Saturday, May 3, 2014

Stanley Kunitz and the secret of a long live: Curiosity

"That pack of scoundrels
tumbling through the gate
as the order of the state"
Stanley Kunitz, The System

"The voice of the solitary

Who makes others less alone"
Stanley Kunitz, Resolving Meditation

"On the one hand, I am against war in principle; on the other, I have spent a good part of my life opposing fascism and bigotry and injustice and anything that degrades or insults the human spirit.” 

Stanley Kunitz

“In a rising wind, the manic dust of my friends…those who fell along the way…bitterly stings my face.”
Stanley Kunitz

The Portrait
Stanley Kunitz

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in the public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
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 still burning.
Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) is among the US's most acclaimed poets, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.  Kunitz wrote poetry for over 80 years and until his death, aged 100, he was active as a poet, writer, activist and mentor to young poets.

Kunitz was deeply affected by the suicide of his father six weeks before his birth. His mother removed every trace of Kunitz's father from the house, and his poem, The Portrait (above), tells of an event that occurred, when, as a 8 year old, Kunitz found a photo of his father.

In an interview with the New Yorker he described the event:
“I was eight years old, and I had gone poking around the remnants. I may have had a design, as I think back on it. I think I was searching for something—I was searching for my father. And there in the trunk I found his clothes that had been left behind, and in that trunk I found the first image I had ever had of him.”
Kunitz left home at 15 to work as a butcher's assistant and then as a reporter, before graduating  with honours from Harvard, where his Jewishness precluded an academic career. He never returned to teach at Harvard. 

He worked as a reporter, book editor, a small farmer during the depression, teacher, translator, educator and academic. He turned down tenure as an academic preferring to be  'a poet who works as a professor, rather than a professor who writes poetry'. As a result, he taught at various universities including Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, and Columbia - but never Harvard.

Kunitz was a lifelong political progressive and pacifist. He was a conscientious objector during WW2 and opposed both the Vietnam and the US-led invasion of Iraq. He declined to write a poem in honor of the inauguration of George Bush.  
He reminded people:
"A poet is also a citizen, and I try not to forget that"
Kunitz was largely unknown  as a poet until well into his sixties. He was appointed official poet of the US Government and the State of New York, but saw his role in clear terms:
"The poet is not in the service of the state. On the contrary he defends the solitary conscience as opposed to the great power structure of the superstate."
Kunitz wrote poetry slowly, often at night, on an old manual typewriter. The secret of a long life, he claimed, was curiosity (he lived to over 100).

Kunitz was also a dedicated gardener all his life and his book The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden contains his reflections, writings and poems about a life lived in and with gardens.

Articles about Stanley Kunitz are herehere, here, hereherehere and here.

Touch Me
by Stanley Kunitz

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.

It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.

Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,and it's done.

So let the battered old willow
thrash against the window
and the house timbers creak.

Darling, do you remember
the man you married? 
Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Copyright © 1995 by Stanley Kunitz from Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected

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