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The Layers of Stanley Kunitz

ISSUE:  Spring 1980
The Poems of Stanley Kunitz: 1928—1978. Little, Brown. $12.50.

In this long-awaited book, we have in one volume the poems of Stanley Kunitz, a poet whose reputation will live securely in the compact elegance of this collection. As Kunitz admits in the preface, it was not his lot to be prolific; but no apologies are in order. The restraints of his art combine with a fierce dedication to clarity and intellectual grace to assure him of a place among the essential poets of his generation, which includes Roethke, Lowell, Auden, and Eberhart. Now that we have before us nearly the bulk of his work, excluding only those poems which have yet to come, the complex work of appreciation and understanding can begin.

It was St. Ignatius Loyola who, in the Spiritual Exercises, divided the “powers of the soul” into three parts: memory, intellect, and the affective will. The quality of any poem rests on the strength of any of these “powers,” singly, or on the poet’s ability to synthesize any combination of them in a unique and plausible way. Future critics will discern one or other of these powers predominant in Kunitz’s poetry at various stages of his career, and a rough calculus of his development follows.

The early work occurs in Intellectual Things (1930) and Passport to the War (1944). Theodore Roethke, friend and protege of Kunitz until his death in 1963, admired these poems passionately and modeled many of his own early lyrics on them. (Compare, for instance, “The Guilty Man” by Kunitz and “Open House” by Roethke.) These first two books describe the struggle for identity, the complexities of love in its physical and spiritual aspects, the mystery of death—all themes which typically absorb young poets. And there is an agreeable note of youthful self-assertion here, as in the last stanza of “Vita Nuova”:

Moon of the soul, accompany me now,
Shine on the colosseums of my sense,
Be in the tabernacles of my brow.
My dark will make, reflecting from your stones,
The single beam of all my life intense.

The poet asserts himself vividly in these poems, abounding in declarations: “And I shall go / By silent lanes and leave you timeless here” or “Lover, it is good to lie in the sweet grass / With a dove-soft nimble girl.” One senses that Kunitz, as a young man, longed for the authority of age—indeed, one of his best poems from Intellectual Things is entitled “I Dreamed That I Was Old”; it is an affecting poem, the balance, modesty, wit, and music of which recall John Crowe Ransom at his best:

I dreamed that I was old: in stale declension
Fallen from my prime, when company
Was mine, cat-nimbleness, and green invention,
Before time took my leafy hours away.

Here, as in most of the successful early poems, Kunitz discovers himself in the context of love and death, drawing his dominant themes together with the singularity of voice and vision that makes a poem work.

At times an excess of intellect (which Ignatius identifies with “the understanding”) exists in the early lyrics—as if the resurgence of metaphysical wit that characterized the twenties and thirties got slightly out of hand. The influence of Donne stands out, with his compulsion toward paradox embodied in extravagant conceits; “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by Donne finds Kunitz’s “Lovers Relentlessly” superimposed upon it, for example:

Lovers relentlessly contend to be
Superior in their identity:

The compass of the ego is designed
To circumscribe intact a lesser mind

With definition.

In Kunitz, when the conceit is appropriate to the subject and slightly understated, the poetry achieves a rare crispness; but when, as in “Geometry of Moods,” the conceit calls too much attention to itself, the result is disappointing:

Concentrical, the universe and I
Rotated on God’s crystal axle tree,

So perfectly adjusted in suspense
I could not mark our split circumference,

But sphere in sphere, devotion in devotion,
Was a thing of folding air, a windy motion.

One finds a deepening of perspective in Passport to the War, more self-distancing, and less obstrusive cleverness. The same penchant for conceit can be found here, as in “The Old Clothes Man,” yet the balance of intellect with emotion is exquisite; Kunitz writes with a new concreteness, too, as the first lines of “Father and Son” illustrate:

Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.

This same sensuous and deftly observed texture runs through the poems in Passport to War.

This Garland, Danger from the Selected Poems of 1958 added to the corpus poems like “The Science of the Night” (the best poem he has written), “End of Summer,” “Goose Pond,” and “The Dragonfly”—poems extracted mostly from memories with the intellect held in check. “The Summing-Up” offers the reader a modest disclaimer and shows a developing sense of gentle irony:

When young I scribbled, boasting, on my wall,
No Love, No Property, No Wages.
In youth’s good time I somehow bought them all,
And cheap, you’d think, for maybe a hundred pages.

Now in my prime, disburdened of my gear,
My trophies ransomed, broken, lost,
I carve again on the lintel of the year
My sign: Mobility—and damn the cost!

The publication of The Testing-Tree in 1971 was important because it placed Kunitz finally in the front rank of his contemporaries. The title poem itself, a bright recollection of childhood, displayed a concentration of powers and a new vein; Kunitz added to memory and understanding, to heart and intellect, what Ignatius called the “affective will.” The tree in question here becomes an emblem as the poet-child’s task becomes clear: he must strike the target oak three times with a stone: once to find love in his life, once to be a poet, and once to have eternal life. The poem calls to mind an ancient ritual in which the scarred oak represents a manifestation of the King of the Wood. For the older poet, recollecting this childhood game in tranquillity, the ritual takes on symbolic radiance: “In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.” Therefore, he says:

It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
     and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
  Where is my testing-tree?
    Give me back my stones!

A vigorous batch of translations from the Russian swells the heft of The Testing-Tree, and they deserve comment. It has been said often enough that ours is an age of translation. If so, Kunitz will rank among the foremost for his versions of Mandelstam, Yevtushenko, Stolzenberg, Akhmatova, and, more recently, Bella Akhmadulina. These poems possess the trenchancy of poets under siege; a piquancy runs through them, as if history itself were raw blood on the pages. It takes a poet with Kunitz’s accumulated skill and talent to render so brilliantly in English these important poems.

Finally, there are 20 new poems and translations. They show no decline in powers; rather, Kunitz seems now to be writing at his very best. He has done this not by changing his style (as Roethke and Lowell attempted to do) but, simply, by the insistent accumulation of sanity and verbal strength. He has resisted the compulsion to “develop” which has led so many fine poets away from their own vision into postures which the critics might find acceptable. As he says in one of the best of the new 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.

The principle of being to which Stanley Kunitz has unerringly attended is courage. As “The Catch” suggests, the poet’s task is simply to look steadfastly into a fisherman’s net and view life itself—”this delicate engine / fired by impulse and glitter.” And, of course, “this prize belongs to no one.” It is there for those with the courage and sense to look. “But you will pay all / your life for the privilege, / all your life.” We may be grateful for this poet who has paid his dues. He has erred in the directions of intellect and heart, but he has learned from his errors and managed, poem by poem, to snatch from the ineluctable sea of experience a few prize words; his best work feels beyond language itself to the mysterious and “delicate engine” of life which is, always, before mere words themselves.


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