Kunitz published his first volume (Intellectual Things) in 1930, the same year in which Eliot wrote “Ash Wednesday.” But the trends and trademarks of modernism largely passed Kunitz by. The poems of his early collections—long out of print and offered here in generous proportions—can be difficult and thorny, but their hermeticism is less formal and syntactic than cognitive and cosmic, derived not from Eliot but Blake (whose work Kunitz has edited). Here, Kunitz addresses himself to the themes that have always been important to him—the passage of time, the high and low tides of romantic love, the inscrutability and grandeur of the natural world—but these treatments lack the nuance of later works: “Dissolving in the chemic vat / Of time, man (gristle and fat), / Corrupting on a rock in space / That crumbles . . . ” There is something oddly thin and abstract about that gristle and fat (as well as that “Corrupting”), and Kunitz’s mature poetry works to toughen his early, somewhat jumbled philosophy into increasingly homespun wisdom. By the time of the fine, longish “Journal for my Daughter,” written in response to demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War, Kunitz achieves a balance between his poetic self and its historic, or mortal, plight. From this point on, he gains in rhetorical power and surety of feeling, with high moments including “The Testing Tree,” “The Wellfleet Whale,” and “Halley’s Comet.”
At the close of “The Layers,” Kunitz promises himself and the reader: “I am not done with my changes,” foreshadowing the theme of his late poem “Proteus.” In his collected poems we have Kunitz’s book of transformations and may eagerly guess what happens in the next chapter.