This Old Poem #71:
The Poets Laureate Special Edition #9:
Stanley Kunitz’s Touch Me
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/7/03

  Finally a Poet Laureate that it could actually be argued that deserved the nod. So, why do a TOP on him? Because despite early successes, old- & I mean OLD- Stanley Kunitz has gone the way of almost all poets, by getting worse as he got older. 1st the obligatory bio, culled from online:

  Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905. His many books of poetry include The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton, 2000); Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (1995), which won the National Book Award; Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (1985); The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978, which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; Passport to the War (1940); Selected Poems, 1928-1958, which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Testing-Tree (1971); and Intellectual Things (1930). He also co-translated Orchard Lamps by Ivan Drach (1978), Story Under Full Sail by Andrei Voznesensky (1974), and Poems of Akhmatova (1973), and edited The Essential Blake (1987), Poems of John Keats (1964), and The Yale Series of Younger Poets (1969-77).

  His honors include the Bollingen Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, Harvard's Centennial Medal, the Levinson Prize, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Shelley Memorial Award. He served for two years as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, was designated State Poet of New York, and is a Chancellor Emeritus of The Academy of American Poets. In 2000 he was named United States Poet Laureate. A founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Poets House in New York City, he taught for many years in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. He lives in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

  Let’s gander at a poem from his 1st book, in 1930- Intellectual Things:

Single Vision

Before I am completely shriven
I shall reject my inch of heaven.

Cancel my eyes, and, standing, sink
Into my deepest self; there drink

Memory down.  The banner of
My blood, unfurled, will not be love,

Only the pity and the pride
Of it, pinned to my open side.

When I have utterly refined
The composition of my mind,

Shaped language of my marrow till
Its forms are instant to my will,

Suffered the leaf of my heart to fall
Under the wind, and, stripping all

The tender blanket from my bone,
Rise like a skeleton in the sun,

I shall have risen to disown
The good mortality I won.

Directly risen with the stain
Of life upon my crested brain,

Which I shall shake against my ghost
To frighten him, when I am lost.

Gladly as any poison, yield
My halved conscience, brightly peeled;

Infect him, since we live but once,
With the unused evil in my bones.

I'll shed the tear of souls, the true
Sweat, Blake's intellectual dew,

Before I am resigned to slip
A dusty finger on my lip.

  Nice taut poem structure, formal- of course, yet with a great ending. This was typical of the early SK oeuvre. Thematically it niftily combines the intellectual & the spiritual. Here’s another from the same book:

Master And Mistress

As if I were composed of dust and air,
The shape confronting me upon the stair
(Athlete of shadow, lighted by a stain
On its disjunctive breast--I saw it plain--)
Moved through my middle flesh.  I turned around,
Shaken and it was marching without sound
Beyond the door; and when my hand was taken

From my mouth to beat the standing heart, I cried
My distant name, thinking myself had died.
One moment I was entered; one moment then
I knew a total century of pain
Between the twinkling of two thoughts.  The ghost
Knocked on my ribs, demanding, "Host! Host!
I am diseased with motion.  Give me bread
Before I quickly go. Shall I be fed?"
Yielding, I begged of him: "Partake of me.
Whatever runneth from the artery,
This body and its unfamiliar wine,
Stored in whatever dark of love, are thine."
But he denied me, saying, "Every part
of thee is given, yea, thy flesh, thy heart."

  Not quite as good as the 1st poem- but still a good poem that is fairly lacking in triteness. Yet, SK- as with many poets- made the cardinal sin of mistaking laxness in his writing style for growth. His poems got more flab & became more free verse. The move from formal to free verse is not necessarily a bad thing, but in SK’s case it was, because he is a poet with a limited ken, & stricture brought focus to his poetry. Look at this poem from the New Poems section of his 1958 Selected Poems:

The Science Of The Night

I touch you in the night, whose gift was you,
My careless sprawler,
And I touch you cold, unstirring, star-bemused,
That have become the land of your self-strangeness.
What long seduction of the bone has led you
Down the imploring roads I cannot take
Into the arms of ghosts I never knew,
Leaving my manhood on a rumpled field
To guard you where you lie so deep
In absent-mindedness,
Caught in the calcium snows of sleep?

And even should I track you to your birth
Through all the cities of your mortal trial,
As in my jealous thought I try to do,
You would escape me--from the brink of earth
Take off to where the lawless auroras run,
You with your wild and metaphysic heart.
My touch is on you, who are light-years gone.
We are not souls but systems, and we move
In clouds of our unknowing
                                                  like great nebulae.
Our very motives swirl and have their start
With father lion and with mother crab.
Dreamer, my own lost rib,
Whose planetary dust is blowing
Past archipelagoes of myth and light
What far Magellans are you mistress of
To whom you speed the pleasure of your art?
As through a glass that magnifies my loss
I see the lines of your spectrum shifting red,
The universe expanding, thinning out,
Our worlds flying, oh flying, fast apart.

From hooded powers and from abstract flight
I summon you, your person and your pride.
Fall to me now from outer space,
Still fastened desperately to my side;
Through gulfs of streaming air
Bring me the mornings of the milky ways
Down to my threshold in your drowsy eyes;
And by the virtue of your honeyed word
Restore the liquid language of the moon,
That in gold mines of secrecy you delve.
              My whirling hands stay at the noon,
Each cell within my body holds a heart
And all my hearts in unison strike twelve.

  Note how the poem is longer, less focused, & has a handful of clichés within, plus the whole poem’s trope is trite. By 1971’s The Testing Tree (when he was already 66!) SK was delving into Confessional banality:

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.

   Notice the mediocre line breaks, the lack of tautness. The whole poem has an OK setup, & the end image is good, but it drags compared to Single Vision- a poem of similar length & style. Here’s some poems from his post-1978 Selected Poems:

Passing Through 

Nobody in the widow's household
ever celebrated anniversaries.
In the secrecy of my room
I would not admit I cared
that my friends were given parties.
Before I left town for school
my birthday went up in smoke
in a fire at City Hall that gutted
the Department of Vital Statistics.
If it weren't for a census report
of a five-year-old White Male
sharing my mother's address
at the Green Street tenement in Worcester
I'd have no documentary proof
that I exist. You are the first,
my dear, to bully me
into these festive occasions.

Sometimes, you say, I wear
an abstracted look that drives you
up the wall, as though it signified
distress or disaffection.
Don't take it so to heart.
Maybe I enjoy not-being as much
as being who I am. Maybe
it's time for me to practice
growing old. The way I look
at it, I'm passing through a phase:
gradually I'm changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours:
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.

  A lot of fat, & the cliché ratio increases. This next poem is from the American Poetry Review. As Felix Unger might moan, “Stanley, Stanley, Stanley….”

The Quarrel

The word I spoke in anger
weighs less than a parsley seed,
but a road runs through it
that leads to my grave,
that bought-and-paid-for lot
on a salt-sprayed hill in Truro
where the scrub pines
overlook the bay.
Half-way I'm dead enough,
strayed from my own nature
and my fierce hold on life.
If I could cry, I'd cry,
but I'm too old to be
anybody's child.
with whom should I quarrel
except in the hiss of love,
that harsh, irregular flame?

  Better than most poets might do with the subject matter, but this is abominable writing: ‘Half-way I'm dead enough,/strayed from my own nature/and my fierce hold on life./If I could cry, I'd cry,/but I'm too old to be/anybody's child./Liebchen’. This 1 is from
Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected:

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.

  Not a bad play on the idea of a canon/round. But, the young SK would have known to end the poem at the penultimate stanza’s end. The last 4 lines are superfluous- especially the repetition of the last 2 lines. On to the poem that is this essay’s subject:

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married
? Touch me,
remind me who I am

  I recall seeing SK read this clichéd tripe (clichés are underlined!) on some TV show- perhaps a (ugh!) Bill Moyers PBS crapfest? It was especially painful when he got to the ‘Desire, desire, desire’ part, & even worse when the bathetic Saving Private Ryanesque ‘Touch me,/remind me who I am.’ end comes. SK’s verse has traveled a long way from the novel & taut early poetry. In some ways SK’s steep descent from near-greatness to maudlin mediocrity reminds me most of the terrible descent the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks took from its tight, early near-greatness to its poorly-wrought & trite ‘politically aware’ later ‘Black Power’ mode. Natheless, let’s try to rewrite it more like the early SK might.

Touch Me

Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
scatter leaves of whistling.
Under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
to burst from their crusty shells;
and marveled a music pour.
What makes the engine go?
The longing for stirs.
The old willow thrashes.
Do you remember who I am?

  The clichés have been excised & the poem is sharper & clearer. The images now pique & leave the reader a bit unsettled. Instead of a Beloved we now have either a request to another (beloved or not) or an interior monologue. I would add some elements, but this is a good place to start the rewrite from. & not a bad little poem by its lonesome!

Final Score: (1-100):

Stanley Kunitz’s Touch Me: 55
TOP’s Touch Me: 75

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