American Poet, Pulitzer Prize and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress
Stanley Kunitz, fully Stanley Jasspon Kunitz
American Poet, Pulitzer Prize and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress
We are all candidates for composting. So we cannot approach the compost heap without a feeling of connection.
We have all been expelled from the Garden, but the ones who suffer most in exile are those who are still permitted to dream of perfection.
When his boat snapped loose from its mooring, under the screaking of the gulls, he tried at first to wave to his dear ones on shore, but in the rolling fog they had already lost their faces. Too tired even to choose between jumping and calling, somehow he felt absolved and free of his burdens, those mottoes stamped on his name-tag: conscience, ambition, and all that caring. He was content to lie down with the family ghosts in the slop of his cradle, buffeted by the storm, endlessly drifting. Peace! Peace! To be rocked by the Infinite! As if it didn't matter which way was home; as if he didn't know he loved the earth so much he wanted to stay forever.
When, on your dangerous mission gone, you underrate our foes as dunces, be wary, not of sudden gun, but of your partner at the dances.
The garden communicates what it shows to you but you also contribute to the garden some of what you are seeking in terms of your own life, your own state of being. One reason a garden can speak to you is that it is both its own reality and a manifestation of the interior life of the mind that imagined it in the beginning.
The Layers - I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: ?Live in the layers, not on the litter.? Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
The mystery of the creative process is that the poem is there but NOT there within you, accumulating experience, accumulating images. It needs to be released, but sometimes there are barriers. The poem incites fear; you are coming into truth in the writing of the poem, you are hesitant to explore unfamiliar areas.
The poem, by its very nature, holds the possibility of revelation, and revelation doesn?t come easy. You have to fight for it. There is that moment when you suddenly open a door and enter into the room of the unspeakable. Then you know you?re really speaking.
The word I spoke in anger weighs less than a parsley seed, but a road runs through it that leads to my grave, that bought-and-paid-for lot on a salt-sprayed hill in Truro where the scrub pines overlook the bay. Half-way I'm dead enough, strayed from my own nature and my fierce hold on life. If I could cry, I'd cry, but I'm too old to be anybody's child. Liebchen, with whom should I quarrel except in the hiss of love, that harsh, irregular flame?
There?s something very important to me about having a kind of relationship, with plants and animals, that can be transacted wholly without language. The warmth of one?s body is a form of communication. The stroke of one?s hand is a means of communication. In the garden those forms are heightened. I have a tendency when I?m walking in the garden to brush the flowers as I go by, anticipating the fragrant eloquence of their response. I get a sense of reciprocity that is very comforting, consoling.
Transformations - All night he ran, his body air, but that was in another year. Lately the answered shape of his laughter, the shape of his smallest word, is fire. He who is a fierce young crier of poems will be as tranquil as water, keeping, in sunset glow, the pure image of limitless desire; then enter earth and come to be, inch by inch, geography.
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.
Not that you need to be a saint to have visions worth talking about. The most effective prescription, I suspect, is to be a disciplined sinner. Perfection, as Valery noted, is work.
One day, as I stood under a great chestnut tree deep in the center of the woods, I heard some rustling in the branches. I looked up and saw a family of owls, a mother and four fledglings, all on one branch. The moment I moved, they frantically whisked off. I vowed I would become a friend of theirs and realized I must not disturb them in any way. I learned if I approached very quietly, advancing just a few steps, then standing still, then advancing a little more, the owls were not intimidated. And then I would reach the chestnut tree and stand under it absolutely motionless for as long as I could, fifteen minutes, half an hour or so. After doing this day after day for several weeks, I could tell the owls had gained confidence in my presence. Gradually, I dared to raise my arm and lift one of the four babies off its perch and place it on my shoulder for a few minutes and then return it safely. I did that with all of them over a period of weeks and finally made the great maneuver?I extended my arm and lifted them one by one, all five of them, on to my arm. I started with the most familiar one, the mother owl. And then once she was perched there, the others were happy to join. By then they were familiar with my touch. There was no sense of separation; I was part of their life process. So, with the mother owl and the four little ones perched on my arm I walked gingerly out of the woods and took them home and installed them in the attic where I?d prepared the equivalent of a branch and set out some food to welcome them. They lived there happily, coming and going through the open window, for the remainder of my stay at Wormwood Hill?.
One of the great delights of poetry is that when you?re really functioning, you?re tapping the unconscious in a way that is distinct from the ordinary, the customary, use of the mind in daily life. You?re somehow cracking the shell separating you from the unknown.
Poetry is language surprised in the act of changing into meaning.
Poetry today is easier to write but harder to remember.
Reading in Li Po how "the peach blossom follows the water" I keep thinking of you because you were so much like Chairman Mao, naturally with the sex transposed and the figure slighter. Loving you was a kind of Chinese guerilla war. Thanks to your light-foot genius no Eighth Route Army kept its lines more fluid, traveled with less baggage so nibbled the advantage. Even with your small bad heart you made a dance of departures. In the cold spring rains when last you failed me I had nothing left to spend but a red crayon language on the character of the enemy to break appointments, to fight us not with his strength but with his weakness, to kill us not with his health but with his sickness. Pet, spitfire, blue-eyed pony, here is a new note I want to pin on your door, though I am ten years late and you are nowhere: Tell me, are you still mistress of the valley, what trophies drift downriver, why did you keep me waiting?
Some poems present themselves as cliffs that need to be climbed. Others are so defensive that when you approach their enclosure you half expect to be met by a snarling dog at the gate. Still others want to smother you with their sticky charms.
Some things I do not profess to understand, perhaps not wanting to, including whatever it was they did with you or you with them that timeless summer day when you stumbled out of the wood, distracted, with your white blouse torn and a bloodstain on your skirt. "Do you believe?" you asked. Between us, through the years, we pieced enough together to make the story real: how you encountered on the path a pack of sleek, grey hounds, trailed by a dumb show retinue in leather shrouds; and how you were led, through leafy ways, into the presence of a royal stag, flaming in his chestnut coat, who kneeled on a swale of moss before you; and how you were borne aloft in triumph through the green, stretched on his rack of budding horn, till suddenly you found yourself alone in a trampled clearing. That was a long time ago, almost another age, but even now, when I hold you in my arms, I wonder where you are. Sometimes I wake to hear the engines of the night thrumming outside the east bay window on the lawn spreading to the rose garden. You lie beside me in elegant repose, a hint of transport hovering on your lips, indifferent to the harsh green flares that swivel through the room, searchlights controlled by unseen hands. Out there is a childhood country, bleached faces peering in with coals for eyes. Our lives are spinning out from world to world; the shapes of things are shifting in the wind. What do we know beyond the rapture and the dread?
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. She locked his name in her deepest cabinet and would not let him out.
As if I were composed of dust and air, the shape confronting me upon the stair (Athlete of shadow, lighted by a stain on its disjunctive breast--I saw it plain--) moved through my middle flesh. I turned around, shaken and it was marching without sound beyond the door; and when my hand was taken from my mouth to beat the standing heart, I cried my distant name, thinking myself had died. One moment I was entered; one moment then I knew a total century of pain between the twinkling of two thoughts. The ghost knocked on my ribs, demanding, "Host! Host! I am diseased with motion. Give me bread before I quickly go. Shall I be fed?" Yielding, I begged of him: "Partake of me. Whatever runneth from the artery, this body and its unfamiliar wine, stored in whatever dark of love, are thine." But he denied me, saying, "Every part of thee is given, yea, thy flesh, thy heart."
At his incipient sun the ice of twenty winters broke, crackling, in her eyes. Her mirroring, still mind, that held the world (made double) calm, went fluid, and it ran. There was a stir of music, mixed with flowers, in her blood; a swift impulsive balm from obscure roots; gold bees of clinging light swarmed in her brow. Her throat is full of songs, she hums, she is sensible of wings growing on her heart. She is a tree in spring trembling with the hope of leaves, of which the leaves are tongues.
Before I am completely shriven I shall reject my inch of heaven. Cancel my eyes, and, standing, sink into my deepest self; there drink memory down. The banner of my blood, unfurled, will not be love, only the pity and the pride of it, pinned to my open side. When I have utterly refined the composition of my mind, shaped language of my marrow till its forms are instant to my will, suffered the leaf of my heart to fall under the wind, and, stripping all the tender blanket from my bone, rise like a skeleton in the sun, I shall have risen to disown the good mortality I won. Directly risen with the stain of life upon my crested brain, which I shall shake against my ghost to frighten him, when I am lost. Gladly as any poison, yield my halved conscience, brightly peeled; infect him, since we live but once, with the unused evil in my bones. I'll shed the tear of souls, the true sweat, Blake's intellectual dew, before I am resigned to slip a dusty finger on my lip.
Feeling is far more important [than reason] 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.