Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected

by Stanley Kunitz
W.W. Norton & Company

Reviewed by David Caplan

The thousands of poetry lovers who each year make the pilgrimage to Yeats' grave in Sligo, Ireland, read on his tombstone the fiercely defiant words that Yeats himself commanded to be chiselled there:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

These lines from "Under Ben Bulben" ended the first edition of The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats with what seemed to be a suitably heroic final image of the poet coolly contemplating his own mortality. Years later, after a scholar revised The Collected Poems according to Yeats' recently discovered notes, a new Last Poems section closed with a much briefer lyric that was Yeats' own choice to conclude his last volume. In this poem, "Politics," the poet's decidedly uncold eye appreciates an attractive girl much younger than he. "But O that I were young again / And held her in my arms" the poem's--and poet's--last lines exclaim.

While lust and rage spurred Yeats' final songs, a much more generous spirit suffuses Stanley Kunitz's latest collection, Passing Through, published in his ninetieth year. "Poetry is for the sake of the life," Kunitz announces in the illuminating forward. This view might have puzzled the youthful Yeats; later, he would have declared it heretical. Even a reader more open-minded than the Irish poet might wonder exactly what Kunitz means. In the context of the forward, Kunitz is saying that writing poetry has sustained and enhanced his life. However, the statement's aphoristic assurance suggests some idea larger than that. Indeed, as I hope to show, this selection of the last third of Kunitz's career can be read profitably as explaining this rather elusive thought.

Because Kunitz sees his art and life as deeply intertwined, a perceptive reader of Passing Through can piece together the outline of Kunitz's troubled life. As "The Portrait" and other poems reveal, Kunitz's father committed suicide while Kunitz's mother was pregnant with him. Kunitz also endured the early deaths of his two older sisters, his only siblings, whose ghosts he addresses in "My Sisters." Finally, Kunitz's two unsuccessful marriages and one particularly destructive extramarital affair inspire at least a half dozen of the poems in Passing Through.

What saves much of Kunitz's work from solipsism is the recognition that the poet is not alone in his suffering. "Poetry is for the sake of the life," he believes, not just my life. Instead, the sense of social responsibility that compelled Kunitz to become a conscientious objector to World War II keeps him from believing, like Milton's Satan and too many contemporary poets, that, "Which way I fly is hell; myself am Hell." An artist's pain, Kunitz understands, is no more real than anybody else's.

The title poem of The Testing-Tree provides a particularly moving example of this ability to fuse personal anguish and a sense of social injustice. As the poem suggests, to turn away from the nightmares of childhood is to flinch from "the deeper dark." Yet, "The Testing-Tree" also realizes that the poet's torments are only a small part of our "murderous time." To live in such an era is to endure, by necessity, its miseries. This knowledge makes the voice of "The Testing-Tree" both personal and prophetic, exploring the poet's childhood traumas in order to understand the larger processes of grief and life, how "the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking." It is fitting that Tony Kushner chose these lines as an epigraph for Angels in America (Part One), a drama of the politics of AIDS whose subject, tone, and characters seem a world away from Kunitz's. However, the epigraph reminds us how fiercely the two works contemplate the same problem of living in a vicious age.

The less successful poems in Passing Through fail to achieve this delicate balance of autobiography and social concern. Never a prolific writer, Kunitz has always had to stretch his work a little to fill volumes, and even this collection of almost twenty-five years of verse contains a few poems which remain oddly distanced from the lives they describe. Liking or disliking their historical subjects a bit too much, poems such as "The Gladiators" and "The Lincoln Relics" offer familiar perspectives on them (Lincoln was assassinated, Nixon was bad, and the Romans--especially Claudius--were mean to the gladiators). Like a child putting on a cardboard stovepipe hat and reciting the Gettysburg Address for a school project, these histories in verse lack an historian's rigor and the other poems' emotional intensity.

These failures, however, are so rare, it seems a little less than kind to dawdle over them. Instead, I wish to consider the kind of poems that Kunitz writes extraordinarily well. Like several of Kunitz's other works, "The Old Darned House" hauntingly describes the break-up of his first marriage. The tornado that destroys the isolated Connecticut farmhouse the couple has patiently repaired serves as a fitting symbol for the furies that wrecked the marriage. The appropriateness of the symbol makes the poem competent. What made and will make me return to it is the way its details of "the old gambrel house, built in 1740, on top of a ridge called Wormwood Hill" are so credible, I believed that the marriage, break-up, and tornado all occurred--regardless of whether, outside the poem, they did or did not. True to the etymological root of "inspiration," details such as these breathe life into words. In doing so, Kunitz's poetry is for the sake of the life: the poet's, the reader's, and the poems'.

One of Kunitz's best known works, "The Wellfleet Whale" shows a similarly evocative attention to detail, especially when noting the range of responses a washed-up whale elicits from the townspeople who gather to watch it. Humiliated by its blunder and about to die, the whale no longer remains godlike--or, rather, becomes godlike in a way the poet can appreciate. Humbled by experience, the beached whale becomes a divinity that Kunitz can pray both to and with.

However, the poem which most fully displays the power of Kunitz's work is "Touch Me," which ends the book with a beautiful, sensuous meditation upon the process of time. The opening, "Summer is late, my heart," quotes "As Flowers Are," which Kunitz had written more than forty years before, in the period before the poems collected in Passing Through. Even a brief comparison between "As Flowers Are" and "Touch Me" highlights the impressive development of Kunitz's work. With its punning, metaphysical conceits and pseudo-philosophical language, "As Flowers Are" displays, like too much poetry written under the influence of New Criticism, a deeper passion for Donne than the beloved it addresses.

In contrast, "Touch Me" ends with lines that are half-prayer, half-lover's plea, and are moving in their tenderness and honesty, "Darling, do you remember / the man you married? Touch me, / remind me who I am." The three-stress lines are more conversational than Kunitz's earlier, accentual-syllabic verse, and their tone is both relaxed and passionate.

At the heart of "Touch Me," however, is the most traditional of metaphysical subjects: the dialogue of body and soul. Like most works in this genre, from Marvell's to Yeats' to Kunitz's earlier poetry, this conversation is usually within the self, isolated from others. In contrast, in "Touch Me," the poet wants--in fact, needs--his wife to affirm his identity. Only her touch can remind him who he is. The fact that Kunitz wrote this love poem in his eighties deepens the scene's poignancy. It is easy to say that the past makes the present possible; it is harder to accept, as "Touch Me" does, that failed marriages, decades of painful disappointments, and desire's intensely frail yet almost overwhelming force are necessary for the love you cherish. This is the poetry of a grown man, of knowledge and experience. It is, in the best and most unpretentious sense of the word, mature.

All poets who enjoy long, productive careers face a harsh final challenge: the difficulty of using the skills a life's hard work developed without repeating what the earlier poems already express. Some of the best poets sadly fail this test. In a certain level of purgatory critics who forget this fact are forced to read only late Wordsworth, late Auden, and late Frost. However, like Yeats and like Virgil writing the Aeneid at the end of his life, some poets gloriously succeed.

It's no insult to say that Kunitz lacks Yeats' lyrical gifts--what poet doesn't? Still, Passing Through offers certain pleasures that Yeats would never allow his readers. "Ben Bulben" suggests we must return death's cold, unblinking stare; "Politics" portrays the smiling public man as a voyeur, racked by secret desires he cannot fulfill. In contrast, "Touch Me" presents a much more comforting vision of love in old age. Mortal, unheroic, and brave, the poet and his beloved enjoy a marriage transcendent enough to strive for and human enough to believe. If, as Kunitz claims, poetry is for the sake of the life, ultimately, then, life becomes synonymous with love.

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