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The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz
Stanley Kunitz
W. W. Norton & Co., $27.05

by Steven Burt

Even before his appointment this summer as the US Poet Laureate, Stanley Kunitz’s name had long been known to readers who hadn’t seen many of Kunitz’s poems. He’s famous in various quarters for his longevity (at 95, he still gives sold-out readings); as an influential translator of Russian (and other) verse; as the Yale Younger Poets contest judge in the early 1970s; as co-creator of several arts institutions, among them Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center; and as the mainstay, from the 1960s to the ’80s, of Columbia’s creative writing program, where his grateful students included Louise Glück and Lucie Brock-Broido. Like the Laureateship, this Collected is largely an honor and an expression of gratitude, since it offers no new work: the first half restores his long-unavailable early poems, and the second half reprints 1995’s wonderful Passing Through: New & Selected Later Poems. Though Kunitz has never acknowledged a sharp distinction between his early and late styles, this collection tells the story of that break: it is the story of a movement from intelligence and craft to what lies beyond–and cannot be reached without them.

Kunitz’s father committed suicide before Kunitz was born; the poet was raised, in Worcester, Mass., by his hardworking, entrepreneurial mother, and (later) by a gentle stepfather. He attended Harvard in the early 1920s, staying on for an M.A., but was told that his Jewish background would keep him from teaching there. Working as a reporter and in the obscurer reaches of publishing, Kunitz lived mostly outside the poetry world, and entirely outside academia, for the first decades of his career. It would be easy to credit this for the lack of notice the early poems received, but the truth is that most of them weren’t very good. The young Kunitz was a more than usually ornate, more than usually sincere, much more than usually mystical Old Formalist, and never more deliberate than when announcing (with nods to Blake, Yeats, and Hart Crane) that he had been seized by a visionary passion, as in "Night-Piece":

So bear with me, and if I thrash and groan
In the throes of sleep believe me that I saw
The great fish tunneling the purple sea,
Earth-darkening bird that harries man alone.

When the early poems address his father they do so with stilted melancholy: "Father, the darkness of the self goes out / And spreads contagion on the flowing air." Another poem tells its beloved: "Listen! we make a world! I hear the sound / Of Matter pouring through eternal forms."

Kunitz’s contemporaries–from Dylan Thomas to Richard Wilbur–could work with high diction in "eternal forms" and still sound like they meant it; Kunitz seems to have discovered that he could not, even as his last work in his old high way, 1958’s Selected, won him a Pulitzer. He changed his style during the 1960s. On the evidence of The Testing-Tree (1971), Kunitz was reacting (as were many of his contemporaries) to the era’s political pressures, to the foreign poets he was translating, and to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Yet he had been asking, even praying, for rawness and vividness since his most controlled early poems: one turns away from "the wisdom of another age" to realize that "the thing that eats the heart is mostly heart." He has minimized his stylistic change–"Given the kind of person I am," he wrote in the 1970s, "I came to see the need for a middle style"–but it was drastic, and all for the good. What he kept from his old work, and needed, was its compression; what he learned, and needed, was understatement and comedy–the last knotted with awe and horror:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.

Is the unforgivable sin in "The Portrait" suicide? Or public suicide? Or suicide at an inconvenient juncture? The grown-up and fatherless child here tells us, as economically as he can, that he will never be in a position to know.

The tones and modes of The Testing-Tree–meditative, oracular, sometimes grief-stricken, sometimes gently comic–have continued through Kunitz’s mature poems; collectively they tell not a life story so much as a spiritual autobiography. Kunitz insists that each poem be an important event in the psychic life of its author–one reason his depth seems connected to his slow output. His short lines convey the effort it took to write them, and seem acutely conscious of the potential silence after every phrase. In his hands, the negative space between lines can represent speechless grief, or the straining of finding a word, or (as in "After the Last Dynasty") room left wistfully for a lover’s reply:

Pet, spitfire, blue-eyed pony,
here is a new note
I want to pin on your door,
though I am ten years late
and you are nowhere:
Tell me,
are you still mistress of the valley,
what trophies drift downriver,
why did you keep me waiting?

Even more than he likes pauses and silences, Kunitz likes to end poems with unanswerable questions: "What do we know / beyond the rapture and the dread?" Other poems end by declaring that some long-ago feeling persists, without being able to say (though having shown) why: "In my sixty-fourth year / I can feel my cheek / still burning." Both gestures appeal from the words on a page out into the history of the poet, and to the poet’s sense of his own life. "One of my convictions," Kunitz has written, "is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images that go back to the poet’s childhood and that are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic." In Kunitz’s own poetry the experiences remembered are traumatic–brief, hard glimpses of an indelible past, or of an inhuman natural order: his images are those experiences’ shadows, the coded things to which his life is the key.

As one would expect from a poet so concerned with memory and with ghosts, Kunitz loves refrains and verbal recurrences. "River Road" begins, "That year of the cloud, when my marriage failed," and begins again, on the same line, midway through: moving from sky to earth, Kunitz steadies himself by recollecting "the woods I made … through the deep litter of the years." Litter, layers, digging, archaeology, are surely among Kunitz’s own "key images": if he has a manifesto it is surely the moving, if slightly predictable, poem called "The Layers," which sorts through his "many lives, / some of them my own," in order to ask (one can hear the crack in his voice) "How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?"

Those so-often-invoked layers, and the litter that half-conceals them, can represent his personal past, or the history of a locale, or the past of the whole human species: in "The Mound Builders," "part, if only part of me, goes down / to the master farmers who built" the prehistoric settlements in Ocmulgee, Ga.–tribes whose ways the poem compares (favorably) to the turbulent South of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Kunitz likes to imagine himself elsewhere as a wandering excavator, exploring old roads, "fishing in the abandoned reservoir," sorting through muck, or mulch, or potsherds, or leaves. The boy of "The Testing-Tree":

   scuffed in the drainage ditch
      among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
   rolled out of glacial time
      into my pitcher’s hand...

In that poem’s "abandoned quarry," geological, historical, and autobiographical time become one. All three, the poet fears, have left him behind.

Even more than they are full of memories, the mature poems are full of totem animals: these are without exception wounded or dying. Here is a mutilated "Robin Redbreast," there the dying salmon called "King of the River," "a ship for parasites"; here is "Jonathan, the last of the giant tortoises," and there are the diseased and "nervous Leghorns" (chickens) condemned by the farm inspector: "not one of them was spared the cyanide." Though they also remind him of nature’s inscrutability, these expiring animals all come to stand for the poet, who for decades has felt (more strongly than most writers can) both his kinship with nonhuman fauna and flora, and his (all of our) mortality. Other New England writers, from Melville to Lowell, have made their whales menacing and forever unknowable. But in Kunitz’s long, magnificent, and wholly characteristic "The Wellfleet Whale," a beached and dying whale’s "unearthly outcry" becomes an all-too-human cry of surprise at our limited powers:

      Master of the whale-roads,
let the white wings of the gulls
   spread out their cover.
      You have become like us,
disgraced and mortal.

In that whale (and again in a recent, perfect pair of poems about infected hornworms) the old peddlers, questers, archaeologists, and wounded animals throughout Kunitz’s oeuvre find their eventual, restless meeting place: contemplating their lifetime of changes, all these creatures are painfully unable–as none of us is able–to turn at last into what they wanted to be.

Kunitz’s poems of self-searching, with their long, narrow, carefully excavated sentences, make him so obviously a poet of grief and gravity that it is easy to overlook what else he can do. As much as his slow, stychic trimeters are his signature lines, Kunitz has also made the ballad stanza his own. A marvel of compression and construction, "Three Floors," begins at the young Kunitz’s bedroom ("Mother was a crack of light") and moves, stanza by stanza, "downstairs" and then up: after three stanzas, we find ourselves outside the house, and encounter the dead father in a thunderstorm:

Bolt upright in my bed that night
I saw my father flying;
the wind was walking on my neck,
the windowpanes were crying.

Kunitz can also be a compelling interpreter of visual art, from the carvings of "unknown makers" to a disturbing late painting by his longtime friend Philip Guston. And he became, in his fifties and sixties, a convincing and funny–convincing because funny–poet of married love: "Let’s jump into the car, honey, / and head straight for the Cape," "Route Six" proposes. What stands in the way? Only the past, the inevitable layers, and the poem knows what to do with those:

As for those passions left
that flare past understanding,
like bundles of dead letters
out of our previous lives
that amaze us with their fevers,
we can stow them in the rear
along with ziggurats of luggage
and Celia, our transcendental cat …

It is as silly, as personal, and as convincing as any long-lived affection.

Kunitz’s mortally wounded creatures; mounds, layers, litter; and the succession of ghosts and portents make perfect fits with the techniques (refrains, heavy trimeters, impossible questions) by which we can recognize his work. His short lines balance long sentences, and the ordinary words he chooses yield their densely packed implications, as the poems peer slowly into the depths of being. Some of his best poems, besides those I’ve quoted, are "King of the River," "Quinnapoxet," "Words for the Unknown Makers," "The Abduction," "Halley’s Comet," "Touch Me," and the two "Hornworm" poems. Kunitz makes up for his small formal range with great warmth, with indefatigable attention to each word in a poem and to the experience behind it. And the poems have yet other virtues, hard to articulate, but unmistakable to readers who have spent time with them: their moral seriousness and their tragic dignity reveal themselves gradually on rereading, and are part of Kunitz’s lasting appeal.

Stephen Burt is assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. His book of poems, Popular Music, won the Colorado Prize in 1999. He reviewed Mark Levine in the Summer 2000 issue of Boston Review.



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