Massasoit, Metacom and Stanley Kunitz
Whenever I begin a new project, I try to weigh
the work load on one platform of the scale and what I stand
to learn on the other. A good outcome would be if these two
are balanced. In the course of preparing a 5 ninety-minute classes
for the W.I.S.E. program here in Worcester, I ended up with
a joyful imbalance, learning much more than expected. Here is
the course description:
Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) and Worcester: Make Room
for the Roots!
Worcester-born Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate
Stanley Kunitzs poems dance artfully between memory and
imagination. This course offers participants an opportunity
to discuss Kunitzs poems as they relate to the city, where
themes of love and loss, rebirth and transformation took root.
One session will meet at his boyhood home, designated as a Literary
Landmark (www.ala.org), where we will meet with Carol Stockmal,
friend of Stanley Kunitz.
The reason the scale was tipped in favor of new learning was
simple. For the first time, I would be presenting Stanley Kuntizs
biography directly through 14 selected Worcester
poems. I would be asking Stanley to step in by sharing
relevant quotations about events in his life, images he had
chosen to use, and comments on his recurring themes. I also
decided to open up boxes full of documents I have gathered during
my research since 2009. I passed around pages in clear sheet
protectors, so that participants could see what I was referring
to. An Old Cracked Tune discussion came to life
with a copy of Kunitzs birth certificate. In Father
and Son, he refers to his boyhood home at 4 Woodford Street
(The house, the stucco one you built,/ we lost).
Here was a photograph of it, AND, by the way, Carol Stockmal,
the owner/curator, has graciously agreed to let us spend one
of our classes there!
I asked participants to imagine a virtual Stanley
in the classroom and shared a well-known newspaper photograph
of him wearing a Greek fishermans cap. I borrowed my husbands
cap to put on whenever I read Stanleys words. It was a
gimmick, but the need to keep saying quote-end quote
disappeared. And, it was fun! It was theater! I believe that
Stanley would have approved. A fishermans cap, a CD with
him reading some of the poems, copies of the poems, and a ton
of carefully selected research put Stanley in a chair near us.
But what about Massasoit, Metacom and Stanley Kunitz? What follows
is the moment that tipped the scale for me in favor of new learning
vs. preparation. Learning is the worlds best and cheapest
mood-enhancer. Side effects include possible injury from jumping
up and down when the brain makes a new connection.
The Testing-Tree is a four-part dramatic lyric journey
through time, beginning on tribal Providence Hill,
traveling back to colonial times, and ending up in an anguished
dreamscape. The reader trails the speaker in his search for
identity, his search for his lost father, his search for his
lost house. It is a very visual poem, and in the spirit of the
dramatic lyric, should be performed as well as read.
I had read The Testing-Tree dozens of times, always
pursued by a nagging question: Why did Kunitz choose to follow
straight-backed Massasoit into the woods, when there
are dozens of American Indians he could have chosen? I knew
there was literary criticism available, but I never took the
time to do more than dip into it. Until I prepped for this class.
In Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry, Gregory Orr
wrote that Massasoit was the primitive Spirit Father
In 1675, King Philip [Massasoits son, Metacom] led an
Indian alliance against the encroaching settlers; to follow
Massasoits steps is to become an heroic son
son identifies with a transpersonal, imagined father and son
(Massasoit and King Philip) he might be saved and gain access
to what he longs for; if he identifies with his personal father
then he will in some mysterious and disastrous way share his
fate [suicide] (pages, 237, 231, 238).
This only made me more curious about Massasoit. Yes, to Wikipedia
I went and then to The Oxford Companion to United States History.
The first thing that struck me was the fact that Massasoits
tribe lived in what is now Warren, Rhode Island, not far from
Worcester, the setting for The Testing-Tree. Massasoit
was a peaceful chief, who was recognized by the English colonial
government because he saved the Plymouth colonists from starvation.
Stronger than a primitive father-figure, could he be considered
one of the fathers of our country? It might be argued that if
that Plymouth colony failed, then another would have been established,
so Massasoits good deeds are less important.
But I disagree, and I think that Stanley Kunitz, who wandered
the woods not too far from the site of Massasoits beneficence,
might have been seeking a contrasting father-son model and chose
exactly the right pair. Massasoits son, who became Chief
Metacom, was given a Christian name by the colonists: King Philip.
In 1675-1676, he led a war against the encroaching settlers.
King Philips War [was] one of the bloodiest in American
history, relative to population size (page 422). It was
bloodier than our Civil War.
What does that say about Kunitz and his legacy as son of a good
father? Since he never knew his father, he was left to mythologize
him and imagine heroic deeds. In section 4, his mothers
minatory finger points at him. She is saying that
Kunitz can craft all the heroic legends he wants, but he had
better be careful not to end up like his father: a suicide.
It was a heavy burden for a child, and one that he could not
put down, even on his death bed. Further reading: Stanleys
Mouth, a poem by Sharon Olds.