The late Stanley Kunitz, poet and two-time poet laureate, was recently quoted in The Writer’s Almanac: “It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self.”
The quote appeared to refer to the source of his poetry, and it stopped me cold. Statements like that are so compelling, so authoritative that one is often inclined to believe them, to accept them as truths without carefully considering the content and who’s making the statement. The bright light of talent or celebrity or love can dazzle us enough to make us uncritical of the meaning of such sweeping generalities.
(Wait for it, please.)
It seemed to me that what Kunitz meant was that the dailiness of his life drove him into the deepest recesses of himself. His assertion might or might not be true for other writers. A writer might be driven deep by almost anything–politics, sex, music, marriage, parenthood, tragedy, nature, friendship, or any of a hundred other ideas or experiences.
So I thought I’d write about being cautious: Don’t take sweeping generalities about writing too seriously. Don’t believe them too readily. Think carefully before you accept whatever writing advice is being handed out.
And then it occurred to me that I wasn’t being very cautious myself. Had Stanley Kunitz really made that definitive statement? So I looked it up. And yes, he did, sort of, but it was presented to Almanac readers out of context. Context is important.
Here’s what Kunitz actually said, in an interview called “Openhearted: Stanley Kunitz and Mark Wunderlich in Conversation,” printed on the website of the Academy of American Poets. Kunitz, who lived to be 100, was ninety-five at the time of the interview.
It’s hard to speak about one’s self while still in process. Certainly through the years I’ve tried to simplify the surface of my poems. I’ve tried to write more intimately than I did, in a more conversational tone. I have fewer conflicts, perhaps; yet the ones that remain are central to my existence. Since I came to realize, in my middle years, that I was occupying two worlds at once, that of my living and that of my dying, my poems have tended to hover between them. More recently I expressed a desire to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare, “so transparent that one can look through and see the world.” That’s pretty much what I still feel. I recognize that there is a great area of unknowing within me. I try to reach into that chaos of the inner life, to touch those words and images that will help me face the ultimate reality. Such existential concerns tend to make me rather impatient with the particulars of the day. At the same time I am aware that it is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self. There is a transportation, to and fro, between these two worlds. The moment that flow stops, one stops being a poet.
Not a sweeping generality at all, but an exquisitely personal statement.
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Three Lives & Company, New York, NY
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Cherry Street Books, Alexandria, MN