This week’s Poetry Sunday features a new author, the American poet Stanley Kunitz. In his long lifetime, he was one of America’s most renowned poets, winning, among other awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Medal of Arts, the Robert Frost Medal, and Harvard’s Centennial Medal. He served a term as Poet Laureate of the United States, and was still writing and publishing at the age of 100, just prior to his death in 2006.
Stanley Kunitz was born in 1905 in Massachusetts. His father committed suicide just weeks before his birth, and the young Kunitz was raised by his stepfather and his mother, Yetta Helen Jasspon. Kunitz graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in English and served in the military in a noncombat role as a conscientious objector during World War II. After the war, he began a teaching career which took him through a variety of prestigious liberal arts colleges, including Vassar, Brandeis, Rutgers, Yale, and especially Columbia University, where he spent 22 years. During part of this time, he also served as editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin, a professional journal of librarians, where he took a strong stand against censorship and encouraged others to do the same. A 1938 article of his, “The Myth of Library Impartiality”, was the inspiration for the Library Bill of Rights that’s still used in American libraries today.
Like many great poets, Stanley Kunitz was a nonbeliever, in his case by way of a secular Jewish tradition that ran through his family. In an interview later in life, he said that his mother, “at the age of twelve… read Spinoza and lost her God”, and that in his household, “the stress was on cultural and ethical values rather than on ritual practices”. In that same interview, he also said, “The God in whom I believe does not exist.”
Today’s poem is a lyrical musing on nature, but with a wickedly clever sting embedded within. Written from the viewpoint of a worm hoping to undergo metamorphosis into a moth, it starts out idyllic, even romantic – but then takes a sudden, unexpectedly dark turn, one that cuttingly satirizes the excuses offered by proponents of theodicy. It’s also been a revelation to other nonbelievers, as you can see from this reading by a fan – come back and watch it after you’ve read the poem.
Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation
Since that first morning when I crawled
into the world, a naked grubby thing,
and found the world unkind,
my dearest faith has been that this
is but a trial: I shall be changed.
In my imaginings I have already spent
my brooding winter underground,
unfolded silky powdered wings, and climbed
into the air, free as a puff of cloud
to sail over the steaming fields,
alighting anywhere I pleased,
thrusting into deep tubular flowers.
It is not so: there may be nectar
in those cups, but not for me.
All day, all night, I carry on my back
embedded in my flesh, two rows
of little white cocoons,
so neatly stacked
they look like eggs in a crate.
And I am eaten half away.
If I can gather strength enough
I’ll try to burrow under a stone
and spin myself a purse
in which to sleep away the cold;
though when the sun kisses the earth
again, I know I won’t be there.
Instead, out of my chrysalis
will break, like robbers from a tomb,
a swarm of parasitic flies,
leaving my wasted husk behind.
Sir, you with the red snippers
in your hand, hovering over me,
casting your shadow, I greet you,
whether you come as an angel of death
or of mercy. But tell me,
before you choose to slice me in two:
Who can understand the ways
of the Great Worm in the Sky?
Other posts in this series: