Stanley Kunitz’s “from Intellectual Things (1930)”

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:

ORGANIC BLOOM

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.

Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers”

Stanley Kunitz, an American poet, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905, named Poet Laureate in 2000, speaks of age, observant of its changes.

His poem, "The Layers" offers his observations of the steps and turns in a life lived thoughtfully, engaging in its twists, a life not left willingly at any age. "The Layers" speaks to the mature reader.

Some observations:

The Layers

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.

Who among us with a few years behind us is not aware of her own existence and the sharing of it with those we have created and with those we have chosen to live with. My children, parents, ancestors, husband, and friends have molded me and yet a core of me is unique, my own self, present at my creation to which I cling, "from which I struggle not to stray," demanding recognition for me. Egocentric? Good.

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.

If we are smart, we learn from our past, observe our mistakes, build our talents. My reality now in my sixth decade is that I, like the speaker in the poem, have fewer milestones ahead of me. There are many abandoned camp-sites behind me.

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?

Many affections, loves scattered--a feast of losses, a phrase profound in the recognition of a life lived with emotion.

In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
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.

I've lost track of a few friends whom I often think of and would like to speak to again. That's the nature of moving every two or three years over a period of 26 years. I am occasionally impressed with my will "to go wherever I need to go, but to be honest, I haven't yet found "every stone on the road precious..."

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."

Ah, words to live by. "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.

Realistic optimism with a tough of fatalism--now that appeals to me.

Diane McCormick

A Form of Spiritual Testimony

Stanley Kunitz’s poetry, at least for me, is “a form of spiritual testimony, the sign of the inviolable self consolidated against the enemies within and without that would corrupt or destroy human pride and dignity.” The poem “The Layers” is precisely the kind of poem that helps us see that the spirit can endure, for Kunitz has lived a remarkable life, and when you read his “confessional” poems you see just how his spirit has endured throughout a remarkable life.

THE LAYERS

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.
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.

Maybe you have to be older to appreciate this poem, but I find “The Layers” not only delightful, but insightful. Because we get caught up in our day-to-day life we tend to lose sight of the fact that we are continually changing and that we are not the person now that we were several years ago. Sometimes it takes but a single event to change us. A war, a divorce, an operation.

It is difficult to remain true to principles when struggling against forces that threaten to defeat you. For instance, fighting in a war can make you question whether human’s are basically loving in nature, and a marriage gone astray can make you question whether true love truly exists. You hope, though, that “some principle of being abides,” that you are able to remain true to yourself.

If you are lucky there is still a “will intact to go wherever I need to go” and you will be able to focus on the best parts of life, “not on the litter.”

Most of all, you hope that you will be able to remain true to your principles during the next transformation, the one that has already begun but is still waiting to be discovered.

Another Look at Creativity

I need a break from dealing with May’s book and, even more, a break from thinking.

As an alternative, here’s Stanley Kunitz’s introduction to Passing Through. It provides an interesting contrast in style to Rollo May’s Courage to Create, though they both seem to making the same kinds of claims for the value of art.

SPEAKING OF POETRY

The writer today, said Albert Camus in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, "cannot serve those who make history; he must serve those who are subject to it."

How true! And yet one finds to one's dismay that the poetic imagination resists being made the tool of causes, even the noblest of causes. The imagination lives by its contradictions and disdains any form of oppression, including the oppression of the mind by a single idea.

Poetry, I have insisted, 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.

If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn. The moment 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. Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence. What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?

In an age defined by its modes of production, where everybody tends to be a specialist of sorts, the artist ideally is that rarity, a whole person making a whole thing. Poetry, it cannot be denied, requires a mastery of craft, but it is more than a playground for technicians. The craft that I admire most manifests itself not as an aggregate of linguistic or prosodic skills, but as a form of spiritual testimony, the sign of the inviolable self consolidated against the enemies within and without that would corrupt or destroy human pride and dignity. It disturbs me that twentieth century American poets seem largely reconciled to being relegated to the classroom-practically the only habitat in which most of us are conditioned to feel secure. 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.

Poets are always ready to talk about the difficulties of their art. I want to say something about its rewards and joys. 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.

S.K.
1995