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
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It is a melancholy fact that poets seldom sustain their creative vigor and prowess into great old age. The reasons for this are both self-evidently actuarial and curiously inscrutable. By the time Walt Whitman came to be hailed as the "good gray poet," complete with photogenic Old Testament beard, he was virtually a poet emeritus, occupying himself with writing "annexes" for Leaves of Grass under the doleful rubrics "Sands at Seventy" and "Goodbye My Fancy." William Wordsworth, the longest-lived of his storied generation of English Romantics, appraised the dire effects of the aging process on those in his line of work in a couplet that has since come to have a proverbial ring: "We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness."

That sounds gloomy beyond the call of duty. Still, it succinctly lays out one plausible hypothesis for the high incidence of burnout among poets of a certain age. Ample supporting evidence for the Wordsworthian position can be had by thumbing the anthologies that make a clerical fetish of listing dates of composition: the numbers suggest that a bitter dotage is more often than not a self-imposed sentence, the fateful consequence of extravagant ambition or of a prematurely autumnal disposition. Throw in the scourges of obscurity, the blandishments of reputation, and the capriciousness of taste, common occupational hazards all, and it can seem a wonder that any poet would go to heroic measures to ward off disillusionment. Just as telling, perhaps, are the concessions one finds even a grand old lion like William Butler Yeats making to diminishing returns and dimming powers. "Now that my ladder's gone," Yeats signed off famously in one of his last poems, "The Circus Animals' Desertion," "I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

Despondency and madness? Rags and bones? Is that all that a poet has to look forward to at the end of the day? Ironically, it is Yeats himself who may be readily adduced by those who cherish hopes for a more sanguine outcome. When T. S. Eliot delivered the first annual Yeats Lecture at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, shortly after the Irish poet's death, he made a special point of lauding the drive and stamina that Yeats mustered in producing some of his most vital work in his seventh and eighth decades. As against the greater share of poets, whose "writing becomes an insincere mimicry of their earlier work" or who "leave their passion behind, and write only from the head, with a hollow and wasted virtuosity," the older Yeats, Eliot declared, stands as "a great and permanent example—which poets-to-come should study with reverence."

Nor is Yeats the only one. Thomas Hardy, Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Penn Warren, and William Carlos Williams all leap to mind as elder poets whose late or last work elicits unqualified esteem, leaving one to conclude, all things considered, that maybe the ranks are not so very sparse after all. And then there is the great and permanent example of Stanley Kunitz, who not only has continued to write poems of a startling richness at an advanced age but has arguably saved his best for last. Remarkable enough that a poet would publish a collection at ninety, as Kunitz did last fall, and yet it's a measure of the man that bowing to his eminence would amount to an impertinence. What Passing Through confirms, beyond the faintest suggestion of charity, is that the venerable doyen of American poetry is still a poet in his prime.

The century—the American Century, as Henry Luce would later coronate it—was new when Stanley Kunitz was born, and in most respects it had yet truly to begin. Kunitz's home town of Worcester, Massachusetts, an industrial Sparta located some forty miles west of Boston's self-proclaimed Athens, had been a regular stop on the New England lyceum circuit in the second half of the nineteenth century, and for a precocious child of Kunitz's generation there must have been plenty of lingering ghosts in the air: illustrious Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau, eminent Victorians such as Charles Dickens and Matthew Arnold, the abolitionist hero Frederick Douglass, all of whom had barnstormed through town and brought out the throngs.

By the time Kunitz was a schoolboy, of course, the genies of the modern age were out of the bottle. The late Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he of the spreading chestnut tree and the forest primeval, may still have been cherished in the sitting rooms of Worcester, but his days as a pillar of national letters were clearly numbered. Ezra Pound and his cohort would see to that, and they were already turning out poems and broadsides that spoke of accelerated expectations and manifest destinies every bit as forcefully as did Teddy Roosevelt's flashing spectacles and gleaming incisors.

If artistic temperament could be reduced to the handy coordinates of time and place, then Kunitz by all rights should have made his name as a poet bent on making things new, in sync with a nation that was just then beginning to stretch its limbs as a political power and to wrench its literary culture once and for all free of Europe's. As it happened, this offspring of immigrants from Lithuania's Jewish shtetls went on to become a stubbornly American poet of singular intuitions and convictions, one determined to write, as he would reflect decades later, in a lyric vein that would thrust him into "the thick of life . . . caught in the dangerous traffic between self and universe." In vivid contrast to the two other notable American poets who were born in Worcester, though a few years later, Kunitz found his true pitch not in scrupulous reserve and ironic distance (Elizabeth Bishop), not in boisterous epic sweep and nativist sentiment (Charles Olson), but in pensive, prayerful utterance. Neither radical nor reactionary, answering to no mandarin aesthetic or modernist insurrection, Kunitz's poetry has kept its own lonely counsels, austere of bearing and constrained in form, yet uninhibited in its depth of human sympathy and tragic feeling. What has emerged from this monkish discipline is poetry rooted in the American meditative vernacular and at the same time reaching back to an Old World oracular tradition of incantation and lamentation—that, and an unnerving strain of astringent grandeur that is entirely Kunitz's own.

For a writer whose working life spans thirteen Presidents and perhaps as many literary zeitgeists, Kunitz's steadfastness is all the more extraordinary. No poet of stature has proved less quixotic or less profligate, and it's hard to think of many who have paced themselves so well. Few have been as resistant to the long poem and the epic conception, those bogeys that have devoured so many American poets, and perhaps only the famously fastidious Bishop showed any greater immunity to fever dreams of productivity. It would be a mistake, however, to equate this reticence with diffidence. What Kunitz's work lacks in glamour and commotion it compensates for in serious and decisive purpose. That no shelf will ever groan under Kunitz's collected poetry is a measure of his daunting ambition as well as of his scrupulous restraint.

"Poets are always revisiting the state of their innocence, as if to be renewed by it," Kunitz has written, yet that sounds more wishful than true of his own star-crossed upbringing. His childhood household was a conspicuously matriarchal one, his father having taken his own life six weeks before the son's birth, and his mother remaining unbending in her edict that her husband's name not be uttered in her presence ("She locked his name / in her deepest cabinet / and would not let him out, / though I could hear him thumping," Kunitz writes in "The Portrait"). Raised largely by nursemaids, free to roam the wooded countryside and haunt the public library and the art museum, he turned that independence to good advantage and went on to a stellar career at Harvard, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1926.

At Harvard, Kunitz was recognized as a promising scholar and a precocious poet, but when his hopes for a faculty position at the college were dashed by the administration's veiled but inescapable intimation that his Jewish ancestry would make any such appointment impossible, he bitterly renounced academic life. The years of peripatetic and hard-pressed living that followed (as a reporter in Worcester, an editor in New York, and later, during the Depression, a small farmer in Connecticut and Pennsylvania) did not, however, stifle his private writing life, and in 1930 he published his first volume of poetry, Intellectual Things. The poems were dense, fiercely wrought, intricately figured—and for their day rather beyond the pale. They gave the impression of owing more to the metaphysicals than to the moderns and of being nourished on a Yeatsian diet of eroticized mysticism. Formally accomplished, they were nonetheless humming with a cathartic energy that set them apart from the dominant strains of American lyric poetry: the shrewd vernacular mode of Robert Frost, the cool, allusive vein of Eliot, and the linguistic legerdemain of Wallace Stevens.

The poems in Intellectual Things and in Kunitz's similarly pitched subsequent volume Passport to the War (1944) were not calculated to suit the taste of the literary establishment. Still, their intensity did catch the notice of his peers, particularly those at odds with the lofty postures of the high moderns. His younger contemporary Theodore Roethke, who was in the midst of his own revolt against the emotionally distanced verse then in favor, was an early ally and for a time the reclusive Kunitz's only link to the active guild of letters. Reading these early pieces now (a healthy selection can be found in The Poems of Stanley Kunitz 1928–1978), one can't help being struck by their extremity of feeling, which seems both to hark back to the harnessed passion of English poets such as George Herbert and John Donne and to anticipate the jangled idiom of exposed nerves that poets like Robert Lowell and John Berryman would popularize a generation later. Even so, these qualities were liabilities in a period that still looked to such polished cosmopolitans as Eliot and W. H. Auden for its gold standard in poetry. By his early fifties Kunitz seemed destined at best to remain that poor forked thing, a poet's poet.

All that changed with a thunderclap in 1958, with the publication of Kunitz's Selected Poems 1928–1958, which assembled a powerful group of some thirty new poems alongside many from his two previous collections. The book was awarded the 1959 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and assured Kunitz an acclaim that now seems less overdue than necessarily long-ripening. Virtually from that moment on he has been not only one of the most widely admired figures in contemporary poetry but also, rarer still, a true ambassador of his art: a revered teacher for many years at Columbia University, a judicious consultant to the Library of Congress, a judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and an august presence behind such institutions as the Academy of American Poets, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Poets House, a literary center and poetry library in New York. Most extraordinary of all, the Kunitz of the past forty years has been a measurably finer poet than he was in the first half of his life, amassing a body of such starkly powerful lyric poems as to make all that came before them seem an extended apprenticeship. They are, in all their outward simplicity and inward mystery, perhaps the closest that American poetry has come in our time to achieving an urgency and aura that deserve—even demand—to be called visionary.

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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