A Visionary Poet at Ninety

What's all this about poets in their youth beginning in "gladness" but ending in "despondency and madness"? William Wordsworth, meet Stanley Kunitz

It is a metamorphosis that has invited deeper wonder with each successive collection of Kunitz's poems, and never so irresistibly as with Passing Through, released in November to coincide with the poet's ninetieth birthday and promptly garlanded with the National Book Award. Here, in a trim volume that nobody could wish shorter, is virtually the entire windfall of Kunitz's "later" poetry: the selected contents of The Testing-Tree (1971), "The Layers" (the constellation of new poems that led off his 1979 edition of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz), and Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (1985), along with nine poems appearing for the first time in a book. Not a lifetime's work but something more seasoned and concentrated and surpassing—work with a lifetime steeped in it. In contrast to The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, a more substantial compilation that showed Kunitz over a span of some fifty years moving beyond his clenched and seething early style, Passing Through allows readers to follow the clean arc of Kunitz's late three decades of composition in splendid isolation.

It is, above all, a book of revelations. From the beginning Kunitz's was a poetry consecrated to transfiguring moments of insight and rapture, and it is startling to discover how active that core of exaltation has remained. For Kunitz, as for no other first-rank American poet of his time who comes readily to mind, the lyric poem has been a portal into mystical apprehension, an article of faith that he does not shrink from making explicit in the preface to Passing Through, "Instead of a Foreword." Conceding nothing to postmodern anxiety and exhaustion, Kunitz uses his prologue to extol the poet's vocation, as "a form of spiritual testimony," and poetry as "ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul." Most contemporary poets will squirm before this unreconstructed Keatsian language, preferring to tender their claims in the clipped lingua franca of professional shoptalk, but Kunitz will have none of that. "If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race," he avows, "it is to poetry we must turn."

Taken alone, such dictums might sound faintly schoolmarmish. And they would seem to be the very sort of didactic propositions that could all too easily fog a poet's wits. But in Kunitz's case quite the opposite effect has come to pass: hewing to the old high road of Romantic soul-making has steeled and steadied him, made him infinitely lighter on his feet. His "later" poetry does not break with the elevated designs of his earlier work; it's a purified, fire-tempered variant of it, and all the more uncompromising for being more colloquially accessible, more sparse and parsed, more transparent in its drift and import. The younger Kunitz often wound line and image and allusion so tightly that his stanzas seemed to be fighting for oxygen, their wrought-up prosody grimly mirroring the contortions of a poet groping after blinding illuminations. The older Kunitz has not relaxed his grip, but no longer does he strain after effects. Listen, for example, to this fragment: "If in my sleep / The ape, the serpent, and the fox I find / Shut with my soul in fortune's writhing sack, / I tame them with the sections of my mind / And teach my mind to love its thoughtless crack." And now to this: "The word I spoke in anger / weighs less than a parsley seed, / but a road runs through it / that leads to my grave."

The roughly half a century that stands between the first fragment, from "Beyond Reason," and the second, from "The Quarrel," scarcely seems an adequate index of the developmental light-years that divide them. Kunitz is by no stretch the only poet of consequence to undertake a revolution from within at mid-career, but not many have done so with anywhere near the same force of conviction. As if determining to stalk the numinous with finer snares and stealthier measures, Kunitz has taken pains to unpack his syntax, to hone a compact two- or three-beat line, to shape his poems with idiomatic economy and modesty. Still, no technical appraisal can quite take account of all Kunitz had to cast aside and shear away to find his way to flaying cadences such as these: "In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking. / It is necessary to go / through dark and deeper dark / and not to turn."

This passage belongs to the closing sequence of "The Testing-Tree," the title poem of the 1971 collection that unveiled the spare, lean manner of Kunitz's later years. Here are the acoustics and poetics—simple indicative speech tending toward the condition of scripture and parable, a tenor at once rhapsodic and intimate, a terse strain of self-reckoning—Kunitz has hammered into his own unmistakable register of sound and sense. Let Passing Through fall open at random and you cannot but marvel at this poet's sureness of touch and tempo: like the dragonfly he describes in "The Catch," a Kunitz poem, one often feels, might best be thought of as a "delicate engine / fired by impulse and glitter, / ... less image than thought, and the thought come alive. "And it's precisely that immediacy that gives this poetry its visionary authenticity: no matter how far he ranges into the realm of the unconscious or how deeply he dwells on signs and portents, there is nothing ethereal about Kunitz's habits of mind. Even at their most surreal and allegorical (as in "King of the River," which sends its totem salmon hurtling toward "the threshold / of the last mystery / at the brute absolute hour," or "The Knot," where the poet fixates on a lintel's "Obstinate bud / sticky with life / mad for the rain again") Kunitz's poems seem grounded and exacting in a way that lyrics designed to orchestrate shuddering epiphanies seldom are. Time and again they take—in a phrase out of Keats's letters which Kunitz has acknowledged as one of his touchstones—"but three steps from feathers to iron." On occasion, as in "An Old Cracked Tune," they move with the harrowing lilt of a song out of Blake:

My name is Solomon Levi,
the desert is my home,
my mother's breast was thorny,
and father I had none.

The sands whispered, Be separate,
the stones taught me, Be hard.
I dance, for the joy of surviving,
on the edge of the road.

Even for poets nowhere near Kunitz's age, a volume of selected poems is usually, in one studied way or another, the formal unveiling of a monument, a hopeful brief for literary posterity. But no such ceremony intrudes on Passing Through: even in its closing pages, where the latest of these later poems appear, Kunitz doesn't once seem to be posing for a marble bust or auditioning for the anthologies. Instead one enters the presence of an indomitable elder spirit writing with alertness, tenacity, and finesse, still immersed in the life of the senses and persisting in the search for fugitive essences. Neither resigned nor becalmed, Kunitz's newest poems are by turns contemplative, confiding, mythic, and elegiac. If they have the measured and worldly tone that befits an old master, they also have the ardent and questing air of one whose capacity for artless wonder seems inexhaustible. "What makes the engine go?" Kunitz asks in "Touch Me," as he kneels in his cricket-riddled garden and marvels "like a child again / ... to hear so clear / and brave a music pour / from such a small machine." And the answering line speaks for the persistence of Kunitz's music as well: "Desire, desire, desire."

Perhaps the ultimate tribute to this book is to say that one closes it with no certainty that it's going to stand as the poet's last word. Little in these poems puts one in mind of postscripts or epitaphs, and even Kunitz's most pronounced valedictory gestures seem somehow to steal a march on the gloaming. Consider, for example, the closing lines of the book's title poem, which, its epigraph informs us, was composed on the poet's seventy-ninth birthday.

The way I look
at it, I'm passing through a phase:
gradually I'm changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours;
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.

It should be noted that "Passing Through" is addressed to Kunitz's wife, Elise Asher; this is no last will and testament but a love poem. The whole effect is vintage Kunitz: lines unforced and seemingly spontaneous yet so ineffable that one can almost imagine them having been inscribed on papyrus. To write this calmly and collectedly, with a sanity so finely tempered that it acquires a spooky prescience, one has to have done more than simply endure. And such is clearly the story behind the exemplary resilience of grand old man Stanley Kunitz: the fullness of time hasn't just left his senses intact but has concentrated his mind wonderfully. That dust has moved mountains.

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David Barber is The Atlantic's poetry editor.

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