December 27, 2009

USA: Some poets continue writing well into late years of life

. NORWICH, England / Norwich Bulletin / Living / December 27, 2009 By A.S. Maulucci, For The Norwich Bulletin As the year draws to a close and winter begins, it seems like the right time to consider the work of some elder poets who thrived or are presently thriving in their later years. For all those poets who died young of tuberculosis, alcoholism, drug abuse or suicide, there are many who aged gracefully and expired of old age. William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Alfred Tennyson, George B. Shaw, Marianne Moore and Robert Graves, for example, all met their end “ripe with time and full of years.” Among contemporary poets, Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou, and Richard Wilbur are writing and publishing into their 80s. But perhaps the poet who best epitomizes this phenomenon of longevity is Stanley Kunitz, who had a long and illustrious career and was considered by many to be the most distinguished American poet at the time of his death in 2006 at the age of 100. Kunitz had his first book of poetry published in 1930, and his second came out 14 years later while Kunitz was serving on the European front in World War II. Pulitzer Prize winner Despite some difficulties with keeping his books in print and finding a publisher for his third collection, he eventually went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry as well as the National Book Award. Kunitz received many other honors, including a National Medal of Arts, the Bollingen Prize for a lifetime achievement in poetry, the Robert Frost Medal and Harvard’s Centennial Medal. He served two terms as Consultant on Poetry for the Library of Congress — a position which later became known as Poet Laureate — one term as Poet Laureate of the U.S., and one term as the state poet of New York. He founded the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., and Poets House in New York City. Although his poetry output was thought to be modest, Kunitz’s work was complex and enduring, and his influence on poets such as Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell was considerable. Let’s take a look at two of his poems. First, a poem about old age composed when he was still a young man, “I Dreamed That I was Old”: I dreamed that I was old: in stale declension Fallen from my prime, when company Was mine, cat-nimbleness, and green invention, Before time took my leafy hours away. My wisdom, ripe with body’s ruin, found Itself tart recompense for what was lost In false exchange: since wisdom in the ground Has no apocalypse or pentecost. I wept for my youth, sweet passionate young thought, And cozy women dead that by my side Once lay: I wept with bitter longing, not Remembering how in my youth I cried. Photo credit: Greg_Stockmal What I like best about this poem is it relates a dream — the sort of dream where one wakes up with a greater appreciation for one’s wonderful life. The bittersweet tone, the nostalgia for youth that is not self-pitying, and the surprisingly fresh metaphors such as “cat-nimbleness, and “green invention” are also very pleasing. I especially like the phrase “leafy hours” because it echoes one of my favorite Dylan Thomas’ poems, “Fern Hill” (“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs . . .”). In a later poem called “Touch Me,” written when Kunitz was in his last years, he reminisces about the past with a sweet and clear-eyed longing: 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. Photo credit: Matt Valentine The depiction of old age in this poem glows warmly and radiates a sense of well being, an acceptance of time’s passing. The speaker is full of tenderness and love, and he at first affirms and then seems ready to let go of the beautiful moments of his past, but not without one final flame of desire. Kunitz was as passionate about gardening as he was about poetry, and his love for the little miracles of nature is here in the crickets and the willow branches, the life that will go on after his passing. [rc] A. S. Maulucci’s books of poetry and fiction are available from the publisher at His new guide for fiction writers, “The Fiction Writer’s Handbook,” is available from Copyright 2009 Norwich Bulletin.