Monday, October 24, 2011


When I was 13, I looked to girls of 16 for examples of what I did and didn't want to become. Now, in my 70s, I look to people who've survived successfully into the late 80s and beyond, people like the late Stanley Kunitz, who published his first book of poetry when he was 25, won the Pulitzer Prize at 54, was named Poet Laureate at 90, and continued writing and publishing until his death five years ago at 100. His early poems, although admired by critics, were too abstract to be popular. His style grew simpler as he aged and learned to write words, as one critic said, "that cat and dogs can understand."

In the poems of his late maturity, Kunitz aimed for "spareness and rigor and a world of compassion." He believed that to survive both as a person and a poet one must be able to tap into the richness of an entire life. "One doesn't live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you become conscious." Click here and here.

Kunitz loved writing poems and growing plants, two passions that endured into an enviable old age. Although he and his wife spent every summer in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a town I love and often visit, I never had the chance to meet or even see him. Nor did I ever see his beautiful terraced bayside garden or even know its exact location. His last book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, partly makes up for this lack. It contains reminiscences and reflections on Kunitz's life, art, and garden; a selection of some of his best poems; and full-color photos of him at work among his plants. Body bent with age and arthritis, he looks like a benevolent garden gnome.

This fall I'm co-leading a poetry-writing workshop. Although many excellent poetry-writing manuals exist, I've suggested my students read The Wild Braid. In it, Kuniz says little or nothing about scansion, sonnet form, or the difference between simile and metaphor, but he says a lot about what a poem fundamentally is. As a bonus, he provides advice on horticulture. To Kunitz, writing a poem and growing a garden are pretty much alike. For example:

  • From its inception, Kunitz conceived of his terraced garden "as a poem in stanzas," each stanza, like each garden tier, having "its own life yet forming part of the whole." No single word or phrase in a poem, no single plant in a garden should call attention to itself. He didn't plant cannas, for example, because those tropical beauties were mere show-offs in the sandy soil and muted tones of Cape Cod. A garden, after all, is not only "an ornamental place, but a habitat and a civilization."
a show-off

  • A poem's words and phrases, like a garden's flowers and plants, form patterns within a harmonious whole. Recurring sounds and images knit a poem's disparate elements together, just as plants of varying colors, sizes, and shapes did in Kunitz's garden. The complementary blues of the thalictrum on one tier and the platycodon below linked the plants as words are linked by rhyme.
rhyming plants: thalictrum
  • Like a plant, a poem is alive and develops according to its own inner rules. He didn't try to preordain its form. "I try to give the poem its head. . . . I want the poem to grow out of its own materials, to develop organically." For this reason, "my method of writing a poem is to say it. The pitch and tempo and tonalities of a poem are elements of its organic life. A poem is as much a voice as it is a system of verbal signs."
  • Just as a flower is at its most beautiful just before it fully blooms, its secrets still folded inside it, so too a poem's energy comes from the secrets that remain folded within. Too much explanation muddies it. "So much of the power of a poem is in what it doesn't say as much as in what it does say."
Kunitz, whose mind shifted easily between the literal and metaphoric, called the dead end of the garden, "The Gate to Hell," picking up the latent metaphor in dead end to imagine the spot as a gate to the underworld. "After I started calling it that, it became that in my imagination, and then"--in an abrupt return from the literal to the metaphoric--"it became a burial spot. Our cat Celia is buried there." The inextricable bond between death and life is Kunitz's most pervasive poetic theme. Gardening, especially in spring, was for him like participating in some ritual celebration of death and resurrection. "I am never closer to the miraculous than when I am grubbing in the soil."

The connection between cultivating a garden, writing a poem, and living a life is beautifully summed up in this, one of my favorite Kunitz poems:

The Round
Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
"Light splashed. . ."

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
     from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. C.W. Norton, 2000.

Quotations from The Wild Braid:

“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.” 

“The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other frameworks, I call wilderness. And it’s very much like the wilderness in that its beasts are not within our control.” 

“When I’m reading Hopkins aloud, I feel I am actually occupying his selfhood and speaking out of it, not simply reciting the words, but somehow merging into his bloodstream and nervous system.” 

“Every time we read a poem from the past we resurrect the poet, so that he or she is a presence just as much as anyone living and that’s miraculous in itself.” 

“Every artist I’ve know has been distinguished, almost from birth, by knowledge of that need to become a self, not just a living body.” 

A Tribute to Stanley Kunitz

Each baby born,
life's filter squeezes
to the dregs. Most drip
a dank and watery brew.

Now and then,
a sweet fragrance rises
from one
or two.
     by Joan Kane Nichols


  1. I've put his book on my TO READ list. Thanks for the intro to Kunitz. I'd heard of him but never read any of his poems.

  2. You've also made me want to read him, his poetry and his words about writing and life. Thank you!

  3. Thoughtful blog. Thanks for not taking the advice of most blogger gurus to keep it short. I like long meditations. So I'm following you here and on Twitter. Good luck with the Platform Challenge.