10 December 2009

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

by Stanley Kunitz, with Genine Lentine
photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson

Billed as a "visual memoir," this book is an intriguing introduction to the poetry of Stanley Kunitz, the two-time U.S. poet laureate who died in 2003 at the age of 100. Published in 2005, it follows Kunitz from summer 2002 through fall 2004. It details a near-fatal health crisis in 2003, from which he says he "emerged in a transformed state" and also his loss in spring 2004 of his wife of 47 years, the poet and painter Elise Asher.

Throughout, Kunitz discusses how fashioning a garden is like fashioning a poem and how growing a body of work involves growing a life. The reader is treated not only to glorious color photos of Kunitz at work in his gardens, but also to a sampling of some of his best-loved poems. The conversations with co-author Lentine and the excerpts from Kunitz's journals give the reader a rare peek into the lived life that went into creating each of the selected poems.

My copy is hardcover first-edition and was a Christmas gift--a keepsake--from my husband. The book came out in paperback in 2007; the price difference between the two on Amazon is a mere $5. I advise you to get the hardcover, though, because this is a book you'll thumb through again and again.

Why is this book so valuable for writers? Because of the process it depicts. Your process isn't like mine, which isn't like Kunitz's, which isn't like someone else's. But by examining how writers talk about their process we start to develop a respect for our own, as it emerges. It's like the "wild braid" in the title of the book, which is a phrase from a well-known Kunitz poem, "The Snakes of September" (included in this book, of course).

Do you have to be a gardener to enjoy this book? Hmmm...that's a tough one. You need to have a curiosity about the natural world, that's for sure. Nature has its own rhythm, and that external creative rhythm has a way of thrumming its way into your soul and feeding your creativity. So no, you don't have to be a gardener to enjoy it. But if you've already discovered your garden as a place that slows you down and feeds your inner life, then you'll likely enjoy this book all the more.

A few of the gems aglow herein:

  • Gardening is a living poem, a collaboration between the spirit of a place and the intervening human, who must respect the spirit of the place. This carries a message for the teaching of writing, Kunitz says. Just like a gardener in a garden, "it's a terrible mistake to impose your pattern on a student...What one needs to cultivate in a young poet is the assertion of that particular spirit, that particular set of memories, that personhood."
  • Knowing what to keep and what to cut (in both gardening and writing) is an art in itself. Kunitz bemoans a perfectly healthy Alberta spruce he had removed because it blocked a great view and prevented other plants from getting adequate light. "When the time comes for cutting, gathering, moving, removing, one has to be pretty ruthless," he advises. "It took may be 15 minutes for them to cut it down. It came down all in one piece. The root system took longer to hack out...one can easily sense the metaphorical resonance in that."
  • Knowing how to shape--our writing and our gardens--without destroying is also an art. He discusses a juniper he trained to spread and shelter rather than grow upright and adds the writing parallel: "The danger is that you cut away the heart of a poem, and are left only with the most ordered and contained element. A certain degree of sprawl is necessary; it should feel as though there's room to maneuver, that you're not trapped in a cell. You must be very careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin." (emphasis mine)
  • Mystery is as important in our writing as in the structure of flowers. "The height of the beauty of a bloom is its folded state, rather than when it's fully opened," Kunitz says. "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...In a poem, the secrets of the poem give it its tension and gift of emerging sense and form, so that it's not always the flowering in the poem and the specific images that make it memorable, but the tensions and physicality, the rhythms, the underlying song....So much of the power of a poem is in what it doesn't say as much as in what it does say."
  • Fostering an inner life is at the heart of all creative work, and what works for one person may not work for another. But: "The more you enter into the unconscious life, the more you believe in its existence and know it walks with you, the more available it becomes and the doors open faster and longer. It learns you are a friendly host...The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other framework, I call wilderness...It resists the forms, the limits, the restraints, that civilization itself imposes." Later he calls this "the wild permissiveness of the inner life" and says it was as a child "I learned I could go anywhere in my inner life."
  • Time is a luxury both gardener and writer must allow for. As a gardener, I know you plant small, with the mature size of the plant in mind. It has to have this room to survive, even if it doesn't look so great for a few years. "The mystery of the creative process is that the poem is there but not there within you, accumulating experience, accumulating images," Kunitz says.
  • Good writing means taking chances and exploring what you fear, what's unknown to you. With gardening, particularly in the beginning, that will be just about everything, and you'll make a lot of mistakes. A good gardener is one who's accumulated many mistakes and puts them to work. It's the same in writing. "...you are hesitant to explore unfamiliar areas," Kunitz says, but "if the terrain were familiar, the poem would be dead on birth...the path of the poem is through the unknown and even the unknowable, toward something for which you can find a language."
  • The art you make is your unique gift to the world and therefore is sufficient unto itself. "That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes," Kunitz adds, "but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life."

I can't pick a favorite poem in this collection because that changes for me with every reading. Certainly "The Snakes of September" is right up there, along with "The Round," "Touch Me," "Raccoon Journal" and, lately, "The Layers." But I do have a favorite Kunitz journal entry, excerpted in this book that pulls it all together: "My garden, my life, my poems--a planned disorder."

Enough said. I love this book. I hope you will, too.

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