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It’s remarkable Kunitz found Hopkins, who had died unpublished in 1889.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.

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A Delightful Discovery

Just yesterday, I published my little sonnet, “Late Summer Sun” in this blog.  This morning as I was reading the wonderful book, “The Wild Braid,” by Stanley Kunitz.

When I came to his poem “Touch Me,” I had to pause.  This poem seemed to be hitting some of same notes.  Much deeper, but with little glimpses of the same melody.

The two poems are very different on the surface — mine is a sonnet, his is free verse.  He makes different observations about nature.

But the season is the same — late summer.  And there is something similar in the underlying emotion. Here’s his poem:

Touch Me
–Stanley Kunitz

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.