In his poetry, Kunitz expresses the beauty of the unrevealed

June 05, 2005|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden

By Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine, Photography by Marnie Crawford Samuelson. W.W. Norton, 144 pages, $23.95.

Something is amiss in the land of books, and it has been for a dispiriting stretch of time. Very fine writers are resorting to gimmickry to get themselves heard. Very smart critics are too busy showcasing their own supreme erudition to make room for the books that they're purportedly reviewing. And publishing houses are turning out all kinds of cheap, embarrassing tricks in an attempt to lasso readers in. It's not so noble as it once was to call yourself a writer. It's not so easy to find a good new book to read.

And yet -- and still -- every once in a while, a book comes along that restores your faith in books and bookmakers. Every once in a while, a writer -- most often a poet -- will deliver a book born of grace and not greed, soul and not savvy, humanity and not false humility. Stanley Kunitz's new book, The Wild Braid, is just such a graceful, soulful book. It is, above all else, an authentic book, and how powerful, how essential that is.

Stanley Kunitz is one of this nation's most beloved and honored poets, having won nearly every prize a poet might win and having served, among other things, as the U.S. Poet Laureate. He was also a founder of the Poets House in New York City and of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., and it is in Provincetown that Kuntiz's beloved garden grows.

Kunitz's garden envelops the house he bought back in 1962, a summer home he shared with his wife, Elise, until her passing. It was built from almost nothing, a "starkly barren area with nothing growing on it, not even grass," as Kunitz explains in one of the brief narrative essays that, together with photographs, snatches of recorded dialogue (mostly with the poet, Genine Lentine), and poems, constitute The Wild Braid. It entailed the digging in of seaweed and peat moss and manure, the construction of terraces, the planting and tending of flowers, and the constant management of the tension that pulses between faith and watchfulness.

The garden was, as Kunitz so magnificently writes in The Wild Braid, conceived as "a poem in stanzas." But Kunitz speaks with equal power of the garden that potentially lives within a poem. Without fancy fuss or posturing, absent all literary pretensions, he tells his readers just what a poem is and where poems come from. He explains the nearly inexplicable with what feels like straightforward ease:

"What one is aiming for is the indication of an energy, or a spirit, below the surface, in the secret vaults of the self, that somehow withers under too much exposition or explanation. That's why I've always believed that so much of the energy of the poem comes from the secrets it folds into what we would call, in a flower, its crown. The height of the beauty of the bloom is its folded state, rather than when it's fully opened."

Stanley Kunitz will be 100 years old this year. While working on The Wild Braid with Lentine, he suffered a nearly fatal illness from which he emerged with a sense of having been, as he puts it, reborn. In the book's final pages, then, he speaks to us as if from the other side -- a quiet, unassuming prophet, gracious and grateful for "the gift of life."

Beth Kephart is the author, most recently, of Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self.

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