Stanley Kunitz’s poem titled “Touch Me” was apparently written in the 1990s. It does not seem a particularly “modernist” sort of poem, at least if one associates modernism with the kind of writing done by Ezra Pound in The Cantos or by T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land. Kunitz’s poem lacks the kind of elaborate experimentalism and unfamiliar language and structures we often associate with poems such as those. Nor does the poem seem peculiar and arcane in the ways that are sometimes found in the “modernist” works of (for instance) Wallace Stevens.
If this poem resembles the works of any other famous American poets, it may most remind one of the works of Robert Frost or of William Carlos Williams, although it seems less “experimental” than such poems as Williams’ “the red wheelbarrow” or “this is just to say.” Robert Frost, then, seems the major American poet whose works seem most similar to Kunitz’s “Touch Me.”
Various traits make this poem somewhat reminiscent of works by Frost, including the following:
- The language is very simple and straightforward. The Cantos and The Waste Land are notoriously “difficult” poems. This is not true of “Touch Me.”
- The language is colloquial. There is nothing arcane or “highfalutin’” about it. The poem pretends to be spoken speech, and one can easily imagine one person speaking these words to someone else.
- The poem deals with very fundamental, basic, archetypal human emotions, such as regret at growing old, the appeal of the past, and the desire to feel alive.
Less important than any resemblances between this poem and other poems, however, are the precise details of phrasing that make this particular poem so effective. Such details include the following:
- The frequent use of iambic rhythm, which helps give the poem its sense of music and steady movement, as when the speaker describes a time
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
- Emphatic repetition, as in the lines
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
- Subtle echoes of sound in a poem lacking rhyme, as in the way “afternoon” in line 10 echoes the word “two” in line five.
- Dependent clauses that build a sense of suspense, as in the lines
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling . . .
Many more details of this poem’s phrasing might be cited to explain its success. It is not “modernist” in the way that The Cantos or The Waste Land are “modernist,” but it does in some ways resemble the “modernism” of a poet such as H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). In the final analysis, what matters most is not the “period” the poem reflects but the poem itself.