When Stanley Kunitz discovered Hopkins

(OR, WHAT I DO TO OVERCOME WRITER’S BLOCK)

It has been a busy season the past couple of months. Lots to do workwise, and more travel than usual.

The result has been a bit of a dry spelling for poetry and blogging. (I don’t know how all those poets with busy day jobs managed to keep producing! But then, when you think about it, nobody feeds themselves from their poetry earnings. Everybody needs a side hustle to stay afloat.)

Whenever I’m feeling stuck, I try things. I go for a walk, read other poets, listen to tapes of great poems being read aloud.

I was combining both walking and listening the other day when I ran across an amazing tape of a story I’d never heard before.

I discovered Stanley Kunitz’s contribution to the Favorite Poem Project.  This effort was the brainchild of Robert Pinsky when he was serving as the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States.

One of the tapes made for the project was from Kunitz, himself a former Poet Laureate back in the 1970s.

In his introduction to his selection, Kunitz tells how he first discovered the poem.  He was a student a Harvard in 1926, he says, roaming through the library’s 19th century English poetry section. Seemingly at random he reached up and took down a book by an author he did not know.

It was the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

He opened the book again at random, to the poem “God’s Grandeur.”

Just read how the poem completely gobsmacked Kunitz:

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading, it really shook me because it was unlike anything I had ever read before. As I starting reading it suddenly that whole book became alive to me. It was filled with such a lyric passion. It was so fierce and eloquent, wounded and yet radiant, that I knew it was speaking directly to me, and giving me a hint of the kind of poetry that I would be dedicated to for the rest of my life.” — Stanley Kunitz

Kunitz himself gives one of the best readings of the poem I’ve ever heard here.

It’s remarkable Kunitz found Hopkins, who had died unpublished in 1889.  His collected poems were did not reach the public until his friend Robert Bridges finally published them in 1918.

It was also remarkable that such an overtly religious poem by a devout 19th century Roman Catholic priest had such a profound effect on a 20th century American Jew. Such is the power of great poetry.

My own study of poetry is even more random that this one anecdote from Kunitz.  I’ll wander through libraries, and especially used book stores, just to see what treasure I might stumble across.

Nobody has assigned me a reading list.  No one is paying me to do this. So why not enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

In fact, that’s how I discovered Kunitz earlier this year. (I had never read anything by him until I plucked his book, The Wild Braid from the shelves of my local used bookstore. (There are so many gaps in my education!)

While none of his poems has broken through to me in quite the way that Hopkins did to him, I’m reading Kunitz these days and enjoying him.  He’s growing on me.

Advertisements

Hometown haiku

Raymond Ball with a 1940 Ford

Father, when you spoke
I believed you, for you spoke
with authority.


NOTES:  In many ways, my dad was a simple man.  Farmer.  Mechanic.  Forced to drop out of high school to work during the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity go back to school to pick up his education again.

He never travelled to Europe or learned a foreign language.  He never made a lot of money, or tasted the luxuries of life.

But he knew what he thought and what he believed.  And when he talked about his beliefs, his strength of conviction came through his voice.

Often he was expressing his belief in the products of the Ford Motor Company.  He was a confirmed Ford man.  He claimed he had seen the insides of enough cars and tractors to know how each one held up, and which ones were made out of cheap materials.

He would just utter a phrase like, “The Ford Model T …” and let it hang there and resonate in the air.  He said it with such reverence that those who heard it just knew that the Ford Model T had not only been a great automobile, but a miraculous product of a genius.

He could inspire similar feelings of reverence with exclamations like, “President Abraham Lincoln,” or “Old Thomas Edison.”  You just knew these were great men.

We  didn’t have pastors or full-time clergy in our tiny little Church of Christ congregation.   The leadership was handled by laymen like himself.  When he would stand up on Sunday mornings to “wait on the communion table,” he would recite the words by heart from the King James Version of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take it, eat: this is my body which is broken for you.  This do in remembrance of me.”

Hearing him say it, you had no doubt that this was just the way it had happened.

Perhaps the most convincing and poignant expression of his conviction came many years later, as his wife lay in a nursing home, long lost to dementia.  “Your mother,” he said, “was the best.  I never met another women like your mother. Never.”

And you just knew it was true.

Hometown haiku

Baseball cards from the early 1960s
When I was a child
my heroes were immortal.
Now, they’re mostly gone.


Notes:

If you had talked to me when I was 9 or 10 years old, I would have told you I was sure I was going to be a baseball player when I grew up.  Many a long summer day was spent playing sandlot games in the vacant lot behind Fitzgibbon Memorial Hospital in what was universally known as “The Hospital Yard.”

No adult supervised.  A wide range of ages played.  There was Tommy Fox, with his wicked left-handed batting.  Big Wayne Halsey, an older kid, who once hit a ball over the huge trees at the far end of the lot.  Steve Cunningham, God rest his soul, played, and so did the Mounts brothers, Paul and Steve.  And many more long forgotten.

Somehow, we just figured it out, negotiating disputes and triangulating our way to make games fair.  When we didn’t have enough players to form respectable teams, we played games designed for smaller numbers like “Work-Up,” or “Five Hundred.”  These games might not have been as exciting as full-fledged baseball, but they enabled us to keep playing long after most of the other kids had to go home.

So we played until we wore ourselves out, until darkness fell, or until our mothers hollered for us to come in for supper.

To be sure, there was an organized baseball league out at the municipal park, but it was a pretty low-key affair, with maybe one or two games a week.  Not nearly enough to satisfy.

In between these baseball games, I would hang out with my buddy Royce Kincaid and play 2-man whiffle ball.  We had devised elaborate rules that enabled us to play entire games against each other all by ourselves.  We would each pick one of our favorite professional teams, and pretend to be each of the starting players.  We were such fanatics that — even though neither of were ambidextrous — we would bat right-handed if the player batted right, and bat left-handed if the player batted left.

We were pretty evenly matched and the competition was fierce.  We could argue close calls, and learned how to give and take for the sake of the game.  Neither of us wanted to push any argument to the point of risking the continuation of play.

We knew our information about the professional players because were also fanatical baseball card collectors.  For a stretch that spanned about 3 or 4 years, we devoted a very large percentage of our meager kid income to buying baseball cards at 5 cents a pack.  Back then, the cards came with a pink slab of bubblegum dusted with white powered sugar.

We didn’t really care about the gum.  We wanted the cards.  We would beg our parents for cards on every trip to the A&P, IGA, or MFA grocery store.  We would haunt the small neighborhood grocery stores that served our little town back in the days before convenience stores looking for good cards.

We figured out that the Topps Baseball Card Company would release the cards in flights over the course of a baseball season.  We would start the year with every pack full of unique new treasures.  But soon we would start finding our purchased packs full of cards we already had — “doubles,” we called them.

We would still cautiously buy packs here and there, sometimes prying the packs open to sneak a peak inside to increase our chances of getting a card we didn’t already have.

Then, when  we  discovered that a new series had been released, we rush out with our nickels in our hands ready to splurge again.  I remember riding my bike all the way to the west end of town to buy “fresh” cards at a little store that had gotten them  before anywhere else.

We would get together with other guys and trade cards, and show off our collections.  But mostly we looked at the cards and studied them.  I arranged them by team, and position. I studied the statistics on the back and memorized the trivia about each player.  When the St. Louis Cardinals or Kansas City A’s were on the radio, I would pull out the cards of each team and follow along as each player batted.

Back in those days, the Cardinals came in loud and strong on KMOX, and the games were called by Jack Buck and Harry Caray before Harry defected to Chicago.

I got to taste both victory and defeat.  The Cards were in one of their many periods of greatness. The A’s were pitiful losers, more of a backwater club that seemed to always sell its most promising players to the hated N.Y. Yankees just before they hit their prime.

In those days the A’s were owned by impresario Charlie Finley, who pushed the boundaries of good taste and good sense.  He introduced garish the  garish Kelly Green and Gold uniforms, and brought a mule named Charlie O into the stadium.  When Finley moved the team to Oakland in 1968, I washed my hands of them.  The fact that they soon started winning in their new city only made me hate them more.

But, did I  ever have some great cards!  Bob Gibson.  Mickey Mantle.  Hank Aaron.  Roberto Clemente.  Sandy Koufax.  Don Drysdale.  Ernie Banks.  Yogi Berra.  Willie Mays.  Tim McCarver.  All of the greats from the early 60s.

I was sure someday my face would be on one of those cards.

But life has a way of going in unanticipated directions.  I grew up and developed more of an interest in girls than baseball.

In just a few years the cardboard box of baseball cards was shoved back under my bed and largely forgotten.

It was not until I had kids of my own and came back to visit my parents that I inquired about the baseball cards.  They had disappeared, and my mother, who had guarded my old room like a museum shine, had gradually lost her memory.

I had pretty much given up ever seeing the old keepsakes again, when my father remembered that my mother had stashed some of my items in an old dresser drawer in her bedroom.

Sure enough, behind some old blouses I found a small box of baseball cards!  They were not the full set.  It was my old box of doubles.

But it was like a reunion with old friends.  There was Roger Maris and Sandy Koufax.  And Duke Snider and Kenny Boyer.  There was even an old Jerry Lumpe card.  A good player, but never a big star, Jerry was notable at least in our neighborhood because he played for the Kansas City A’s and Freddie Mueschke, the neighbor kid who lived on the corner, claimed to be Jerry Lumpe’s nephew.

We never verified Freddie’s story, but he got a lot of mileage from that claim to fame.

(I was gratified to learn that Lumpe has his own entry in Wikipedia.  He even managed to have such a good season in 1964 that he was named to the American League All Star Team.  That happened the year right after he was traded from the A’s, of course.)

A lot of my best cards were missing.  No Mickey Mantles or Hank Aarons.  But it was still like finding a treasure trove nonetheless.

Mom had reached through the years and through her senility to bless her little boy with one last small gift.  By this time she was lying in a nursing home without a  memory.  But  her gift to me had restored a whole storehouse of memories.

There is a balm in poetry

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poetic champion
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

When I can’t take another newscast, another politician, another argument about Brexit, or another protest march, I’m so happy that we have poetry.

And when I seek solace in poetry, I’m so happy that poetry has Gerard Manley Hopkins.

He’s truly a treasure. Virtually unpublished during his own lifetime, he left behind a small but rich collection of stunning poems.

A complete original, he labored in obscurity, writing poetry in his spare time when not occupied with his vocation as a Roman Catholic priest.

He took his poetry — like his religion — seriously, developing his own philosophy of poetry.  And he innovated style and form, as well, creating his own form he called “sprung rhythm.”

Check out his poem, “Inversnaid.”  The poem is a description of a steam rushing down a hillside emptying into Loch Lomond in Scotland.

The description is wonderful, and well worth clicking away to read the whole poem.  But the last stanza is amazing. It’s four lines that form a prayer, seemingly beseeching God to preserve nature from the depredations of mankind:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

When I read that out loud, I forget about what’s blaring on television, and I smile a little smile, and I find myself drawn back to the heart and center.  Actually drawn back to God.

That’s what John Ciardi must have meant when he said, “Enrich language, and you cannot fail to enrich our experience. Whenever we have let great language into our heads, we have been richer for it.”