Stanley Kunitz: Revelation and Transcendence

One of the most important elements of the stichic (i.e. single-stanza, free-verse) poem is development. One of the most important elements of personal narrative is the ability to touch upon the universal. Stanley Kunitz is an expert at delivering the kind of compact, essential revelations and strong finish to make the experience of reading his stichic poems memorable. He also chooses powerful allegories that make his personal narratives transcendent. Consider “The Portrait”:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

If you imagine Kunitz holding one end of a piece of string, and the reader holding the other, throughout the development of this poem, the tension of the string never slackens. Each line reveals something new, and as the poem progresses down the page, through time, the meaning of the previous lines is shaded and altered by the next.

Consider the first six lines: we progress in the first two lines from the speakers mother not forgiving his father, to the revelation that what she did not forgive him about was his suicide. Then we learn something more about the mother–that part of the shame was the timing and location (a public location) of his suicide. Already a deeply complex and ironic situation has been laid out in the four strokes of line. “That spring” seems at first like moment of slack, but turns out to be a necessary pause in thought before the scene comes into startling focus–that it was “that spring / when I was waiting to be born.”

Suddenly the awkwardness and shame takes on a new meaning, and we come into a more empathetic understanding of a mother who, only two lines back, seemed overly image-conscious and calloused against her husband’s death. In six lines, we are taken through a range of unfolding perspectives on the relationship between mother, father, and (by inference) son–giving us a complex rendering of a complex situation played out, line by line, in our psyche.

Another aspect of how Kunitz achieves a powerful economy in this poem is through carefully chosen allegorical figures. The mother “locked his name / in her deepest cabinet”–almost a kind of voodoo wherein the name represents the person, and “would not let him out, / though I could hear him thumping.” The unconscious presence of the speaker’s father “thumps” through his life as a strange and powerful allegory for the experience of growing up fatherless.

Finally, when the speaker comes down from the attic, not with a man or his name, but with a pastel portrait, he describes the image carefully, choosing ironic details like the subject’s “brave moustache.” The mother “ripped it into shreds / without a single word / and slapped me hard.” The poem could end here, with the expected climax of shame and misunderstanding. But Kunitz sees the allegorical moment in the slap, and finishes the poem with: “In my sixty-fourth year / I can feel my cheek / still burning.”

The experience of hot cheeks brought on by a flush of embarrassment or shame overlays the specific event of being slapped hard as a child. In this way, all of the complexity and shame of the symbolic moment between mother and son opens up into a statement about the lifelong shame–for the speaker is now sixty-four, and can feel his cheek still burning. Even the final choice of syntax, leaving the most cogent, summational allegory hanging on the last line–“still burning”–is representative of the economy and precision with which Kunitz has designed this poem. It unfolds into moments that speak to more than the individual experience–partly through carefully-chosen syntax designed to reveal new meaning as the poem is read, and partly through moments of allegory designed to lift us beyond the facts of any situation–into an experience of the sometimes universal shame and bewilderment of human relationships.