July 2007

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

nonfiction

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

Add these tools to the poet’s workbench: a shovel and a spade. Stanley Kunitz -- former Poet Laureate, professor, and avid gardener -- gives the reader a mixed bag in The Wild Braid, his final book prior to his death in May of 2006. With the help of Genine Lentine, Kunitz offers readers an eclectic assortment of prose, poetry, philosophy, photography, as well as more than a dollop of well-intended gardening advice. “Part of the fascination of gardening…” Kunitz writes, “[is the] direct participation in the ritual of birth and life and death.” It was an observation made in the final years of his life, one a hundred years in the making.
The metaphorical comparisons related to life, death, gardening, and poetry, are made clear on several occasions throughout the book. Still, his observations on mortality are keen, original, and in many ways, reminiscent of the calm, comfortable verbiage of an E.B. White essay. His observations, while insightful, are equally startling for the same reason his poems are: he hits only the top layer of the iceberg, leaving the majority of the mystery hidden beneath the waterline.

While the book received the 2006 American Horticultural Society Book Award, it is unfair to pin it as a “gardening book.” Rather, the book’s primary function is to expound upon the daily interactions between man and nature. The title itself, lifted from Kunitz’s “Snakes in September,” alludes to the tenuous relationship between man and beast, or to expand the metaphor further, between man and plant. Simply put, this is a book about a garden that thrived due to the dedication of one man, and the man who thrived from the care of his garden. After surviving a health crisis in the spring of 2003, Kunitz’s priorities became clear: “All I want to do is write poems and be in the garden.” Tending his garden became almost a constant preoccupation, and undoubtedly, his most potent medication towards recovery.

Part autobiography, the book speaks of Kunitz’s life so that readers might understand his craft as well. For instance, Kunitz tells of his summer long pursuit to convince a parliament of owls to attach themselves to his shoulder; a feat he eventually managed after exhibiting three months worth of patience. Yet this seemingly trivial anecdote reveals much about his poetic process. Kunitz -- no stranger to revision -- maintained the same patience in his writing. The owls functioned simply as a concrete example of the abstract, allowing the reader to understand his dedication.

Throughout the book, Kunitz’s meditations remain clear and direct, though a more cynical reader might, in all instances, replace the word “poem” for the word “garden” and stumble across an entirely different message. In fact, Kunitz himself comes close to pointing this out. “I conceived of the garden as a poem of stanzas” he writes. Later, he compares the “plant and the poet and the gardener” as a kind of holy trinity that “collect[s]… raindrops, sunrays, passing birds, and makes something formal.” To the writer, the “something formal,” is of course the poem, though to the gardener, it is perhaps a glimmer of something larger: the thriving natural world and our place within it, a membrane so thin that Kunitz breached it only after a lifetime of planting, weeding, and careful observation.

The “garden as lifecycle” metaphor has grown notorious for staining the work of novice writers, though the metaphor manages renewed life through Kunitz’s rendition. This is, perhaps, because Kunitz has earned his authenticity by dirtying his hands in the brambles, by digging with the trowel, by finding himself with an aching back and calloused hands as a result of his labors. He has earned his poetic license, spent a century earning that right, and when he speaks, we have no choice but to listen, to remember, to plant the seeds deep in our heads.

The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393329976
144 Pages