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:


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.

Livesay’s Love Poems

Considering that two of my favorite Livesay’s poems from the collection 15 Canadian Poets x 3 were love poems, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some of my favorite poems in her collected poems are also love poems, though I didn’t find any I like more than “The Unquiet Bed“ and “Sorcery.“

Another of my favorites is “Aubade?

Not what you are
but what you are to me:
a stranger who’s at home
inside my eyes
shoots rainbows
down my spine
laughs at my absurd
long second toe
and wags the world away
upon my tongue.
You are the one
who when I leap to leave you
for the sun
can pull me back to bed:
“Woman, Woman, come.’

It’s lines three and four that initially grabbed me, but I think true love is best shown in the kind of intimacy where one “laughs at my absurd/ long second toe.?

Which is not to say that that kind of intimacy isn’t also intertwined in the sexual intimacy of that last line.

Livesay‘s best poems are seductive without begin pornographic as in “Let Your Hand Play First:?

Let your hand play first
fanning small fires
over the arms, the breasts
catching responses all along the spine
until the whole body flowering
‘s enveloped in one flame
that shudders wildly out
to meet your thrust —

Then burn, my fire
burn with a flame so tall
it unshape the shaping clouds
unearthly move the sphere

%d bloggers like this: