A Middle Style: Rhythm and Self

             While looking at Stanley Kunitz’s work, particularly the poems in his 1928-1978 collection, as well as interviews with the man and criticisms and analyses of his poetry, what struck me about him and his writing was the evolution in style and representation of self that appeared across his collections. In explanation of these changes, Kunitz was once quoted as saying: “A high style wants to be fed exclusively on high sentiments. Given the kind of person I am, I came to see the need for a middle style - for a low style, even, though that may be out of my range." Kunitz, in search of a “middle style” seemed (at least as far as I can tell) to strike a sort of compromise between his earlier and later works: while the subjects, themes and attention to rhythm and sound stayed relatively the same over the span of his work, his language became simpler and his references more accessible over time. He also moved away from end-rhymes and strict and formal structure and began to incorporate more of himself and his experiences into his middle and later poems (in more direct ways, but without sacrificing the gravity, mystery, and magic that he seemed to hold onto in his earlier works [1]).

            Looking across selections at poems with similar themes, this evolution of style is, most of the time, strikingly obvious.  In “For the Word Is Flesh” (from Kunitz’s first book) and “The Portrait” (from The Testing-Tree), for example, we see two poems that address Kunitz’s struggle with coming to terms with his father’s death, but, in the first, the language is of a much more elevated nature and the allusions are very academic:

O ruined father dead, long sweetly rotten

Under the dial, the time-dissolving urn,

Beware a second perishing, forgotten,

Heap fallen leaves of memory to burn

On the slippery rock, the black eroding heart,

Before the wedged frost splits it clean apart.

 

[…]

Of hypochondriacs that gnawed their seasons

In search of proofs, Lessius found twenty-two

Fine arguments, Tolet gave sixty reasons

Why souls survive. And what are they to you?

And, father, what to me, who cannot blur

The mirrored brain with fantasies of Er,

 

Remembering such factual spikes as pierce

The supplicating palms, and by the sea

Remembering the eyes, I hear the fierce

Wild cry of Jesus on the holy tree,

Yet have of you no syllable to keep,

Only the deep rock crumbling in the deep.

Observe the wisdom of the Florentine

Who, feeling death upon him, scribbled fast

to make revision of a deathbed scene,

Gloating that he was accurate at last.

Let sons learn from their lipless fathers how

Man enters hell without a golden bough.

Compare this to his rhythm and word-choice in “The Portrait”:

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,

though I could hear him thumping.

When I came down from the attic

with the pastel portrait in my hand

of a long-lipped stranger

with a brave moustache

and deep brown level eyes,

she ripped it into shreds

without a single word

and slapped me hard.

In my sixty-fourth year

I can feel my cheek

still burning.

In this second poem, not only is the language simpler, but the structure is also freer and more narrative in style. Kunitz appeals to more senses in it, as well, addressing sight, sound, and touch and creating vivid, lasting images. These changes, from the more formal alternating rhyme + couplet scheme of the first poem (as well as the elevated language and presumably obscure references) to the unrhymed, narrative feel of the second, have – in my mind – two important effects: 1) they make the poem more accessible, and 2) they give a greater sense of genuineness to it. As Kunitz himself said, “My problem was not whether to acknowledge my losses and frustrations but how to transform them from a destructive experience into a creative one. […] At twenty-three my poems tended to be dense and formal, written in the metaphysical mode. The pain is there, but you have to penetrate the high style to get at it.”

          Kunitz's change in style, which was said to have been fully apparent by the publication of The Testing Tree, marked a change in the form of his poems more than the subject matter/thematic aspects; still, Kunitz managed to maintain a sort of power over the language, even as he simplified it and revealed more personal emotion and conflict. As we see in a lot of his poems, the ideas of "masks" or multiple selves are a big concern; in shedding his high-style, Kunitz seemed to be revealing a new layer of himself as a person and as a poet (a fact which he acknowledges in poems like "Layers" and "Vita Nuova"). In these layers and selves and the transformations they undergo, Kunitz seems to find the magic and mystery behind his poetry (perhaps behind being human?); this awareness carries over to his middle-style just as well - the depth of his poems don't lie in the excesses of his language (as in some of his earlier works), but, instead, in their sound, in their arrangement, and in their ability to evoke images and  emotion. Sparcity of language, in fact, seemed to serve him well.

          Kunitz’s clarification of style and language over the body of his work is, arguably, the thing that opened him up to a wider audience and allowed for his life experiences to shine through. Like the subjects of life and death (which show up repeatedly in his work), Kunitz viewed change as natural and inevitable. His style changed and his presence in his poems grew along with his experience. As he is quoted as saying, “Early poetry is much more likely to be abstract because of the poverty of experience." Kunitz’s poetry shows this change, this search for a “middle style,” which resulted in poems that were at once accessible and moving. His unique sense of sound and rhythm, his imagination, and the broad relevance of his themes – never mind his role in sponsoring other poets - however, are what (at least in my opinion) make him a significant and influential modern poet and an overall interesting person.

 



[1] "A poet cannot concern himself with being fair to the reader. Time will tell. All poems contain a degree of mystery, as poetry is a discovery of one's hidden self. . . . Poetry is not concerned with communication; it has roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting."

NOTE: For quote references/sources, see (message) me.