22 June 2005

Stanley Kunitz on the unconscious

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

tapping the unknown . . . cracking the shell separating you from the unknown.

There’s no formula for accessing the unconscious. 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. It manifests itself instead of hiding from your tyrannical presence, intruding on your daily routines, accommodations, domestications.

The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other frameworks, I call wilderness. And it’s very much like the wilderness in that its beasts are not within our control. it resists the forms, the limits, the restraints, that civilization itself imposes. I’ve always felt, even as a child, that there was the decorum of the social structure, the family structure, and so forth, and then there was the wild permissiveness of the inner life. I learned I could go anywhere in my inner life. . . .

The poem, by its very nature, holds the possibility of revelation, and revelation doesn’t come easy. You have to fight for it. There is that moment when you suddenly open a door and enter into the room of the unspeakable. Then you know you’re really perking.

After you’ve written a poem and you feel you’ve said something that was previously unspeakable, there’s a tremendous sense of being blessed.

There’s a sense of emancipation, and then the recognition that you are not absolutely free, that there are limits, restraints, conventions that are the expression of the social order. You recognize that language itself is a creation of the social order; within such limits you travel as far as possible, but your feet are slipping off the roadway into the weeds and the mire.

That’s part of the journey. . . .

The mystery of the creative process is that the poem is there but not there within you, accumulating experience, accumulating images. It needs to be released, but sometimes there are barriers. The poem incites fear; you are coming into truth in the writing of the poem, you are hesitant to explore unfamiliar areas.

If the terrain were familiar, the poem would be dead on birth. I’ve written somewhere that the path of the poem is through the unknown and even the unknowable, toward something for which you can find a language.

It is that struggle, of course, that gives the poem its tension . . .

I’ve been grounded all my life to believe in the mystery of existence itself. Can there be any possibility of completely understanding who we are and why we’re here and where we are going?

These are questions that can never be answered completely so you have to keep on asking, and in some strange way every poem that you write impinges on that mystery. If it doesn’t, you really shouldn’t write it because it’s not really yours.

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