Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sunday Poet: Stanley Kunitz

The Abduction

Some things I do not profess
to understand, perhaps
not wanting to, including
whatever it was they did
with you or you with them
that timeless summer day
when you stumbled out of the wood,
distracted, with your white blouse torn
and a bloodstain on your skirt.
"Do you believe?" you asked.
Between us, through the years,
we pieced enough together
to make the story real:
how you encountered on the path
a pack of sleek, grey hounds,
trailed by a dumbshow retinue
in leather shrouds; and how
you were led, through leafy ways,
into the presence of a royal stag,
flaming in his chestnut coat,
who kneeled on a swale of moss
before you; and how you were borne
aloft in triumph through the green,
streched on his rack of budding horn,
till suddenly you found yourself alone
in a trampled clearing.

That was a long time ago,
almost another age, but even now,
when I hold you in my arms,
I wonder where you are.
Sometimes I wake to hear
the engines of the night thrumming
outside the east bay window
on the lawn spreading to the rose garden.
You lie beside me in elegant repose,
a hint of transport hovering on your lips,
indifferent to the harsh green flares
that swivel through the room,
searchlights controlled by unseen hands.
Out there is a childhood country,
bleached faces peering in
with coals for eyes.
Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?

*****

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.

*****

Single Vision

Before I am completely shriven
I shall reject my inch of heaven.

Cancel my eyes, and, standing, sink
Into my deepest self; there drink

Memory down. The banner of
My blood, unfurled, will not be love,

Only the pity and the pride
Of it, pinned to my open side.

When I have utterly refined
The composition of my mind,

Shaped language of my marrow till
Its forms are instant to my will,

Suffered the leaf of my heart to fall
Under the wind, and, stripping all

The tender blanket from my bone,
Rise like a skeleton in the sun,

I shall have risen to disown
The good mortality I won.

Drectly risen with the stain
Of life upon my crested brain,

Which I shall shake against my ghost
To frighten him, when I am lost.

Gladly as any poison, yield
My halved conscience, brightly peeled;

Infect him, since we live but once,
With the unused evil in my bones.

I'll shed the tear of souls, the true
Sweat, Blake's intellectual dew,

Before I am resigned to slip
A dusty finger on my lip.

When Stanley Kunitz died this year in his 100th year, he was widely regarded as one of America's finest poets. He had won most major awards, had served at US Poet Laureate (1974-76) before the post had been created then again when it had (2000), and was held in high esteem among his peers.

I didn't discover his work until he was late into his life. Looking back over his career, I enjoy the later poetry much more than the earlier work. It feels to me, as a reader, that he reached a point in his 80's or so when he stopped caring about his place in history. From then on, he wrote some of his best work in my opinion -- seemingly freed from issues like tenure, publication, legacy, influence. He had won all the awards, helped start Poets House in New York City, and created a body of work that will stand the test of time.

I think maybe what drew me most to his work was the Jungian-influenced use of symbolism and imagery. I was deeply influenced by Jung in my formative years as a poet and as a critic. My master's thesis relied on a Jungian approach that did not simply look for symbolism, but also looked to the collected body of work as the record of the poets individuation process. Kunitz's work can be read within this framework.

Beyond that, however -- since theories actually remove the reader from the work -- I admired the humor that Kunitz brought to his work as he grew older. He was a serious young man, but as he aged (and following years of translations of Russian literature), he introduced more humor and more simple fascination with being alive. As a brooding young man, I was drawn to this at the same time that I wrote it off as the musings of an old man. How foolish was I.

Here is some biography from The Academy of American Poets:
Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905. He attended Harvard College, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1926 and a master's degree in 1927. He served in the Army in World War II, after a request for conscientious objector status was denied. Following the war, he began teaching, first at Bennington College in Vermont, and later at universities including Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, and the University of Washington.

About his own work, Kunitz has said: “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.”

Kunitz published his first book of poetry, Intellectual Things, in 1930. Fourteen years later, he published his second book, Passport to War. His recent books include: The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton, 2000); Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (1995), which won the National Book Award; Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (1985); The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978, which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Testing-Tree (1971); and Selected Poems, 1928-1958, which won the Pulitzer Prize. His work has been translated in numerous languages, including Russian, Dutch, Swedish, Macedonian, French, Japanese, Hebrew, and Arabic.

In 2005, he collaborated with Genine Lentine on The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, in which his thoughts on his two great passions, poetry and gardening, are illustrated with photos of the legendary garden at his seaside Provincetown home. Kunitz also co-translated Orchard Lamps by Ivan Drach (1978), Story Under Full Sail by Andrei Voznesensky (1974), and Poems of Akhmatova (1973), and edited The Essential Blake (1987), Poems of John Keats (1964), and The Yale Series of Younger Poets (1969-77).

His honors include the Bollingen Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, Harvard's Centennial Medal, the Levinson Prize, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Shelley Memorial Award. He served for two years as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, was designated State Poet of New York, and a Chancellor Emeritus of The Academy of American Poets. In 2000 he was named United States Poet Laureate.

Kunitz was deeply committed to fostering community among artists, and was a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Poets House in New York City. Together with his wife, the painter Elise Asher, he split his time between New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts. He died at the age of 100 on May 14, 2006.

Here are a couple more of his poems.

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.

*****

The Long Boat

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn't matter
which way was home;
as if he didn't know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

Stanley Kunitz on the web:
The Academy of American Poets
Famous Poets and Poems
The New York Times (requires free registration)
Modern American Poetry
PoemHunter


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