Saturday 30 July 2011

Neil Astley on Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine, with photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson:
The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden (W.W. Norton & Company) £12.99 paperback.

Stanley Moss (ed): To Stanley Kunitz, With Love From Poet Friends (Sheep Meadow Press, $15.95 paperback)

A shorter version of this review was published in Poetry London, 52 (Autumn 2005), shortly after Stanley Kunitz celebrated his 100th birthday.

When Stanley Kunitz celebrated his 100th birthday on 29 July 2005, hundreds of other American poets were there in spirit. The extent of the great love they feel for Kunitz is clear from the many occasions they’ve wanted to celebrate his birthday. His 75th was marked by a special issue of Antaeus in 1980. Gregory Orr’s Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry was published to coincide with his 80th birthday in 1985, followed by two festschrifts from Sheep Meadow Press, both edited by Stanley Moss, the latest produced for his 96th birthday.

Celebratory readings have been held in New York, where Kunitz spends each winter, in his birthplace of Worcester, Massachusetts, and in Provincetown on Cape Cod, his summer home for the past 40 years, where he has created the remarkable terraced garden beautifully portrayed in The Wild Braid, published by Norton to mark his centenary. Of all these tributes, The Wild Braid will be the most lasting and influential. Like the garden it brings to life, the whole book is infused and touched by the poet’s caring, thoughtful presence, largely thanks to the tact and sensitivity of Genine Lentine, who edits herself out of the picture in the manner of the best documentary filmmakers, so that Kunitz seems to be speaking directly to the reader in conversations recorded by the invisible assistant. These discussions are counterpointed by a selection of seminal Kunitz poems and illustrated by over two dozen richly evocative colour photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson.

To Stanley Kunitz includes an essay by Susan Mitchell, much of which first appeared in Poetry London (41, Spring 2002), where she notes the debt owed by 'a party of American poets' to Stanley Kunitz: 'There are scores of volumes of American poets that are substantially different because of the critical attention given them by Kunitz. Theodore Roethke, James Wright, Louise Glück, and a pack of poets from the far reaches of American poetry come to mind. In the 1960s, Kunitz spent many a Monday evening going over Robert Lowell’s drafts.' To Mitchell’s list can be added many of the contributors to Stanley Moss’s latest festschrift, including Sharon Olds, who dedicated the reading she gave this July in Provincetown to Kunitz.

The net spreads still wider and further back. His first publisher, in 1930, was Ogden Nash, and his friends have included E.E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as the many artists who’ve been part of Provincetown’s gloriously eclectic community, notably Mark Rothko. Kunitz was one of the founders, in 1968, of Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center, which has helped launch the careers of many American writers and artists, and which receives all proceeds from the sale of Stanley Moss’s anthology.

Kunitz edited the Yale Series of Younger Poets from 1969 to 1977, offering first book publication to poets such as Robert Hass, Carolyn Forché and Olga Broumas. He introduced many American poets and readers to modern Russian poetry through his exemplary translations of poets such as Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Voznesensky and Yevtushenko, and he knew Brodsky in Russia years before his American exile.

He has also made an immeasurably significant contribution to American poetry as an editor and fearless critic, managing to be both generous and scrupulously critical. Carolyn Forché credited him with changing her life after he turned her down for the Yale series with a letter of encouragement which led her to re-work her first collection Gathering the Tribes: 'I might have written for the cupboard all my life…He forced me to think about my art in the most serious terms, not to be deflected from it. He would never allow us to languish. He insisted upon growth.'

Growth is the keynote in Kunitz’s own work. His much celebrated poem 'The Round' (the final poem in The Wild Braid) ends: 'I can scarcely wait till tomorrow / when a new life begins for me, / as it does each day, / as it does each day.' His well-pruned Collected Poems (2000) traces the growth of his work from the early collections, with their metaphysical arguments and echoes of Herrick, Donne and Marvell, reaching a first flowering in Selected Poems 1928-1958, which won him a Pulitzer Prize and real critical acclaim for the first time for his then unfashionably bold poetry of inner vision.

In To Stanley Kunitz Sharon Olds acknowledges Kunitz as 'our forebear, and yet his is the freshest voice', as if recalling how his poetry renewed itself and opened out during the 1960s, at a time when he was editing the poetry of both Keats and Lowell while learning from the example of William Carlos Williams. The first fruit of that sea change came with The Testing-Tree (1971), which showed how his reinvigorated poetry had become more accessible while 'not sacrificing its more complex inner tissue', as he later observed, as well as more openly autobiographical but at the same time more fiercely visionary. Drawing upon Jungian symbolism, Kunitz engaged with personal tragedy and public conscience to produce a resilient poetry of testing wisdom with a purer voice and an outward reach. In 'Reflections', the preface to The Collected Poems, he tells how Miró’s style changed 'several times, in fact, during his long life. But these changes did not imply a rejection of what he had done before.'

The Testing-Tree embodied his search for 'a transparency of language and vision…I keep trying to improve my controls over language so that I will not have to tell lies. And I keep reading the masters because they infect me with human possibility…The poetry I admire most is innocent and luminous and true.' That open-mindedness and inclusive spirit are the source of his appeal for many of the poets who pay him tribute in To Stanley Kunitz, together with his continuing engagement with masters they hold in common, especially Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Hopkins and Yeats, and his ability to be both Wordsworth’s 'man speaking to men' and a believer in poetry as 'a secret language', as he says in The Wild Braid: 'It is not the language of the day. It is not the domestic language. It contains within it the secret sources of one’s own life energy and life convictions.'

Stanley Moss’s chorus of contributors is one very much in tune with Kunitz’s own poetic lineage, formally inventive and musically expressive. His own sense of lyric tension (expounded in 'Reflections') could apply to many of these poems, notably Paul Muldoon’s 'Hard Drive': 'There’s always a song lying under the surface of my poems. The struggle is between incantation and sense. Incantation wants to take over. It really doesn’t need a language: all it needs is sounds. The sense has to struggle to assert itself, to mount the rhythm and become inseparable from it.'

The most memorable contributions come from those poets whose relationship with Kunitz and his work is expressed almost organically in the language of their poems, and in how they root their poetry in the natural world (Seamus Heaney and Mary Oliver), nature being the fount of Kunitz’s poetic vision, or in how they pick up on arguments pursued by Kunitz throughout his poetry, especially his ruminations on death. Tory Dent’s 'When Atheists Pray' is a dialogue with Rilke’s First Duino Elegy set off when told she was HIV positive.

For anyone already familiar with Kunitz and his work, the poems by Galway Kinnell, Gerald Stern, Stanley Plumly, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, Yusuf Kumunyakaa, Maxine Kumin, Louise Glück, Carolyn Kizer, Gregory Orr and Elise Asher are especially rewarding. The most private note is struck in two poems by Asher, the poet and artist he married in 1958, to whom 'Touch Me' (1995) – see below this review – was written, and who died in 2004. Kunitz speaks in The Wild Braid of how the childhood summers he spent on a Masschusetts farm helped him 'understand death as apart of a natural cycle', and the harmony of nature’s life cycle is the central thread uniting all his poetry. In her poem 'Cycle', Elise Asher writes: 'The day is inconsequential, my love, / it seems inconsequence exists for us', as wind-chimes sound 'felicitious as ancient temple bells / over the vast inconsequence of living, / our intimate forgiving.'

Grace Schulman’s 'In the Café' offers a tragic personal parallel to Kunitz’s own history of loss. Both poets are of European Jewish stock, Schulman writing of her father’s flight from Poland without his brother 'who cursed hunger in song, / and who was found at last on a dirt road // beaten, frozen, dead'. Kunitz’s father committed suicide a few weeks before his son’s birth, as he writes in 'The Portrait' (included in The Wild Braid):

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.

Sharon Olds’ 'Meditation on "The Portrait"' considers the shock delivered by that poem, 'the moment where the widow strikes her son as he’s holding the portrait of his late father', and how her understanding deepened with each re-reading: 'And then my heart was opened by the poem’s longing empathy for the lost one – brave, deep, level. Kunitz wisdom, Kunitz passion, Kunitz accuracy and balance.'

Reading To Stanley Kunitz in tandem with The Wild Braid – and re-reading The Collected Poems – what emerges most strongly is the unity of Kunitz’s vision of man and nature, both in what he writes and says, and in how those poets best-tuned to Kunitz respond to his worldview. The Wild Braid takes its title from his poem 'The Snakes of September': 'At my touch the wild / braid of creation / trembles.' One of its epigraphs reads: 'The universe is a continuous web. Touch it and the whole web quivers.' Later, he says: 'When an individual dies, the web connecting all life remains. It is reconstituted. The whole construct is renewed; the individual creatures who inhabit the web keep changing.'

Yet To Stanley Kunitz presents an awkward challenge to the British reviewer. This festschrift from an American press is not available in the UK. I’ve mentioned a number of its more illustrious contributors, but most will not be known here, and some don’t appear to me to engage much with Kunitz or his work, their offerings being perhaps more poems for Kunitz himself to savour as opposed to poems which illuminate his achievement for the reader. Although editions of Kunitz’s poetry have been published in Britain (1959, 1974, 1979), his Norton Collected Poems won’t be found in many bookshops, and despite the best efforts of Poetry London, very few readers here seem to be familiar with his work. As a reader of Kunitz, I can respond to a good chunk of Stanley Moss’s festschift, but as a reviewer I can’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already know Kunitz’s work.

The Wild Braid, on the other hand, is far more than an evocation of a poet’s garden. Like Derek Jarman’s garden patch at Dungeness, Kunitz’s seaside garden is both real and metaphorical, leading him to 'an appreciation of the natural universe, and to a meditation on the connection between the self and the natural universe'. And the book celebrating his garden grows into one of the most revealing and thought-provoking commentaries on poetry, nature, life, death and the creative process I’ve been privileged to read. The Wild Braid makes me feel I’m in the presence of a master, a seer, listening to the distilled wisdom of a lifetime’s service to poetry. Its generous inclusion of some of Kunitz’s most luminous poems makes it a perfect introduction to his work as well as a book to treasure. And any reader who is fortunate enough to read this book (currently available from at £12.99) should then want to get hold of Kunitz’s Collected Poems.

Exactly how and why Kunitz is such a salutary poet for us to read now should be clear from this comment on poetry, death and the erotic in The Wild Braid: 'The poem has to be saturated with impulse and that means getting down to the very tissue of experience. How can this element be absent from poetry without thinning out the poem? That is certainly one of the problems when making a poem is thought to be a rational production. The dominance of reason, as in eighteenth-century poetry, diminished the power of poetry. Reason certainly has its place, but it cannot be dominant. Feeling is far more important in the making of the poem. And the language itself has to be a sensuous instrument; it cannot be a completely rational one. In rhythm and sound, for example, language has the capacity to transcend reason; it’s all like erotic play.'


Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
                           and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)

This poem was included in my Bloodaxe anthology Being Alive (2004), reprinted from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (WW Norton, 2001). It was written in his 90s, and is the last poem in the selection from his last collection Passing Through: The Later Poems (1995) in The Collected Poems.


This account is reprinted from my Introduction to the DVD-anthology In Person: 30 Poets filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce (Bloodaxe Books, 2008), published in Bloodaxe's 30th birthday year. In December 2005, in the course of a week’s stay in New York, Pamela and I met a number of remarkable people, including three in particular who are sadly no longer with us: the novelist Marianne Hauser, an old family friend, then aged 95; Louise Bourgeois, one of the most inventive, defiantly unconventional artists of modern times, who was 94 that Christmas; and Stanley Kunitz, who’d turned 100 a few months earlier. Those three meetings were the catalyst for our project of filming poets for Bloodaxe's archive, website and DVD-books. We have now filmed over 100 poets and a second DVD-anthology is planned for 2013, Bloodaxe's 35th birthday year.

Our next day in New York couldn’t have been more different. We’d been in touch with Stanley Kunitz’s assistant and co-author Genine Lentine over a 100th birthday tribute review of their book The Wild Braid I’d written for Poetry London, and had been invited for tea at his apartment. By late 2005 Stanley was spending most of his days reading or resting while others looked after his correspondence and general welfare. As well as reading any book, newspaper or magazine he happened to find by his armchair, he loved listening to poems. Genine would read him poems by the writers he admired most, along with new poems from the many books and magazines he was sent by younger poets. She was reading whole books to him in instalments; most recently, Moby-Dick. And Stanley himself could still recite poetry with gusto, as we discovered in the course of a wonderful hour spent in his company.

We had brought copies of two anthologies in which I’d included his work, and he was soon persuaded to read us some of the poems. Tracing the words with a shaky, gnarled finger, he read each line of ‘Touch Me’ in a quavering voice, but with a power and feeling which seemed to connect with the source of

Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two…

And putting the book down, he intoned the last few lines from memory:

Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

We were so captivated that I found myself almost holding my breath, not wanting to miss the tiniest nuance. Then Stanley wanted me to read some of the poems I especially liked from the two anthologies, and I chose Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s ‘Snow Melting’ and Brendan Kennelly’s ‘Begin’. This time I was reading poems to just three people – including one of the poets I most admired in the world – and as I read each line, I was acutely aware of the extraordinary nature of the occasion, and the need to give of my best if the reading were to pass muster. I remember concentrating hard on giving just the right weight to the sounds of the poems, the rhymes, chimes, assonances and other musical effects which only reading aloud can fully sound. I wanted to give something back to Stanley, and to share this with the others just as we’d shared his reading.

Afterwards, we talked about how amazing it would have been to have filmed Stanley giving that magical reading to three people; and also how filming such an intimate encounter would have required particular sensitivity and tact.

Before we left New York, Pamela would see Marianne Hauser again, possibly for the last time. Marianne also had been a formidable reader, but at 95 she was in failing health, and Pamela wished she had been able to film her friend years earlier. The idea of filming Bloodaxe’s writers grew from these conversations. When both Marianne Hauser and Stanley Kunitz died the following summer, the latter just two months short of his 101st birthday, we felt the urgency of capturing the older poets on film for posterity. As well as filming the older writers, we wanted to catch some of the poets who visit Britain from overseas each year to give readings. However, we didn’t want to point a camera at them at a public event, nor did we want to film people in the artificial environment of a recording studio; what we wanted was something more like the intimate reading Stanley Kunitz had given us.

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