“Certain saurian species, notably the skink, are capable of shedding their tails in self-defense when threatened. The detached appendage diverts attention to itself by taking on a life of its own and thrashing furiously about. As soon as the stalking wildcat pounces on the wriggler, snatching it up from the sand to bite and maul it, the free lizard scampers off. A new tail begins to grow in place of the one that has been sacrificed” from Three Small Parables for My Poet Friends by Stanley Kunitz
I ran across this poem in an essay by Dante Di Stefano in this issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. We do a lot of gecko watching in our backyard. Now I realize that some of these lizard-creatures that we thought were geckos must be skinks; the longer, thinner ones that don’t change colors like geckos. They like to stalk the insects and each other on the wall under the mango tree, and quite a few of the younger ones are missing a tail or growing new ones. It seems obvious why it happens- they can escape while the predator bird or cannibal gecko munches away on their tail. But how does it happen? This is still a question for scientists, but what is known that what is regenerated is not exactly the same tail. Instead, it is a approximation of the original, with cartilage in exchange for the vertebrae and long muscles replacing the more fine-tuned short muscle fibers.
What makes this a parable for poets? For one the poem itself is a play on form. It looks and sounds like a description from a popular science entry on skinks regenerated as a poem. With the other stanzas and the title, it transform into a “poem” with deep imagery and layered meaning. The poet as magician.
On the other hand, if the skink represents the poet, what is sacrificed? Is it a warning against the too personal, too much of the self,in poetry? Is a poet that shares too, publishes too much too fast, risking a the loss of the authentic? Replaced with a good replication of self, but at a cost of quick reflex and natural response? Maybe just a warning for the “professional poets”, who will make a living and life from poetry, and have some concern for their recognition, professional identity, and livelihood. Maybe he is warning that with recognition comes the danger of losing authentic creativity.
For the rest of us spilling ink in our journals and once in awhile putting it out there, what might Kunitzk be saying to us? Maybe it is not so much of a warning but permission- be brave, put it all out there, let it all go, don’t hold back on any poem- you will grow another tail. Different, but still a tail.