The Poem

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“Touch Me” is the final poem of Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (1995), published on the occasion of Stanley Kunitz’s ninetieth birthday. Kunitz, who among his many honors has received the Pulitzer Prize and the Bollingen Award, had a long and distinguished career as poet and teacher. Unlike many of his earlier poems, “Touch Me” does not have a particular stanzaic form; instead it moves down the page in thirty short, tightly controlled lines of free verse. The poem begins with the words “Summer is late, my heart,” from one of his earlier poems, “As Flowers Are,” written in 1958. The speaker remembers the feelings that sparked the earlier poem when he was younger and “wild with love.” Now, nearly forty years later, he finds that it is his “heart” that is late, that he has already had his “season.” He has spent the afternoon gardening, listening (almost as when he was a boy) to the sound of the crickets, marvelling at their very existence, questioning the nature of creation. So now, in the present-tense voice of the poem, lying in bed listening to the wind and rain, he goes back over the afternoon, reaching for the man he used to be.

When asked about his recent poems, Kunitz replied, “What is there left to confront but the great simplicities?I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world.” “Touch Me” represents just such an art; the poet’s desire to fix the moment in memory means that the reader is asked to see every detail through a shaping eye. Haunted by wind and rain, by the branches thrashing against the windowpanes, the poet sees through to the heart of things. The poem is meditative, however, not visionary. Turning to direct address, the poet speaks to his wife—“Darling, do you remember/ the man you married?” The line break is crucial. 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, and the very earth in which he has been gardening all afternoon.

The title is interesting in that, instead of opting for the more universal concept of “touch,” Kunitz has particularized it—“Touch Me.” The “me” functions in several ways. It limits the act, both temporally and spatially. Following his directive, his wife can reach across the bed and touch him to “remind” him not only of his former self but also of the power of love. With great honesty and vulnerability he admits to a need for another to restore him fully to a sense of himself, a self rooted firmly in the present tense: “who I am.” Again, the “me” (as recipient) resonates with the persistent questions of who he is and where he fits in the larger “garden.” The underlying question of identity rests on the simple question of being.

Forms and Devices

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The first thing one notices in “Touch Me” is its extreme simplicity. Its monosyllabic lines—“when I was wild with love” and “It is my heart that’s late,/ it is my song that’s flown”—are comparable to those of Robert Frost. At the same time, these lines reveal an underlying iambic rhythm that is characteristic of Kunitz. The churning question—“What makes the engine go?”—is more effective because of its regular stresses, and the answer to the question is reinforced through repetition of meter as well as of the word itself: “Desire, desire, desire.” The procreative force has been reproduced not only...

(This entire section contains 391 words.)

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in the cricket’s song but also in the sounds on the page.

At the same time, Kunitz sometimes cuts across his regular cadences, using trochaic or spondaic rhythms to undercut the essential optimism of the poem: “scatter like leaves” and “under a gunmetal sky.” The old longing for the dance (echoed in the rhythms of the poem) is mitigated by the poem’s one broken line: “One season only,/ and it’s done.”

The tone of “Touch Me” is informal; it is filled with contractions that suggest a spoken voice. Still, it is an internal voice, one overheard and internalized by the reader. Although informal, however, “Touch Me” has a tight structure. The reader learns early that it is a night of “whistling wind and rain” and so is not surprised when the poet returns from reverie to the present weather of the poem. This pattern of memory and memory recollected allows the poet to become “like a child again,” to look at everything through fresh eyes. This looking produces a circular movement, from recent past to present to remembered past, which is broken by the phrase “and it’s done.” Only then can the poet fully enter the present, breaking out of his own meditation to speak to his companion.

“Touch Me” displays an intricate network of rhymes—more a crocheted pattern than a woven one. The slant rhymes create a pattern like the fluid course of a soccer ball as the players move it down the field: rain/flown/afternoon/down, and, later, again/machine/done, or the initial “air” echoed in clear/pour/desire. Then, as in a reprise, “air” is caught up again in “remember”—the operative word of the poem.


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