How lovely to have the luxury of time (now the schools have broken up for summer – and what a strange metaphor that is) but also, I notice that time is still precious. I can never quite fit in everything I want to! Still, I promised myself to add a featured poet before I put my feet up for a couple of weeks, and it’s my pleasure to be able to share his work with you, both creative and critical. His poems are heartfelt and concise, and his critical work is excellent, as you’ll see from the Stanley Kunitz review below.
Born in South Africa, Ian Tromp has lived in England since 1996. His first collection, ‘Setting Out’ was published in 1994(Cape Town, Snail Press), and he co-edited, with Leon de Kock, ‘The Heart in Exile: South Africa Poetry in English 1990-1994’ (London: Penguin Books, 1996). He currently works as a counsellor/psychotherapist in private practice and is putting together a second book of poems.
Afterwards we are silent
for a long time listening
to this old house draw breath
the wind’s insistence at the door
our own breathing gradually
settling back separating
into our bodies’ rhythms
and our bodies falling
back into their privacy
our thoughts standing up like slow
horses to walk out alone
behind the high barn without
a reason even as we
lie close now in this narrow
bed in an empty bedroom
in this borrowed house our home
In the morning
When you wake and walk
across the kitchen, each step
sets the sprung floor shuddering
like growth rings around a core
which holds and does not give
like bones, firm within the soft
sheath of skin and meat, the lovely
conceit of your body, to ripple out
to me in bed, drowsy and warm
as if we had all the time in the world.
Stanley Kunitz, The Collected Poems (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000) ISBN 0-393-05030-0 285pp. hardcover £21.95
Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997) ISBN 0-393-31615-7 175pp. paperback £9.95
Stanley Moss, ed., Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz (New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1996) ISBN 0-935296-80-8 241pp. paperback $12.95
The Collected Poems is a judicious and generous survey of Stanley Kunitz’s career. Having access in one volume to the great sweeps of time and style and sensibility within his oeuvre is fascinating, including as it does poems published over the course of seventy years. Ranging from the formal tightness and slightly dated language of his first book, Intellectual Things (1930), through the simplicity and directness of diction and address in 1971’s The Testing-Tree to the lucidity and poignancy of the new poems in Passing Through (1995), the volume demonstrates both continuities and developments within Kunitz’s work. Passing Through includes much of The Collected Poems, excepting the poems chosen from his first two volumes, and the new poems from his Selected Poems 1928-1958. It does, though, include the same selection of poems from The Testing-Tree, which emerges as the most significant of his books.
Robert Lowell described this 1971 volume as poetry “even cats and dogs can understand.” These poems mark an extraordinary opening within Kunitz’s forms, a shift to lightness and clarity, openness and ease, which runs through all his subsequent work. Where the poems of Passport to the War (1944) were marked by darkness and a brooding unease, the tenderness and empathy of The Testing-Tree is remarkable. ‘Robin Redbreast’ is a good example of the kinds of open form and conversational language the book employs: “It was the dingiest bird / you ever saw, all the color/ washed from him, as if / he had been standing in the rain, / friendless and stiff and cold, / since Eden went wrong.” No longer aiming for the conventional metrics and stanzaic forms he had previously employed, Kunitz begins now to write in the signature three-beat lines of most of his later work, a form he relates to the rhythms of his own breathing.
In a 1985 interview, Kunitz traced the development of his approaches to poetic form, concluding “I’ve learned to depend on a simplicity that seems almost nonpoetic on the surface, but has reverberations within that keep it intense and alive.” This describes well the way language moves within Kunitz’s poems – beginning with The Testing-Tree, and increasingly in the following books, he cuts back, pruning his words to a considered minimum, but maintaining the same careful concern for rhythm and music he had previously honed within the working-ground of traditional prosody.
Kunitz’s recent appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States (having previously held the post in 1974-76, when it was still known by its former title as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) demonstrates and honours the influence he has had on poetry in the US. This influence has spread not just through his poetry, but through his great generosity as a teacher and mentor to so many poets; as he says in his poem, ‘The Layers’, “I have walked through many lives, / some of them my own.” (217) It is not just the work that makes Stanley Kunitz such a significant figure in North American poetry, but the life he has led and the lives he has touched. Stanley Moss’s lovingly compiled Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz gathers several interviews and a number of statements from writers who have been affected by Kunitz, whether as teacher, exemplar, or friend. (Moss’s earlier A Celebration for Stanley Kunitz [Sheep Meadow Press, 1986] similarly gathered tributes by a wide range of poets – including WS Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass and Yehuda Amichai – in honour of Kunitz’s eightieth birthday.)
Interviews and Encounters offers a number of intimate aspects on Kunitz’s poetics, and several inspiring and inspired remarks on the nature and purposes of poetry. For Kunitz, poetry is of fundamental importance; it is a redemptive artform, a way of being in and positively changing the world. “We have to make our living and dying important again,” he says in one interview here. “And the living and dying of others. Isn’t that what poetry is about?” And in a much later interview, given in his mid-eighties, he offered a kind of prescription for how to go about this revaluation, this process of making living and dying important again: “For myself, I have come to believe that the most wonderful thing to tell is the mystery and beauty of ordinary human existence.”
The interviews also give a good deal of information on Kunitz’s life, which can distract from reading the poems, inclining one to search for confession and anecdote. And though he counted among his closest friends several of the ‘confessional’ poets – including Lowell and Theodore Roethke, who emerges especially frequently in these conversations – Kunitz’s verse cannot be described in these terms. In a 1990 interview, he said: “I want poems that don’t tell secrets, but are full of them.” This attitude is very significant in entering Kunitz’s poetry, for the poems’ many secrets amount to an abiding mystery, giving his work a quality of enquiring wonder.
In a poem from Passport to the War, Kunitz wrote: “I suffer the twentieth century”. He concluded the poem by writing that the message of the ‘deep heart’, “Its wonder, its simple lonely cry, / The bloodied envelope addressed to you, / Is history, that wide and mortal pang.” (‘Night Letter’) Though this poem was written when Kunitz was still a young man, and though his tone is more rhetorical here than in his mature work, the lines do yet convey a sense of his later attitude to the history and the world he lives within and suffers through. The lines’ ambivalence – both in the counterpointing of their music and their sad tone, and in the description of the message as bloodied and yet full of wonder – prefigures the complexity of emotion and experience within Kunitz’s later work.
The close juxtaposition of two poems in the 1985 volume, Next-to-Last Things, puts this ambivalence or complexity very well. The first is a translation from Alexander Blok, a poem entitled ‘The Scene’, which evokes a world that is pointless and circular: “You die. You’re born again and all / Will be repeated as before”. Against this is balanced, a few pages on, ‘The Round”, which – as its titled suggests – also evokes the circularity of life. But the second poem approaches the theme with the celebratory tone, the air of joy and ease that runs through Kunitz’s later work, even when it is touched by elegy and grief, that makes his poems life-giving and affirming. “I can scarcely wait till tomorrow”, it concludes, “when a new life begins for me, / as it does each day, / as it does each day.”
Published in Times Literary Supplement no.5134, August 24, 2001: 23; reproduced in The Hindu, Sunday October 7, 2001, section 3:X