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Imagination's Cry

The Voice and Vision of Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF STANLEY KUNITZ By Stanley Kunitz; W.W. Norton: 282 pp., $27.95

September 24, 2000|ADAM KIRSCH | Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic who has contributed to numerous publications, including The New York Times and The New Republic

In his novel "The Middle of the Journey," Lionel Trilling remarked that, in the modern world, "a full decade" was "a whole cultural generation." Nowhere is that disorienting pace more evident than in the American poetry of the century just ending. For the last 100 years, the art has been madly protean; no sooner could any poet, critic or reader pin it down than it changed shape and darted off, to be briefly caught by some new vanguard. A poet born, like Stanley Kunitz, in 1905, would have lived through T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell, Charles Olson and John Ashbery, James Merrill and Jorie Graham--a hundred competing visions of how poetry should sound and what it should encompass. It is hard to think of any century since Shakespeare's that has seen such constant turmoil in the way we think about and write poems.

For this reason, "The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz" is valuable, even beyond its own large merits, as a kind of living mirror of 20th century poetry. At 95, Kunitz has had a career as poet, translator and man of letters as distinguished as it is long; it is fitting that this year he was named U.S. Poet Laureate, because no other single life encompasses more of the history of American poetry. Some of the earliest poems in the book first appeared in now-fabled magazines like Hound and Horn and the Dial (which first published Eliot's "The Waste Land"); and the poems themselves enact a long tidal movement toward and then away from Modernism, with all its proud ambiguities. Biographically, too, the sheer span of time reflected between these covers is startling and moving: Its themes appear again and again in various guises, transformed and illuminated, like motives in a long symphony. The book collects some poems from each of Kunitz's seven books, the first from 1930, the most recent from 1995, and offers the spectacle of a mind in early bloom, broadening into fruitfulness, mellowing with maturity and finally contracting in elegiac reflection. Most gratifying, the book shows that his verse has generally improved over time, leaving behind some of the vices of the young man for a greater ease and simplicity.

It is almost ironic that Kunitz's poetic career should have lasted so long, because his earliest poems are much possessed by death and decline. He was only 25 when "Intellectual Things" appeared, at the high noon of Modernism, and his precocity went beyond his mastery of its tones and idioms; these first poems show a certain premature grandeur, a not-quite-earned knowingness about age, loss and dying. Eliot at least was in his late 40s when he asked, "Why should the aged eagle stretch his wings?" Kunitz was only in his early 20s when he wrote "Eagle":

Invader of

The thunder, never will you fly

Again to pluck the blazing heart.

Shall I? Shall I?

Perhaps the false note that one hears in these early poems comes from the discord between Kunitz's subjects and his language. What he is writing about is universal, basic experience (though of course that does not mean that it should be expressed casually): falling in love, the loss of a parent, hopes and fears for the future, budding ambitions. But his language is up on high stilts, hieratic, as though such experiences were the poet's own arcana and marked him out for a special fate. A good example is "The Words of the Preacher," whose title does not sufficiently disguise the fact that we are hearing the poet's own words:

Taking infection from the vulgar air

And sick with the extravagant disease

Of life, my soul rejected the sweet snare

Of happiness; declined

That democratic bait, set in the world

By fortune's old and mediocre mind.

This feels far too easy; the insistence on denigrating the common run of mankind--it is "vulgar," "democratic," "mediocre"--is unbecoming and conceals the poet's own insecurity about his uniqueness.

The style of Kunitz's next two books--"Passport to the War" (1944) and "Selected Poems" (1958)--grows out of this remote, sometimes haughty style. Of course, as the poet's experience of life increases, the world of his poems broadens, taking in more serious afflictions--divorce, guilt, war. The zenith of what one might call early Kunitz can be found in "End of Summer," a poem about the end of youth:

I stood in the disenchanted field

Amid the stubble and the stones,

Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me

The song of my marrow-bones.

Blue poured into summer blue,

A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,

The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew

That part of my life was over.

Already the iron door of the north

Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows

Order their populations forth,

And a cruel wind blows.

The last stanza achieves a fine effect by balancing the precise, scientific-sounding "populations" and the ominously vague "cruel wind." Here a common experience has been heightened, by careful use of language and meter, into an emblem, a symbol that can be shared: one definition of a successful poem.

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