. Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.
“It's cry from the heart,” Taylor said, “about what it's like to be remarkably aged and be in love with the same woman one was in love with many years ago.”
Kunitz has been married to poet and painter Elise Asher since 1958. Each has a daughter by another spouse.
“What the poet laureate can do,” Taylor concluded, “is remind us, help us recognize, that poetry is part of our lives even when we don't think it is. Poetry is inescapable.”