Tuesday, May 16, 2006

R.I.P. Stanley Kunitz

To climb the belltower,
step after step,
in the grainy light,
without breathing harder:
to spy on each landing
a basket of gifts,
a snowbox of wonders:
pressed flowers, pieces
of colored glass,
a postcard from Niagara Falls,
agates, cut-outs of birds,
and dozing in the pile,
in faded mezzotint,
Child Mozart at the Clavichord.
Three days you fasted
to bring you angels:
your square-toed shoes,
friends of your plodding,
are turning weightless.
When the pear-shaped, brindled cat
who lives under the belfry
jumps into your arms
you are not surprised
by the love-look in her amber eyes,
or by the blissful secrets
she confides to you
in oval, pellucid tones.
What if the iron overhead
suddenly starts pounding?
What if, outside,
a terrible storm is raging?
What if, below,
your twisted brother is calling?

- Stanley Kunitz, 'The Crystal Cage'

Stanley Kunitz died this Sunday. He was 100.

In an interview published in the current issue of the American Poetry Review (not available on-line I'm afraid), Kunitz talks about his fascination with poetry as sound:

"I agree completely with Wallace Stevens when he says that poetry is mostly sounds. There are sounds even before they coalesce into syllables and words....The poets I love all are responsive to the sounds of words even beyond the meaning of words...I was thinking of Hopkins in particular."

and later:

"Even now, in the middle of the night, if I wake, as I often do, I hear the night. I hear the sound of the night, which is not street noises, or any other, but there's a sound that seems to emanate from the movement of the spheres and I actually can hear it and I keep wondering "where is it coming from?" and then I realize it's not coming from anywhere. It's coming from me."

This, I think, is the central intuition behind Kunitz's poetry - the idea that if we are very quiet and listen very carefully and without undue fuss to the sounds of nature around us, then we may well discover in them the secrets of our own self. It is a marvellous idea, and one that Kunitz did considerable justice to, all through his life.

See also this webcast of Kunitz from the Library of Congress, as well as another of his poems on Minstrels.

And finally, to close off with another poem:

Who are we? Why are we here,
huddled on this desolate shore,
so curiously chopped and joined?—
broken totems, a scruffy tribe!
How many years have passed
since we owned keys to a door,
had friends, walked down familiar streets
and answered to a name? We try
not to remember the places
where we left pieces of ourselves
along the way, whether in ditches
at the side of foreign roads
or under signs that spell FOR HIRE
or naked between the sheets in cheap
motels. Does anybody care?
All the villagers have fled
from the sorry sight of us.
In the beginning we had faith
that the Master, who day and night
lets nothing escape the glare
from his invisible tower,
would soften at our appeals;
but we are baffled by his replies
even more than by his silences.
When we complain of the cruel sun
and the blisters popping in our skin
he turns our suffering against us:
A great wound, one you could claim
your very own, might have saved you.
Instead you let others do you in
with their small knives.
What is to become of us?
The sea, that has no ending,
is lapping at our feet.
How we long for the cleansing waters
to rise and cover us forever!
But he who reads our secret thoughts
rebukes us, saying: You cannot hope
to be restored unless you dare
to plunge head-down into the mystery
and there confront the beasts
that prowl on the ocean floor.
"Sacred monsters" is what he calls them.
If only we had strength enough
or nerve for a grand heroic action.
Habit has made it easier for us
to wait for the blessing of the tide.
It's really strange how much we miss
those people who came to gape and jeer;
we'd welcome their return, for company.
Why is the Master knocking at our ears
demanding immediate attention?
In the acid of his voice we sense
the horns swelling at his temples
and little drops of spittle
bubbling at the corners of his mouth.
This is not an exhibition, he storms,
it's a life!

- Stanley Kunitz, 'The Sea, that has no ending' (based on a painting by Philip Guston)


1 comment:

Cheshire Cat said...

Kunitz's main value was as a symbol of poetry. He mentored Louise Gluck, he was poet laureate, and he lived to be a 100. Few poets have lived to be a 100.

Such a distinguished poet - a poet distinguished by his venerability. To be old is such a bardic thing to be...