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On "The Wellfleet Whale" and "The Snakes of September"

David Yezzi

If there is a peculiarity, not quite a flaw, in Kunitz’s later style of freighted imagery, it is the way a poem sometimes changes gears too quickly, leaving the reader behind, as the poem speeds on toward revelation. At the end of "The Snakes of September," the poet moves from the particular to the universal, as the "wild braid of creation trembles" at his touch. The poem earns its conclusion on the level of meaning, but there is something overripe about that "wild." This rapid tonal shift to an ecstatic register jars, and for an instant our attention is diverted to the machinery of the poem working slightly too hard.

In his best work Kunitz achieves these grace notes while sacrificing nothing in the build up. "the Wellfleet Whale," a jeweled tiara of a poem, crowns the poet’s achievement, and restores some of the linguistic pomp of his early poetry. …

[Yezzi cites lines from the fifth section that begin "Voyager, chief …" and end "disgraced and mortal."] The poignancy of this apostrophe, another of the poet’s characteristic moves, derives from its personfication of the doomed Leviathan. As with the September snakes or the titular salmon in "King of the River," this creature from the natural world provides the poet with an appropriate catalyst for verse. Through these beasts Kunitz may refer to the human animal: "you have become like us."

The suitability of the subject weds the suitability of the form: the concatenating tercets of "The Wellfleet Whale," with their restless forward motion, provide Kunitz the sweep he needs to work this scene into the necessary tonalities, from the epic to the personal. By discarding inherited prosodic forms in his later poetry, Kunitz may be likened to a virtuoso who has left off playing from score and begun to improvise. Rather than grappling with standard measures, the poet relies on his own sense of a line’s musicality to set the needed length and number of stresses. Echoing Blake, an abiding poetic forebear, and fellow seer, Kunitz notes, in an interview, "I must create a system myself or be enslaves by another man’s." Freed from rigid metrical contracts, this poet may better find the unique vessel appropriate to each poem. Oddly, Kunitz works out his two finest poems, "the Wellfleet Whale" and "The Testing Tree," in the same pattern of tercets wrought in numbered sections. This expansive form heightens the music of Kunitz’s line:

[Yezzi cites lines that begin "You have your language too" to "running down."]

Kunitz here submerges an ars poetica: "liquid song" sung "to compensate for the vast loneliness of the sea" could serve as … jacket blurb. … In the above passage we hear the whole symphony of Kunitz’s musicianship: the pizzicatto strings of "clicks and hoots and trills"; the legato horn of "location-notes and love calls"; the tympanic percussion of "a record running down." All of this elegiac music , ostensibly for the dying mammal on that Cape Cod beach, borrows certain measures from the poet’s life: as with Margaret in [Gerard Manley] Hopkin’s "Spring and Fall": it is Kunitz that he mourns for, making "The Wellfleet Whale," in its sweep and intimacy, the most far-reaching and potent of his many personal myths.

From David Yezzi, "To Turn Again," a review of Kunitz’s Selected Poems in Parnassus 21: 1 & 2 (996), 226-228.

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