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Open Book. open the nearest book (or find your favorite and open that!) to a random page and point to a word or phrase on that page. Using that phrase or word as your inspiration, free-write for 20 minutes – to be sure, set a timer and see what you’ve come up with.

Free-write on a Favorite Poet.

Once again scanning the shelves of my bookcase for one of my favorite books, I spy nestled between Seamus Heaney’s Preoccupations and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, the short off-white spine of a little book I last picked up in 1999:  Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft

In keeping with the requirements of today’s challenge, I close my eyes, open the book, and point to the bottom of page 13. When I open my eyes, I am drawn to The Layers:

“I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being abides,

from which I struggle not to stray.”


I first encountered poet Stanley Kunitz, on a PBS special with Bill Moyers. Channel surfing, I was most likely trying to find something on television unrelated to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To my delight, I found a classic Moyers documentary, “Fooling with Words” which featured a selection of poets who had assembled for the annual Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, a veritable Woodstock for poetry enthusiasts. Through up-close and personal readings of their work and confessions about their craft, the documentary reaffirmed for me what I have always known about poetry. That it is potent and transcendent. I was immediately captivated by a wise and watchful Stanley Kunitz, then ninety-five years old. He was recounting his recollection of Halley’s Comet which had visited in 1910, when he just five years old. What struck me then, as it does now, is that what fermented in memory for ninety years was released, finally, as poetry:

“Miss Murphy in first grade

wrote its name in chalk

across the board and told us

it was roaring down the stormtracks

of the Milky Way at frightful speed

and if it wandered off its course

and smashed into the earth

there’d be no school tomorrow.”

If we were to compile a list of the most significant moments in America this past century, Kunitz lived through all of them. Watching. Curious. “Fooling with words.” At the turn of the 21st century, at ninety-five, he rightly became the tenth Poet Laureate of the United States, ever more eager, with an almost child-like enthusiasm, for what the new millenium might mean for his beloved poetry: “I see a new aliveness with all the poetry slams, the cowboy poets, the feminist and gay poets, the experiments with rap … it’s like the beginning of the 19th century, the Romantic movement, which started with street ballads.”
Kunitz died five years later, at 100. Rediscovering the opening lines of “The Layers,” tonight, I am thinking of this acclaimed poet who held on to childhood fear and sadness sometimes for decades before he could face it through poetry. His obituary reminds me that he had been haunted for years by the suicide of his father six weeks before he was born. Only when he was 63 years old, could he confront a particularly painful moment with his mother:

“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.”

I believe it is impossible to escape the themes of childhood, which is perhaps why we use the written and spoken word to return to them, to tie up loose ends, resolve issues, to finally release a thing forever. One of my favorite authors, Edna O’Brien credits Flannery O’Connor for saying, “if you’re going to write, you’d better come from somewhere.” O’Brien feels that way too, “a writer’s imaginative life commences in childhood; all one’s associations and feelings are steeped in it. When you’re young, everything is seen in wonder and detail. I don’t see it as a limitation. So long as the words and the story spring from a true place, that’s all that counts.”
And a poet like Kunitz will return to that true place and hold it close for perhaps 60 years before releasing it, restrained, within a poem that “strays not too far from some principle of being”
Keep writing.