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Quest for Self-integration


Ponders Rebirth and Dying

Noting the changes in poetic fashion that have taken place through the years, Stanley Kunitz once observed that the easiest poet to neglect is one who resists classification. Some of our most distinguished poets have remained relatively obscure for years, even for decades, he added, either through anthological caprice or simply because their work did not seem to lend itself to captivity in the standard zoos, of the period.

 And indeed it would be difficult to locate Kunitz in any particular zoo - standard or otherwise. Classifications like "Poet's poet," which is certainly a valid one, fall far short of describing him. Long before the word confessional became a widely used label for a certain kind of personal poetry, for example, Kunitz was mining the vein of his own suffering and ecstasy for the gold of his poems. "I suffer the twentieth century," he says in one, and in others he records his various encounters with his century in a voice of intelligent candor and controlled passion.

 "Anyone," Kunitz once wrote, "who forsakes the child he was is already too old for poetry." And he has never forsaken that child. He returns again and again to his childhood, to his wonder and pain at the beauty and harshness of a world that he tries at once to encompass and transcend. "Memory" he writes, "is each man's poet-in-residence. It's curious how certain images out of the life--not necessarily the most spectacular - keep flashing signals from the depths, as if to say, 'Come down to me ... and be reborn. The words that reveal they've made that descent, when the mind is shaken, come up wet and shimmering and alive. They've been down in that well, where they've met the child you were." About being a poet his feelings are far from simple, but certainly understandable to anyone who has been one--and to some of us who are not:

There is so much of Kunitz in these lines: the wry humor and self-deprecation, coupled (despite his disclaimers) with a serious engagement with poetry and the life of the poet; the sense of a self longing for transcendence but bound to the flesh; the basic loneliness in which his lifelong wrestling with the word has taken place; and finally his overriding sense of his--and our--mortality.

We can see in many of his poems a terse, understated, and extremely compelling vision of the terror of life that wells up from the depths of his consciousness. His is a quest for a self-integration that will admit the worlds of the living and the dead: for, in his words, the "spiral verb that weaves / Through the crystal of our lives, / Of myth and water made / And incoherent blood." It is out of these oppositions, then, that his poems are forged. "I face," he says, '“the hard and inescapable phenomenon that we are living and dying at once. My commitment is to report the dialogues."

How much / disapprove of it!
How little I love it?
Though, contrariwise,
Can there be
Anything half as dear?

Agh! / am sometimes weary
Of this everlasting search
For the drama in a nutshell,
The opera of the tragic sense,
Which / would gladly be rid of.

I listen, I am always listening,
In fear that something might get by,
To the grammar of the public places,
But / fly towards Possibility,
In the extravagantly gay
Surprise of a journey,
Careless that / am bound
To the flaming wheel of my bones,
Preferring to hear, as
Am forced to hear,
The voice of the solitary
Who makes others less alone,
The dialogue of lovers,
And the conversation of two worms
In the beam of a house,
Their mouths filled with sawdust
("Revolving Meditation")

Donald B. Stauffer, University at Albany English professor, is the author of several works on the subject of American poetry.