Thoughts on “King of the River” – Part 3

This post continues my discussion/analysis in the previous two posts about line breaks in Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “King of the River“.

Stanza 4 contains only one fewer line than the first three stanzas combined and continues the first two stanzas habit of having unpunctuated lines end in a grammatical unit, such as a phrase, the grammatical unit serving as a substitute for punctuation. The pause in such cases is less than that of either a comma or period. If a period’s pause is like a stop at a red light and a comma’s pause is like the hesitation at a yield sign, the grammatical unit’s unpunctuated pause is like approaching an intersection with neither a light nor a traffic sign, one where the absence of either is part of the warning.

For the fourth stanza’s first sentence (nine lines), Kunitz replicates the end-stopping ways used in the first two stanzas, but then, as he does in Stanza 3, he deviates — noticeably, ending Stanza 4’s next four lines with periods, following that with an unpunctuated line (“The great clock of your life”) — its prepositional phrase (“of your life”) serving as its “pause” notice, a comma-ended line, and then two more lines, one ending with a period.

If you read that stanza aloud, the effect of the punctation shift in the eight lines after its first sentence should be obvious. It is like a teacher rambling along in a lecture laced with long sentences who, suddenly, unexpectedly, hits those listening with short ones. At a minimum, it should awaken those whose minds were drifting elsewhere.

Then, in the final eight lines of Stanza 4, Kunitz varies his approach, his sentence length mixing punctuation with grammatical unit pauses, and adding new punctuation marks, the colon (twice) — its pause even briefer than a grammatical unit’s, and an exclamation point — both an attention-getter and a line slower. Finally, he inserts quotation marks (twice), both end-quotation marks slowing the pace, especially the second quotation’s final mark that ends the stanza. Coupled with the white space after it and the message its last two lines carry (“The only music is time, / the only dance is love”), a reader may pause longer to reflect upon what was just read.

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Thoughts on “King of the River” – Part 2

This post continues what is in the post “A Kunitz Poem with a Lesson on End-Stopping Built-In,” extending it by discussing the second stanza in Kunitz’s poem, focusing on end-stopping and enjambment. Interestingly, applying Hirsch’s definition of “end-stopped” (see previous post), every line in the second stanza is end-stopped, even the unpunctuated ones.

Line 1: It contains a subordinate clause (the whole line) and is end-punctuated.
Line 2: It contains a coordinate clause (the whole line) and is end-punctuated.
Line 3: It contains a prepositional phrase (“for the membrane”) and a verb phrase (“is clouded”); it is unpunctuated.
Line 4: It contains a prep. phrase (“with self-deceptions”) and is unpunctuated.
Line 5: It contains a coordinate clause (“and the iridescent image swims”), and is unpunctuated.
Line 6: It contains a prep. phrase (“through a mirror”) and an adjective clause (“that flows”), which modifies “mirror.” 
Line 7: It contains an independent clause (“you would surprise yourself”), unpunc.
Line 8: It contains a prep. phrase (“in that other flesh”), and is unpunctuated.
Line 9: It ends with a prep. phrase (“with milt”), and is end-punctuated.
Line 10: It ends with a participial phrase (“battering toward the dam”), and is not end-punctuated.
Line 11: It contains an adjective clause (“that lips the orgiastic pool”), which modifies “dam,” and is end-punctuated.

Carl Dennis, poet

If you’re unfamiliar with Carl Dennis’ poetry, a good introduction is his New and Selected Poems 1974-2004. The strength of his poetry is its accessibility. His lines don’t create mazes readers must waste their mental energy wending their way through in their hunt for meaning. Instead, his language opens door for readers into rooms in which Dennis has turned on the lights.

As an example, his poem, “Listeners,” is about traveling words. In particular, it’s about words of his that began their journey on a telephone life, overheard by a telephone operator “lonely among the night wires,” “night wires” a metaphor that deepens rather than obscures meaning. Further on, Dennis comments that such operators “all do it … breaking the rules.” (This is an activity born before the Internet when party lines still reigned.)

To Dennis, words, once said, can travel on unexpected paths, reaching ears for which they were never intended. Even whispers said to oneself — even thoughts — can enter what Dennis refers to as the “far world” where they can assume new forms, such as stone, losing not only their identify but also their ability to engage others.

While Dennis’ “stones” might not engage his poetic characters who encounter them, his words have the power to pull readers into a poetic world he makes “near.”