On September 19, 600 people packed the seats
of New Haven’s Center Church on the Green. Wherever they sat, stood, or
squatted, they listened in silence, breathless, their eyes trained on a
small, ancient man hunched behind a podium at the front of the church. They
listened as his voice, cracked with age, sang out these lines:
In a murderous time
The heart breaks and breaks
And lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
Through dark and deeper dark
And not to turn
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing-tree?
Give me back my stones!
The man was Stanley Kunitz and those lines conclude his best-known poem,
"The Testing-Tree." Told through the eyes of a child who uses
a monolithic oak for target practice, "The Testing-Tree" evokes
the anguish of living in the modern age, an age in which the sorrow of a
single boy is simultaneously profound and futile.
Kunitz, a former poet laureate, was just one of nine poets to perform that
night at a reading celebrating the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry,
awarded by Yale University every two years for what it recognizes as "the
very best in American poetry." The message is clear enough. Bollingen
winners are not your up-and-coming young talents, twenty-somethings rotating
odd jobs and scribbling away nights in their East Village lofts. Nor are
they your poets du jour, or those flash-in-the-pan best-sellers. Bollingen
poets have been published, reviewed, reprinted, collected, awarded, anthologized,
and more often than not, offered lush professorships in the English departments
of the country’s top universities. Sharing the stage with Kunitz were such
luminaries as John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Louise Gluck, John Hollander,
ws Merwin, Gary Snyder, Mark Strand, and Richard Wilbur. Given the removed
and self-reflective nature of much modern poetry, the event could easily
have slid into irrelevance, of interest only to the small coterie of literary
scholars, professors and university students who comprised the audience.
Instead, most of the poets attempted to engage the current political climate,
either by prefacing their work with an overt opinion or by embedding it
within the poetry itself. Though almost all the poets tried to make a significant
comment on the times, Stanley Kunitz actually succeeded. And his success
came not from some bold, new meditation, but from a poem written over thirty
In 1968, short on inspiration, Kunitz was at Yale, staying with Calhoun
College Master rwb Lewis before giving a reading. While there, Kunitz found
a moment of inspiration and completed the poem whose ending had beed evading
him-none other than "The Testing-Tree"-which, at the event, he
playfully called "the obscure legend of my youth." But regardless
of the poet’s intentions, "The Testing-Tree" is far from obscure
and is much more than an autobiography.
By turns comic and tragic, trivial and epic, naïve and visionary,
Kunitz’s "The Testing-Tree" is to my mind a great American poem
by a man who should be deemed the poetic voice of America. The language
is simple, the scenes are eerily familiar, and the voice is friendly and
intimate. The poem may not come off as high poetry in the tradition of,
say, "The Wasteland," but that does not diminish its power. It
deals precisely with the toughest questions that we, as both humans and
Americans, face in our daily lives.
From its outset, the poem expresses itself in uniquely American terms.
Composed in four parts, it first carries the reader through a parable of
American youth and closes with an oracular vision, freighted with the passionate
determination "to go /through dark and deeper dark / and not to turn."
The narrative section by contrast benign as it follows the path of a boy
who seeks his adversary in, of all things, an oak tree:
On my way home from school
Up tribal Providence Hill
Past the Academy ballpark
Where I could never hope to play
I scuffed in the drainage ditch
Among the sodden seethe of leaves
Hunting for perfect stones
Rolled out of glacial time
Into my pitcher’s hand
The game being played at the Academy is, of course, easily recognized.
It’s baseball, and the narrator’s exclusion from it, perhaps an allusion
to Kunitz’s own ostracism as a Jew living in America in the early 20th century,
marks him as an outsider. The boy finds balls for his own solitary game
in a nearby ditch. His are not of leather but stone, smoothed by the force
of ages predating both America and its "tribal" predecessors.
But before the reader has time to reflect on the implications of that "glacial
time," the boy is off in his state-of-the-art "magic Keds,"
tearing down the road, the "world’s fastest human."
Next, he comes to a bend in the road, but resists its turn toward home
in favor of a "nettled field," an undisturbed natural expanse,
replete with "rabbit-life," bees and "a stringy old lilac
blazing with mildew" that guards the entrance of the woods wherein
stands the testing tree. But the boy does not enter the wood unprepared.
He tells of a "key" he once owned to a moss-thickened trail, where,
he says, "flickering presences/gave me rite of passage." He follows
resolutely in the footsteps of Massassoit, the Indian who forged the legendary
treaty with the first pilgrims. Kunitz hearkens back to the historic moment
when America’s first civilization embraced the one that would eventually
supplant it. Centuries later his boy narrator still practices his "Indian
walk" as he creeps through the primitive wood.
At the end of this symbolic retreat into nature, past a quarry abandoned
by its human creators, the boy comes to a clearing where all at once the
stones in his pocket become "oracles" in the shadow of the testing
tree. He describes his confrontation with the tree as an "appointment,"
as though this meeting were fated or at least agreed upon in advance. He
has come to play a game against a monolith of nature he describes as "tyrant
and target, / Jehovah of acorns / watchtower of the thunders." The
tree is both enemy and savior, an earthly thing invested with an imagined
supernatural power to save or damn, depending on the skill of the thrower.
Although the game is ostensibly only a test, target practice for the real
thing, the boy plays "for keeps," going so far as to invoke the
blessing of his absent father (Kunitz’s father committed suicide before
he was born) on his "good right arm." Like the real game, he has
only three throws, and he hurls his oracles "for love, for poetry,
/ and for eternal life," a redemptive trilogy that, years later, he
will find worth fighting for against more than mere trees.
And that necessity to fight comes crashing in with the fourth part. It
opens with a bizarre recurring dream, in which the boy, now grown, is directed
to a well containing an albino walrus, a perverse white elephant prophesing
a "murderous time." The natural world of the testing tree, and
the innocent, idealized America it symbolizes are gone, swept away by a
"single Model A" that "unfurled a highway behind / where
the tanks maneuver, / revolving their turrets." The safe, isolated
fantasy of youth and the testing tree have given way to a cruel, mechanized
reality of war. Whether America ever was an idyllic natural paradise inhabited
by peace-loving Indian tribes is beside the point. In the mind of the speaker
and by extension, in the mind of American itself, something has changed.
The promised land of the past, where a boy could practice for the challenges
ahead without facing those of the present, no longer exists. Those challenges
are here and they must be met. The speaker, whose heart lives only to break
in anguish, knows that he must journey "through dark and deeper"
without any "key" or "rite of passage" to help him find
a path. He is lost in a modern world he had no part in creating. But the
boy in him cries out still:
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing-tree?
Give me back my stones!
It is a futile and anguished cry, wracked with longing for an irrecoverable
past, whether it be the author’s vanished youth or America’s vanished innocence.
It was these words, along with the two previous tercets beginning with
"In a murderous time," that Kunitz had labored over when he visited
Yale in 1968. One night, he told the audience at the reading, he had been
working on the poem and went down to the kitchen. Master Lewis was watching
the nightly news when he walked in, and on the television he saw that Martin
Luther King, Jr. had been shot. Kunitz recalled, "The news was too
much for me." He returned to his room and furiously completed the poem.
With these nine lines, Kunitz belied his humble intentions of telling the
mere "obscure legend" of his youth; instead, he had created a
poem that transcended subjectivity. In this way, "The Testing-Tree"
represents Kunitz’s brilliance: He recognizes that one cannot dwell forever
in the past or the personal, and that poetry, to be great, must inevitably
step outside itself.
"The Testing-Tree" is a deeply American poem. Without directly
commenting on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it still confronts
the tragedy, and by implication, America’s oft troubled past. But more than
a historical conscience, Kunitz is America’s prophet, interpreting the unexplainable
in familiar terms. He sees America in a way that it cannot see itself: in
the immediate present.
Kathryn Malizia, a junior in Branford College, is research director for