holes in the universe...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Stanley Kunitz

The Artist

His paintings grew darker every year.
They filled the walls, they filled the room;
eventually they filled his world—
all but the ravishment.
When voices faded, he would rush to hear
the scratched soul of Mozart
endlessly in gyre.
Back and forth, back and forth,
he paced the paint-smeared floor,
diminishing in size each time he turned,
trapped in his monumental void,
raving against his adversaries.
At last he took a knife in his hand
and slashed an exit for himself
between the frames of his tall scenery.
Through the holes of his tattered universe
the first innocence and the light
came pouring in.


[Selected works by Mark Rothko]

Untitled, 1969

No. 14 1960

Untitled, 1955

Untitled, 1949


Stanley Kunitz is most likely as important a figure in modern poetry as is possible. For good and ill - he shaped the landscape of American poetry in the 20th century. Although a gifted poet, certainly, his power was as editor and mentor.

Modern art was one of his own great influences, and Mark Rothko one of his closest allies and friends. How painful this poem must have been for Kunitz to write. In conversation, he and Rothko once discussed the notion of genius as monster. The great destroyer, the cannibalistic tendency for the creative spirit. Not long after that conversation, Rothko ended his own life.

This poem moves me in so many ways. The anger at its core, the necessary darkness, the understanding, the compassion, its pain and reality. The lines capture the essence of Rothko's art and life, but remain wholly Kunitz ... in terms of language, tone, and form. No easy endeavor. And the ending – wrenching and redemptive.

The life we carry in us – thought-breath, energies, sentience – we carry always.


LKD said...

I'm not in love with the poem, but man oh man do I love the paintings. Alot. It surprised me how much I felt myself lean into them, try to be in them when I came across your post today at work. I kept staring and staring at them. They could be landscapes, depictions of horizons where land ends and sky begins, or the edge between water and sky. Sunsets, sunrises. They could be windows. Apertures.

Damn. I'm in love with these.

I was reading up on Rothko. I must read more. And see more.

I'd love to see the real thing. Wonder if any of his paintings are on display up in Cleveland.

Thanks for these paintings, Sam. They feed me.

Suzanne said...

God, I love the Rothko's. I was also very taken with the music of the Kunitz. As always, thank you.

Collin said...

I had the chance to see a Rothko exhibit at the Tate in London back seven or eight years ago. Beautiful work.

It's the last six lines of the Kunitz poem that work for me.

Chet Gresham said...

"he paced the paint-smeared floor,
diminishing in size each time he turned,"

great lines. Thanks for the poem and the Rothko's. I enjoy your blog.