Stanley Kunitz Changed My Life

Though I never met him, Stanley Kunitz changed my life.

As a tenderfoot in Ted Roethke's verse writing class, I heard him mention Kunitz as a fine poet and trusted friend.

At that stage I barely knew Ogden Nash from a Nash Rambler.

Later, Roethke used a line from Kunitz to teach us the concept of the list, or catalog, a rhetoricall device that sets up a rhythmic pattern you can play against in next line. Whitman used lists. Kunitz was tighter in his use.

"He runs before the wise men. He
is moving on the hills like snow.
No gifts, no tears, no company he brings
but wind rise and waterflow."
(from He, 1930)

After that lesson, I knew enough to look him up, and found these memorable lines (from Father and Son) :

"The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow."

and these

"Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face. "

I won't say I understood those poems. But something transferred instantly: riveting image, mastery of metrics, emotional power.

Time passed, and I memorized his sweet ironic poem "The Waltzer in the House" (linked on this site). More gentle and witty than most of the poems he wrote before 1980, it kept me aware that he had that playful side, too.

I went back for more, and over the years, found myself turning to him whenever I needed to read some words served on a spear and cooked over an open fire. I was never disappointed. He set a standard impossible to ignore, in his fierceness and his music and his willingness to experiment with form. He rewards any effort given him, and gave us this motto:

He was also a remarkable gardener who honored the earth. But he would be worth remembering if he only gave us these words:

"The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth. 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.?

For more of his best: see The Layers; King of the River; Science of the Night, or his little book of essays, "Next-to-Last Things."


guest article by Mike Robinson

Once More The Round

A favorite poet, Stanley Kunitz died Sunday.

One of the highlights of my college years was hearing Kunitz read at the University of Washington the year Roethke died. The next day I went to the UW bookstore and bought his book of poetry. I’ve been buying them ever since.

I’ve discussed this poem before when I discussed his collected poems, as it ends the collection. Somehow is seems even more appropriate today:

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.
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.

Kunitz Touches Me

I've been reading Stanley Kunitz's poetry almost as long as I've been reading poetry, yet his poems always seem fresh to me. Every time I come back to them I find something new that allows me to feel life more vividly. It's hard to ask much more than that from a poet.

Although he seemed old when I first heard him read his poems in the early "60's (perhaps because I was only twenty and he was in his fifties), he seems much younger when I read him now. Time has a funny way of doing that to us, doesn't it?

His poetry has changed since then, perhaps losing a little of the passion of the earlier poems, but, then, I'm afraid I've lost some of that passion in my own life. The first time I read Kunitz, my favorite poem was "She Wept, She Railed" but for years my favorite poem has been "The Testing Tree," whose lines "In a murderous time/ the heart breaks and breaks/ and lives by breaking./ It is necessary to go/ through dark and deeper dark/ and not to turn" come as close to summarizing my personal philosophy as anything I've read. These two poems alone more than justify buying and reading his Collected Poems, or at least checking it out at your local library.

His Collected Poems ends with:

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.
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.

Hopefully these poems I've looked at have touched you as much as they have touched me. As we grow older it's too easy to lose touch with those things that touch the heart, to lose touch with those passions that make life worthwhile. It's hard to read his poems and not feel that "longing for the dance" that is life itself.

Once again, the Northwest is being hit by high winds and rain and I had a hard time sleeping because the battered old pine tree kept thrashing against the bedroom wall, but I'm about to head out on another walk. I doubt I'll hear crickets, but at the very least I'll hear that old heart of mine beating against my chest wall as I try once again to lose myself in nature's beauty.

You can find many references to Kunitz on the web:
An Atlantic Monthly Article
The Academy of American Poets
A Seattle PI interview
Modern American Poetry articles
APoetry Magazine Interview
A P.B.S. interview and video, my personal favorite.

Kunitz’s Later Poems

Since I've already written about my favorite poem from the sections entitled "from The Layers" and "from Next to Last Things" in Kunitz's Collected Poems, I chose to write about one of several poems that I also admire in this section, one that reminds why I continue to garden even though I've relocated to a much smaller home.

While I must admit that it's vegetables, and not necessarily flowers, that I most love to tend, flowers have increasingly become an important part of my walking and hiking routine. For years now, Bill and I have timed our hikes to gain the best view of various flowers. Even here and Tacoma I'm anxiously awaiting spring so that I can see all of the rhododendrons in Pt Defiance come alive.

Strangely enough, the beautiful garden in front of my new house may well have been a deciding factor in choosing to buy my new house in Tacoma, that and the nearness to the park with its beautiful flora and fauna.

THE ROUND

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
"Light splashed. .

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

Around here right now it's more likely to be rain splashing on the firs and ferns than sunshine, but my walk in Pt Defiane Park's old growth forest each day motivates me to get up each morning. Experiencing nature's beauty is such an integral part of my life that it's hard to imagine what my life would be like without such beauty. My walk usually takes precedence over my reading or writing. Like Kunitz, I have to shut myself away in order to write anything. No reading or writing while sunbathing for me. Given my choices, I would always choose experiencing nature and life directly over reading about it.

A more subtle reason for choosing this poem is that it somehow reminded me of Roethke's "Once More, the Round," though there's little more than title to link them together, but it was one of Roethke's last poems and ends, "And everything comes to One, /As we dance on, dance on, dance on." Furthermore, Roethke, like Kunitz, had a great love of flowers and nature.

Kunitz’s “from The Testing-Tree 1971”

"Robin Redbreast" isn't my favorite poem in "from The Testing-Tree 1971," nor the most important for understanding Kunitz, but it's Veterans Day, and, as usual, I have little to say about that holiday nor about the war I fought in. Some memories are so vivid that I still can't put them into words, while names are so faded that even the semantic web couldn't revive them.

For today at least, "Robin Redbreast" is my favorite poem in this section because it comes close to reflecting my own feelings about that time, while still reflecting feelings I have most of the time:

ROBIN REDBREAST

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, I had heard
the squawking of the jays
under the wild persimmons
tormenting him.
So I scooped him up
after they knocked him down,
in league with that ounce of heart
pounding in my palm,
that dumb beak gaping.
Poor thing! Poor foolish life!
without sense enough to stop
running in desperate circles,
needing my lucky help
to toss him back into his element.
But when I held him high,
fear clutched my hand,
for through the hole in his head,
cut whistle-clean . .
through the old dried wound
where the hunter's brand
had tunneled out his wits
I caught the cold flash of the blue
Unappeasable sky.

If nothing else, that dingy bird, with all the color washed out of him, reminds me of the old Polaroids I have from Vietnam, pictures of comrades I no longer remember trying to survive in an "Eden went wrong."

No matter what we did, no matter how hard we fought, we could never recapture the innocence we lost there, nor could we bring back to life comrades we lost there.

Sometimes I think if you catch me in just the right light you can still see that old dried wound where that war has tunneled out my wits.

Perhaps not, but even today when I look back I see, and feel somewhere in my heart, "the cold flash of the blue/ unappeasable sky."

Kunitz’s “from This Garland, Danger”

For me at least, Stanley Kunitz truly reaches his stride with the poems found in "from This Garland Danger." I've loved "She Loved, She Railed" since I first read it in the 60's, and poems such as "The Approach to Thebes," "End of Summer," and "Hermetic Poem" are equally compelling.

Reading the poems this time around, though, my favorite poem would have to be:

THE THING THAT EATS THE HEART

The thing that eats the heart comes wild with years.
It died last night, or was it wounds before,
But somehow crawls around, inflamed with need,
Jingling its medals at the fang-scratched door.

We were not unprepared: with lamp and book
We sought the wisdom of another age
Until we heard the action of the bolt.
A little wind investigates the page.

No use pretending to the pitch of sleep;
By turnings we are known, our times and dates
Examined in the courts of either/or
While armless griefs mount lewd and headless doubts.

It pounces in the dark, all pity-ripe,
An enemy as soft as tears or cancer,
In whose embrace we fall, as to a sickness
Whose toxins in our cells cry sin and danger.

Hero of crossroads, how shall we defend
This creature-lump whose charity is art
When its own self turns Christian-cannibal?
The thing that eats the heart is mostly heart.

For me, much of the appeal of this poem comes from the final line, "The thing that eats the heart is mostly heart." I still remembered it from first reading it over 30 years ago. But most of all, it seems to me to offer a profound insight into human nature that rings as true today as the first time I read it.

In many the poem ways seems typical of many of the poems in this section of The Collected Poems. It is somehow both cryptic and mythic. Though it reminds me of the power of Stephen Crane's startling poem "The Heart", and, even some of Roethke's tortured poetry, in the end it seems uniquely Kunitz.

In fact, it's easy to link it to the lines "The secret my heart keeps/Flows into cracked cups" from "Hermetic Poem" or to "The Scourge." The sense of despair conveyed by the poem, becomes an important element in Kunitz's poetry, fusing with the "lost father" motif.

It is a pain that he has prepared for for a long time. But no ancient wisdom or wisdom from a book, by itself, can soothe the kind of existential pain portrayed here. It's the kind of pain that haunts us at night, invading our dreams and becoming part of our very existence. It's like a cancerous growth that eats away at us.

We may wish it was an external enemy that we could confront like a hero at the crossroads, but such pain can never be defeated directly for it is more insidious than that. It is the kind of pain that Dimmesdale felt in the Scarlet Letter, the kind that eats away from the inside, threatening our very existence until we can free ourselves from it

.

Kunitz’s “from Passport to the War (1944)”

Although originally drawn more to the dramatic poems like "Open the Gates" in Kunitz's "from Passport to the War (1944), in the end I decided that my favorite poem, though perhaps less typical of poems in this section, was:

CARELESS LOVE

Who have been lonely once
Are comforted by their guns.
Affectionately they speak
To the dark beauty, whose cheek
Beside their own cheek glows.
They are calmed by such repose,
Such power held in hand;
Their young bones understand
The shudder in that frame.
Without nation, without name,
They give the load of love,
And it's returned, to prove
How much the husband heart
Can hold of it: for what
This nymphomaniac enjoys
Inexhaustibly is boys.

Perhaps you have to have served in the army to fully appreciate this poem, but hopefully not. The poem was obviously inspired by the Army saying, "This is my rifle, this is my gun"." But Kunitz is able to have it both ways, for he seems to be comparing the gun to the rifle.

You can obviously read the first two lines either way. People who are lonely are often comforted by sex. But, boys who feel alone and vulnerable are also comforted by holding a rifle in their hands. Just ask any G.I. in a combat zone.

When you're sitting alone in a bunker in the dark wondering who's out there, there's nothing more comforting than that sense of "power held in hand" that a rifle gives you, particularly when you feel the shudder of the force of that rifle when you fire it.

Forget the fact that your enemy probably has an equally powerful weapon in his hands. For rifles, in and of themselves, have neither "nation" nor "name." Frighteningly, though, these rifles, at least to the extent that they stand for war itself, are a "nymphomaniac," for war seems to feed "inexhaustibly" on boys, on young soldiers.

Ultimately, the power of the poem stems from the sheer sense of horror that lies in those last two lines. Almost magically, love has been transformed into death. And it's hard to imagine anything more frightening than that.