Stanley Kunitz: At Home in Poetry
The following interview was conducted with Stanley Kunitz in his antiques and art filled Greenwich Village apartment. On this sunny winter day, the plants were blooming as if springtime. Stanley, an avid gardener in Manhattan and Provincetown, showed me around – pointing out items of particular interest like the painting by Mark Rothko and his collection of glass paperweights. He picked up one globe in particular – his long, thin fingers wrapped about the glass — and together we stood in silence watching the snow fall and settle – inside and out. Madeleine Beckman
Madeleine Beckman: You were Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress, what does the Consultant do?
Stanley Kunitz: He’s a presence in the Library – he or she as the case may be. There’s a series of readings at the Library that the Consultant arranges. There’s also an archive of poetry recordings, the most comprehensive in existence to which he is empowered to make additions. He also has a good deal of contact with poets all over the country who want information about grants, publishing, copyright, that sort of thing. In the capital he is the national representative of the world of literature – on tap, whenever anything goes on in Washington that requires an official poet (laugh).
MB: Have there been other posts similar to Poetry Consultant that you’ve held?
SK: That post is unique, but I’m also one of the twelve Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets and one of the fifty members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; I succeeded to the chair of John Crowe Ransom on his death. These are honors, to be sure, but nobody in this country pays any attention to them. Rightly so, I suppose.
MB: Do you feel your academic involvements have contributed to your poetry?
SK: Actually, I have less academic involvement than most American poets. I didn’t become a teacher of poetry until 20 years after I’d left Harvard and weathered the Depression. I did newspaper and editorial work, freelanced, and lived on farms in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. When I fell into teaching it was not with any desire to become a permanent member of an academic community. To this day I have never asked for or accepted tenure.
SK: Poetry requires some sense of discontent, insecurity, danger. It’s been said that poetry is the language of crisis. I think of it as an adversary enterprise with respect to the mainstream of our culture. A poet’s image of himself is of first importance. If one thinks of oneself as essentially a professor of English, producing verses on the side, the work is bound to suffer. We seem to be breeding a generation of poets who have developed a specialized linguistic skill, but not much else. I look for poets who are connected with the long line of visionaries and prophets, who are more than verbal technicians.
MB: When did your own image of the poet materialize?
SK: It was an image I had from the very beginning; nobody taught it to me. It came out of my love for poetry, my early reading; I still can’t think of a greater vocation, a richer life.
MB: Do you think that technique can interfere with content or freedom?
SK: The more command you have of your medium, the more liberated you are in your expressive possibilities, but you must not consider technique as an end in itself, separated from content.
MB: What do you think about the poetry being written today?
SK: Any age, in the entire history of mankind, that produced half a dozen poets who had something important or memorable to say, is considered exceptional. Our own age excels in the quantity of its poetic accomplishment, not in the emergence of isolated genius.
MB: Why do you think that’s so?
SK: Perhaps it’s the inevitable outcome of a democratic and permissive society. Emerson looked around and noted that persons descend to meet. No other country that I know of cultivates “creative writing” to the extent that we do as an academic subject. Young poets today, if they have a modicum of talent, can hardly escape being showered with fellowships and grants and prizes. It’s beautiful! But it has its consequences.
MB: Was it a turning point for you when Professor Gay encouraged you to write poetry at Harvard?
SK: I doubt that it changed my life, but of course I feel grateful. There were also teachers in high school to whom I feel
permanently indebted. I wasn’t born into a literary environment and I had no personal help from established writers.
MB: Before that time had you thought of becoming a poet?
SK: I knew I was going to be a writer, even in grade school. I was lucky to come into literature on the great wave of the 1920’s – a marvelous period for both fiction and poetry. Joyce and Lawrence were my first heroes of the novelistic imagination, followed a few years later by Kafka. As for poets, I discovered Hopkins in the stacks of the Widener Library (Harvard), and that was a great thrill to me. There too, I came across the 17th century metaphysical poets and Yeats, my first contemporary master, and Eliot, from who I learned a good deal, but whose doctrines and politics I resisted.
MB: Your childhood figures largely in your poetry. Are you still writing poems drawn on your experience in Worcester, Massachusetts?
SK: Right now I’m working on a poem that goes back to that period, even earlier than the others. It’s an inexhaustible source. I don’t doubt that one’s psychic energy is rooted in the traumas of childhood.
MB: Do you think you are a poet because of your childhood?
SK: If I had had a different childhood, I would be writing other poems, or none at all. The lost father, the loneliness, the Indian-haunted woods, the stony New England landscape – these are the sources from which I spring in every act of the imagination. Everything conspired to make me introspective – not that I sat and moped all the time. In fact, I rather prided myself on my athletic ability. I always played to win. Poetry was the other game in which I wanted to excel.
MB: Did you ever feel that there was a conflict between your introspective and your outward self?
SK: I love the fullness of a life in all its phases. I can truthfully say that I’ve never known what it is to be bored. There’s always so much to do, so much to think about. How can one ever be bored? I was such a shy child, painfully shy. One of the first tasks I set for myself was to grow outward as well as inward. When I started playing tennis by banging a ball against a barn door I knew I wouldn’t be happy until I won the city championship – which I did. That didn’t stop me from writing or thinking about poetry, but it did give me some pride of self, a tangible evidence of accomplishment.
MB: When was that?
SK: Jr. Champion of Worcester circa 1920.
MB: What sorts of activity do you enjoy now other than poetry and gardening?
SK: I had to give up tennis a couple of years ago because of an arthritic condition. Gardening is still a passion, to which I devote my summers on the Cape. I’m always happy when I work with my hands; given a little different push I suppose I could have become an artist. Painters are my favorite people. Indeed, I eventually married into art (Elise Asher). Whenever I have the chance, I make something; I’m always making something.
MB: What sorts of things do you make?
SK: Sculptures, wire mobiles, boxes, assemblages, collages – that sort of thing – for diversion only. Woodworking is another specialty. Over the years I’ve refinished and renovated several old houses and still…
MB: That you’ve lived in?
SK: Yes, four or five of them, beginning in 1930 in Connecticut – old farmhouses mostly. But even here, in the city apartment, I did the floors, scraping and staining them, and built shelves for my library. Whenever I grow impatient with the sedentary life, I take a piece of wood and do something with it. I love to glue things, repair cracked china, lighting fixtures, plumbing – anything.
MB: Do you write more poetry in the country or in the city?
SK: My most productive season is the fall. I’ve ordered my life so that I spend the fall alone up at the Cape. That’s where I’ve written most of my recent poems.
MB: Where was “The Testing Tree” written?
On my way home from school
up tribal Providence Hill
past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
I scuffed in the drainage ditch
among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
rolled out of glacial time
into my pitcher’s hand
SK: It was written over a period of time – Provincetown, New York, and the final passage in New Haven. At that time I was editing the Yale Series of Younger Poets and staying with R.W. B. Lewis, an old friend from my Bennington days. I had a reading scheduled one evening. As we were leaving the house we heard on TV that Martin Luther King, who I had worked with in the civil liberties movement, had been assassinated. I sat down and wrote the ending of the poem, the lines that start
In a murderous timethe heart breaks and breaksand lives by breaking.
MB: There is a strong sense of the child’s spirit in this poem. Can you discuss that tone?
SK: The poem draws on my childhood… there’s an innocence of eye and heart, combined with maturity of understanding – which is what one strives for in one’s writing – to be open and vulnerable and yet not to be deceived. I like a poem that works on several different levels, alternating states of awareness, including that of the child one was and hopes to be.
MB: You have said that a poem is a combination of experience and passion. How do you decide what experience, what passion will be turned into a poem, has to be a poem?
SK: I wish I knew… there’s no way of telling. I suspect that if one stayed with anything long enough, the most trivial episode, the most insignificant, one would ultimately arrive at an overwhelming conclusion. No thought or feeling or image is creatively important in itself, but only in its connections with the nerve-work of a life. The tracking of those connections is the deep labor of the imagination. So many poems I read seem to be woven out of a single thread when what I am looking for is the cross-weave. I want a certain density of texture, a grid of particulars and correspondence, a layering.
MB: Does your poetry reflect the environment where you’ve written, for instance the City or the Cape?
SK: I’m not an urban poet. Even when I’m here I’m likely to be working with events that are linked with the natural world in one way or another.
MB: What sorts of events?
SK: Poems start in different ways. Some of my poems begin with nothing more than a rhythm I hear in my head that I try to give flesh to. Or a phrase, or most often something that happened to me, usually years ago, something that keeps returning, rejecting its isolation, yearning to link itself with other memories or perceptions, to make an image-cluster.
MB: How long have you been working on the present poem taken from your childhood?
SK: Oh, I’ve been thinking about it for maybe 30 years! I knew it would eventually work out – it kept popping up in my notebooks. But not until this week did I suddenly find an opening into it and a right connection.
MB: Was it difficult to translate Abo Stolzenberg’s poem “Bolsheviks.”
The motorcycles spring out of nowhere
A blast from the roaring White Guards!
Of Trotsky’s soldiers nothing remains here
But some sad little mounds near the woods.
SK: The voice seemed curiously like my own. Stolzenberg was a poet I had never heard of, an obscure Polish immigrant who died young. His poem was given to me by Irving Howe who was editing an anthology of Yiddish poetry. I don’t read Yiddish so had to rely on Irving’s English paraphrase. It’s a dramatic lyric, a genre that I favor. I like the hard details, the physicality of the poem and the velocity of its movement.
MB: The poem “After the Last Dynasty” has a voice that suggests a turn in your style, is that so?
Reading in Li Po
how “the peach blossom follows the water”
I keep thinking of you
because you were so much like
naturally with the sex
and the figure slighter…
SK: I’d been reading a lot of Chinese poetry, admiring its intimacy, its modesty, its historical plangency. I thought it was just the right voice for a nostalgic love-song. By and large my work doesn’t resemble Chinese poetry at all; I’m a Westerner, but there are moments when I feel Chinese – plus I like Chinese food.
MB: What do you consider the most important themes in your work?
SK: Yeats believed that sex and death were the only themes worth the attention of a serious mind. I tend to agree, except that I would add nature to the list. In fact, nature may be the one universal theme, since it includes both sex and death.
MB: At some point did you see patterns in our work and go with them or did you allow yourself new themes as they arose?
SK: One would always like to expand the boundaries of one’s work. The psyche is a trap from which it’s hard to escape. One way is to change your life but that requires heroic determination. An alternative is the act of translation. By deliberately entering another person’s imagination you liberate yourself from your self-made prison-house. Everything new that happens to you in your life changes you.
MB: You have said, “Let life happen to you.” Have you followed your own precept?
SK: So much has happened to me, but it’s never enough. You have to be prepared for surprises – even at my age. That’s the way destiny works. A favorite motto of mine is one I borrowed from Louis Pasteur, “Change favors the ready mind.”
MB: How do you see yourself today?
SK: I look and sometimes feel older, I know more, and my inner life is very much the same. The will to live and do is just as fierce as ever.
MB: You’ve said, “Mobility! And damn the cost!” What does that mean to you?
SK: It means not becoming a stuffy and cantankerous old codger. It means keeping the mind open and curious and companionable, especially in relation to the young. On the physical level it means getting around, traveling. In that sense, I’m at the peak of my mobility. Recently, I’ve been in England, Israel, Egypt; before then, I visited Russia, Yugoslavia, Austria, Italy, and Africa; not just as a tourist, but to read my poems, to lecture, to learn about other people, other cultures. I try not to stagnate.
MB: What are you working on now?
SK: I’m writing new poems, thinking about a new book, teaching some young poets, and wondering what I can do to help avert nuclear catastrophe.
The recipient of numerous awards including the National Book Award, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Bollingen Prize, Stanley Kunitz died in 2006 at the age of 100. I suspect he’s still composing poems.
Madeleine Beckman is the author of Dead Boyfriends, a poetry collection; her poetry, fiction, essays, and articles have been published in journals, anthologies, magazines, and online. She has been the recipient of awards and artist residencies in the U.S. and abroad. She is Contributing Reviewer for Bellevue Literary Review, and teaches in the Masters Scholars Program at NYU/Langone Medical Center. Madeleine holds an M.A. in Journalism from New York University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives and works in New York City.