Although I’ve been reading Stanley Kunitz’s poetry since I first heard him read his poetry at the University of Washington in the early 1960’s, I’d never read any of the poems in the section entitled “from Intellectual Things (1930)” in The Collected Poems.
I was struck by how much these early poems reminded me of the Metaphysical Poets, with their odd conceits, comparisons that, though intellectual at first glance, manage to touch the heart instead of the mind. Even the title seems ironic, because these poems are about the human spirit, not about the human intellect. Some of the best poems, in fact, explicitly point out the limits of the brain and reason:
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 nor 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.
Although “Organic Bloom” seems to begin by praising the brain’s ability to make sense of the world, the critical line in the poem is obviously “But life escapes closed reason,” which when we look back was suggested even earlier by the phrase “the steady paradox of thought and sense” for, by its very nature, paradox seems to defy reason and an explanation must be cobbled together that explains why the apparent paradox really isn’t a paradox.
On another level, though, the poem seems to describe precisely what most of us try to do our whole life, make sense out of a world in hopes of controlling it. From childhood we are taught to control chaotic emotions when our parents attempt to reason with us. Every time we think we understand life, however, something happens that irrevocably proves that we don’t. But the mind in a desperate attempt to prove it’s superiority races ahead once again bringing order to these dangerous emotions, even if in doing so it must resort to the wildest rationalizations.
It is, however, the image projected by the poem, the image of some gelatinous, grey mushroom-like matter spreading ever wider, covering everything with its grey matter, spreading doom, that makes the poem memorable. Modern philosophies often do seem to convey a sense of doom.
In some ways, historically the poem seems like a rejection of the dominant poetry of the time, a rejection of the intellectual poetry of “The Wasteland,” and also a rejection of many of the dominant philosophies of our time.