Passing Through: The Later Poems
By Stanley Kunitz
Original and Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Megan Snyder-Camp writes:
Stanley Kunitz was one of the first poets I fell in love with. Kunitz, who died in 2006 at the age of 100, was one of our greatest poets, a man whose attention ranged from garden to ocean to battlefield, equally at ease in the language of science and the vocabulary of dreams. Over the course of his long career, Kunitz slowly built critical acclaim, and his honors included a Pulitzer Prize, a Bollingen Prize, the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, the Lenore Marshall Prize, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, a National Medal of Arts and a term as US Poet Laureate. Passing Through: The Later Poems shows Kunitz at his height: expansive yet uncluttered, passionate yet clear-eyed.
Passing Through came out in 1995, the year I graduated from high school, and I took my copy with me to college, where I hoped to become a poet. It was Kunitz’s bravery, first, that captivated me—his embrace of the mystical and archetypal within the realm of our lives. No trifling, no shoelace-tying. And, second, it was the clarity and calm with which he held this fire steady, as if saying, of course our lives are full of this rich, painful turning—now let’s lean closer so that we may be transformed by its brightness.
In rereading this collection recently, I was glad to rediscover “Halley’s Comet,” with its heartbreaking final stanza addressing Kunitz’s father, who committed suicide in a public park mere months before the poet was born. Here is that stanza in its entirety:
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.
I read that poem aloud on my very first episode of the late-night college radio show I hosted, which I had eagerly named “The Sex & Death Poetry Hour.” It was my first time reading a poem into a microphone, and I remember the hour stretched before me, the darkness outside the studio, the near-certain lack of listeners but the incredible possibility that maybe, finally, suddenly, someone within this ten-mile range of radio waves might happen to hear my voice and linger.
Who knows? No one ever called in. But in the safety of those quiet nights, I practiced reading aloud the poems I had treasured and brought from home, as well as the new ones I was discovering in my writing workshops. I read them again and again, slowly testing the nuances of breath and inflection and pace, and then I began to try sending a few of my own poems out, too, into that kind nothingness. Those late hours held the gift of maybe. “Halley’s Comet” helped me to put into words the yearning I felt, like that boy staring up into the sky.
Passing Through: The Later Poems contains selections from The Testing-Tree (1971), The Layers (1978), and Next-To-Last Things (1985), as well as nine new poems. The Testing-Tree, Kunitz’s first collection in more than a decade, marked a significant shift in Kunitz’s poetry. He abandoned metered lines for a shorter (three-stress) breath-driven line. Here he also began to engage a more personal subject matter. Noting his desire to “squeeze the water out of my poems,” Kunitz in his 1977 interview with Chris Busa for The Paris Review stated, “I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world.”
Kunitz was most at home in the natural world, and his poems about wild creatures are often lifted into exaltation through the transformation of these creatures into archetypes, as in “The Snakes of September”: “At my touch the wild / braid of creation / trembles.” Or this passage from “King of the River,” a poem about Pacific salmon spawning:
On the threshold
of the last mystery,
at the brute absolute hour,
you have looked into the eyes
of your creature self,
which are glazed with madness,
and you say
he is not broken but endures,
limber and firm
in the state of his shining,
forever inheriting his salt kingdom,
from which he is banished
So many of Kunitz’s poems are elegiac, rooted in loss, grief, “the separate / wilderness of age” (from “Raccoon Journal”). But what makes his elegies so stunning is that they are built not from a careful measure of personal or historical loss but rather from a deep, intoxicating love of all life. His work is elegiac in the broadest sense, marking the passage of life around him, as in these lines to his wife from “Touch Me,” the book’s final poem: “What makes the engine go? / Desire, desire, desire.”
I know I’m not alone in naming Kunitz one of my first loves. I was grateful for this chance to return to the fire of his work, to find again that hum of possibility.
Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work. (Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- Barbara Howes for Collected Poems, 1945-1990
- Josephine Jacobsen for In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems
- Donald Justice for New and Selected Poems
- Gary Soto for New and Selected Poems
Poetry Judges that Year: Joseph Bruchac, Karl Kirchway, Sandra McPherson,
Sharon Olds, Robert Phillips
The Year in Literature:
- The Simple Truth by Philip Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Robert Hass was named Poet Laureate of the United States.
- Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) was born in Worcester, MA.
- Kunitz published his last book of poetry, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden (2005), at the age of 100.
- Stanley Kunitz's 1995 National Book Award Acceptance Speech for Passing Through: The Later Poems
- Kunitz's profile at Poets.org
Stanley Kunitz reads his poem "Touch Me." Part of the Poetry Everywhere project airing on public television. Filmed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation.
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