Monday, May 9, 2011

What makes the engine go ... longing for the dance

                                              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.

In an interview in in The Brooklyn Rail (July/August 2005), as he was approaching his 100th year,  poet Stanley Kunitz was asked if he could live forever would he translate poems into every language--and if so, what would make it worth it?   Kunitz replied:  "All those poems!!"

[Photo by Matt Valentine, with permission.]
In the interview, poet/translator Farnoosh Fathi spoke with Kunitz and his literary assistant, poet Genine Lentine, about his life-long devotion to poetry.  Kunitz had a full life as a poet, editor, teacher, activist and leader, and he loved working in his garden.

 How many of us could hope to live to the age of 100 (or might even want to)?  Is the writing of poetry a lifelong thing? or does the flame die out for some, somewhere along the years, the interest and passion periodically waning, the presence of the muse no longer felt?

Do the poems one pens in one's youth speak more honestly than those brought forth in later years; is there a common theme one keeps going back to, again and again?  Do we promote or eschew the poetry of our time, wearily succumbing, passionately resisting--or simply not caring one way or the other? 
The poetry we write will outlive us, but only comes to life again when read, or spoken, spread, or thought about.  Like flowers in a garden, some words need replanting to ensure visibility;  others seem to arrive of themselves, in unlikely corners, waiting for someone to notice.  Finding these gems may be not so much a case of where we look but that we look--it's as if life in all its absurdities still succeeds in pulling us towards its poetic 'dance'--in nature, in song, and in words.

When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you have to think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgement of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. It is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life. 

                   ~ ~ Stanley Kunitz  [The Wild Braid, W.W. Norton, 2005]

Some other quotes of Stanley Kunitz, particularly helpful for poets or writers:

"You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin."

"In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: 'Live in the layers, not on the litter.'  Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes."

"Be what you are. Give what is yours to give. Have style. Dare."

(Interesting reflection:  One's life as a "book of transformation"; poetry as a testament to what changes in us, what remains the same, and how and why we're driven to express it.  

Thanks, Stanley.  Your poems, like the perennials in my garden ... still erupting, still singing life.


Jim Murdoch said...

It is in the nature of things to get used up. People, places, things all get used up in time. Most writers stick to a fairly narrow palette when working. Some stick to a genre, others to a topic. Some topics are more interesting and have a greater scope than others for development. Now you could say that once a writer has said all he has to about a certain things, be it love or truth or his relationship with his father, that he would move onto another. That’s easier said than done. The poet Philip Larkin, for example, dried up almost completely in his later years. After High Windows was published in 1974 there were no further collections until his death in 1985 at the age of 63 and as the years went on he wrote less and less. His last major poem was written in 1977. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting a second wind after such a long break although I went for three years once without writing a thing and I thought I was all done. And I hadn’t written a single novel by that time.

I do sometimes wonder what else I have to say though. I’m thinking about my next novel (the poems still seem to be taking care of themselves for now) – what do I have to say that’s worth spending three or four years trying to say it? I’m not interested in stories. Other people are far better at telling stories than I am. I do find more and more though that I have less on an opinion about things than I once had and I was never what you might call opinionated.

awyn said...

Hi Jim, thanks for stopping by. Sorry for the delay in responding. You bring up a lot of interesting points. What interests me, I guess, is not that poets/writers stop writing as much as Why. (You mentioned Larkin’s drying up in his later years.) Stopping writing because you have nothing more to say (or can no longer find the words to say what you want) is one thing. Deliberately deciding to not-write anymore, because the act of creating the words themselves no longer has meaning for you, is something else entirely.

(For example, Mexican poet Javier Silicia, grief-stricken after the murder of his son by a drug cartel, vowed never to write poetry again; instead he took to the streets in protest to become a vocal critic and activist. Another poet/writer, responding to a deeply personal tragedy, in contrast, might spend his/her entire life dealing with the pain by writing about it, over and over and over again.) Writing as a way of getting through, or ‘getting beyond’--or trying to understand something; stopping writing as a way of moving ‘beyond’ writing itself, on to something else. Which for some is not a matter of choice—the continuing *or* the stopping of writing. Or at least it seems that way sometimes (to the reader). Thanks for your comment. You always get me thinking!