America lost one of its most eloquent and spirited poets on May 14, when Stanley Kunitz died at his New York home at the age of 100. A past Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of numerous other awards, Kunitz is being remembered not only for his artistic achievements, but for the help and encouragement he offered to other poets over the decades. Friends and colleagues also recall him as a man who never lost his delight in life's pleasures, whether it was his passion for martinis, gardening, or poetry itself.
His fellow poet Gregory Orr says that in his final years, people would mistakenly assume Kunitz was too frail to read his work. "He would hobble up to the podium, and they thought, 'How can we put him through this agony?' What they never realized was that whenever he was reciting a poem, it was as if he was plugged into the life force of the universe. He just came alive. They couldn't get him off the podium."
Stanley Kunitz these lines from his poem The Knot, in 2001 at the Library of Congress, during his term as the nation's poet laureate:
I've tried to seal it in,
That cross-grained knot
On the opposite wall
Scored in the lintel of my door
But it keeps bleeding through
Into the world we share
Mornings when I wake,
Curled in my web,
I hear it come
With a rush of resin
Out of the trauma of its lopping off.
Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1905. His father was a dressmaker who committed suicide before the future poet was born. His first book of poetry appeared in 1930. He published his last in 2005, a collection of poems, prose and photographs about gardening called The Wild Braid.
Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, calls Kunitz a point of continuity in American poetry. "His greatest strengths were the great humanity in his poems and the profound ability he had to bring moments and emotions from life, to make them so immediately present in his writing. For instance, the poem The Portrait -- it begins, 'My mother never forgave my father for killing himself,' and tells the story of Stanley as a young boy finding in the attic a portrait of his father. And when his mother comes across him, she slaps him because she wanted to obliterate the memory. And you can feel your cheek stinging. The slap across the cheek is utterly vivid."
Stanley Kunitz that poem at the Library of Congress in 1974, during an earlier term there as Consultant in Poetry. Here is an excerpt:
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long lipped stranger
with a brave mustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
The ability to turn private pain into art was one of the gifts poet Gregory Orr came to admire in Kunitz. The two first met in 1969, when Orr was a student at Columbia University. In a friendship that would span nearly four decades, Kunitz offered the younger poet both advice and inspiration. "I myself came out of experiences of trauma as a child," Orr says. "So he, to me, was this model of someone who had engaged painful personal experience and transformed it through language and imagination. And he was also somebody who read your individual poems with enormous generosity and insight. He could help you make it into a better poem, but he also recognized the secret, sacred ambitions of the poem, what it most wanted to be."
Tree Swenson calls his influence on younger poets the real key to Stanley Kunitz. "Stanley, as much any, if not more than any poets I know of," Swenson says, "served as a mentor to younger writers, and helped them develop their work and encouraged them and saw they got through difficult phases."
Kunitz also encouraged connections among poets of all ages. In 1985, he helped found and courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress