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Stanley Kunitz

Grace Cavalieri interviews Stanley Kunitz, Poet Laureate of the United States, 2000.

"The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress"

The name of the program is the Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress. I'm Grace Cavalieri. Our guest is the tenth Poet Laureate of the United States, Stanley Kunitz, just inaugurated. He'll say hello with an opening poem.

Hello, I'm Stanley Kunitz. I'm going to start the interview here with the reading of a very early poem. This poem is entitled ?Vitnawova?. It's a poem of dedication. I wrote it at the age of 23 and it's the concluding poem in my first book of poems published in 1930, a long time ago.

The voice of Stanley Kunitz, the most beloved poet in America and a fitting choice to hold the county's top poetry post. Born in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1905, educated in Harvard, he has done many things for other poets in this county. But tonight, today we are talking about Stanley Kunitz and his poetry. Stanley, you have lived almost a whole century and you have seen great changes in American poetry. Can you give a simple remark about a complicated observation. What is the major change in the century?

Do you mean in relation to poetry?


The century has gone through many phrases in its poetry. Very early in the century we were still very much writing in the manner of the poets of the century before. We were inheriting the poets in the so-called Golden Age of New England were speaking for a rather elite group of people who were highly educated and represented the wealthy and the powerful of the nation as opposed to Walt Whitman who for the first time realized that we lacked as a country a great myth of our creation, the creation of the democratic spirit and this is what makes him such a significant figure in the evolution of poetry in our society. And we've had to content with not only the voice of Whitman but another voice that comes out of the puritanical sensibility of the early settlers, their inheritance of a moralistic approach to human experience and there has been a problem in this country of how to accept an art that is so free in spirit and so articulate about the wrongs of not only of humanity but of society itself. And this has been a problem actually because the political establishment in this country has nearly always been suspicious of the arts and has actually been given very little support to the arts compared with other major countries in the world.

He is our spokesman for poetry and this is the year 2000. I'd like to hear another poem.

I'll read another poem out of my childhood experience and one that reveals the nature of the sorrows of childhood, the sorrows of my childhood. There was a cloud that hung over our house in Worchester, Massachusetts and it took me almost 50 years or more before I could face it in a poem. This is the poem that eventually I did write about those early years. It's called the Portrait.

That may be your signature poem Stanley because in that is all the integrity of poetry, the courage, the risk, the perfect word in perfect order. I wonder if you were one of the first poets to give credence to the heart and say it deserved as much time and then to make a poem around it which was an interesting thing. In fact I think your epigraph for your first book

From William Blake, yes

The tear

The tear is an

intellectual thing

Would you just want to remark on that?

Well that's a quotation from Blake that I think was generally misunderstood when I used it. They thought that I was setting up the intellect as opposed to the emotion, to the heart. Whereas my feeling was that they worked together, that there is no separation between the two.

But your poetry has proved

and gradually I began to understand more and more what Blake was staying and as the years passed I more and more felt that I had to go down into my emotional depths to produce a poem that I would eventually care about.

And this is the risk


that you took and critics remark about. It's not only an intellectual risk in courage. It starts with squaring yourself and then presenting it perfectly. How do we teach our students to do that?

That's a hard, hard question. And I don't think that most children are exposed to teachers who understand the sources and the power of poetry for the human spirit. And one of the things that I would like to accomplish in my new role as Poet Laureate is to do whatever I can to bring into the school system an understanding of the power of the spoken word and the release that it gives to the pent-up feelings of a child who is exposed to so much and has not yet formulated an adequate language to express what he needs to say in order to feel whole.

We will move on with another poem by Stanley, our new poet laureate.

In this next poem I am nine years old, the year is 1914 and I am a child living for the summer in a little village, a farming village, outside Worchester, Massachusetts where I boarded with a French-Canadian family named Beauto and participated in their life. This was during periods when my widowed mother was unable to take care of me and sent me into the country where she knew I would be taken care of and would be happy in that environment. And I was certainly was in most respects. This year 1914 was significant and it was the beginning of World War I and the war began with an incident in Savirijo which has always been and still is a hotbed and I begin with a reference to that incident which did not effect me as much as other things that were in my immediate surroundings. Lamplighter 1914.

And you are still touching them one by one. The whole country is blooming. Last night I saw a room, a building stand up in ovation for you Stanley Kunitz. Haven't seen that before. Maybe we should have but I am seeing people rise as one to acknowledge you. When you were young, do you think you received notice early enough or when you were young did you ever image that you would receive such notice?

No, no. And nothing in my early experience as a writer, as a poet gave me the slightest hope or suspicion that it would happen.

Maybe it's a good thing that you did not concentrate on that.

Oh, it's so easy to be spoiled.

But surely you take it so graciously and calmly now. I remember in the 50s when John Chardy did not think you were getting acknowledge enough. I mean I've been watching from the background a long time and some poets thought that you should have been name a very great poet 50 years ago. But I guess that is not what occupied your mind.

It wasn't what I expected, though I must say that from the beginning as that first poem that I read indicates, I felt that I had a destiny and I believed in myself and I was not discouraged.

We are going to move on to more poetry because that is what he is here to give us. Stanley we have to mention the book you are reading from. Brand new, right off the shelf, W. W. Norton finally the Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. And it is available to everyone. You can get most of the muscle of his former books all in this one volume and we wish to tell the world that they can get that right now. This next poem takes us some years ahead of the last. It is called the Apollo. Apollo is Apollo 11. The first lunar landing occurred with this flight and I sat in front of the TV camera and for days before I enacted for myself what it would be like when that landing was made on the moon. And I wrote this poem before it actually happened and when I finally saw it on the screen it was exactly as I had anticipated it. I didn't have to change a world. The poem was published to celebrate the event in the New York Times actually and I felt I was part of that process, just as in writing that poem I felt I was an astronaut. The Flight of Apollo. It's in two parts actually.

The thing about being a stranger on this earth is that you have made it easier for us to feel less strange. What a thing to do with a lifetime. You talk about the poem as not being merely aanecdote and that is very important to you. I think you call it symbolism of facts or some other words like that where you create it as part of a legend or your life has a mythology and how does one accomplish that. They have the incident and the event and then how to make the myth from that. Is it up to the art of the individual poet?

I think it is but there is something inherent in the medium itself. You know Keats said that a man's life is an allegory. Each of us is living every man's life as well as our own. And my own translation of that is that in the process of poetry the life is converted into legend. And that is the ultimate aspiration I think of the poet in any time, in any period.

I know you've written on Keats as well as having written ten other books of poetry in addition to this brand new one. And more forthcoming too. What a thing to say. Stanley Kunitz is giving us a retrospective of his new book the Collective Poems and of his life. He served at the Library once before, before the title was Poet Laureate. It was then called Poetry Consultant, Consultant in Poetry and that was '74-'76.

The Watergate years.

Right. And you wrote about the relics.

I did.

The relics of Lincoln. And that was quite critical I think. And you were not afraid to say what you felt about those years. We hope that this term will not offer you that same occasion.

Oh, I hope so too. It's the last thing I want to go through again.

In my seventies I approached a certain crisis in my feeling about my work and my feeling about life itself. It as a time of great losses for me. I lost my mother, my two sisters, two older sisters. I loss several of my dearest friends and I felt dissatisfied with what I was doing. I knew that it was time for me to made myself open to a different language, a different mode of expressing myself and this poem that I am about to read is I feel a central poem in the whole experience that I have had as a person and as a poet. It is called The Layers.

And you spent the rest of your life figuring out the layers. As you said, you did not have the art to know it then.

Actually, those two lines "live in the layers, not on the litter" which are so important to me, came to me in a dream. I wrote up in the middle of the night and these were the words that had come to me out of the cloud in the dream and I wrote those in my notebook by my bed and the rhythm start rolling and gradually the words and the sense begin to enter into the making of the poem and ride on that rhythm that has already been mounted.

I guess we're only as good as our rhythm though. Stanley Kunitz has been honored by President Clinton and he received among other honors the National Medal of the Arts. That must have been pretty great, that occasion. Did you love that that night when President Clinton acknowledged you?

Yes that was a high, a high moment. It's something that no poet has any right to expect and when it comes it like a favor from the gods.

Stanley Kunitz has know virtually every poet speaking in English I think this century and has his hand on the pulse of quite a few fledglings too which is to his credit. He has helped people along by starting the Fine Arts Workshop, no the Fine Arts Work Center in Provencetown.


And the Poets House in New York.


Those two institutions are going strong right now.

Oh they are important, pivotal really in the poetry world and I am very happy with what has emerged out of them. Both of them started as humble little efforts with very little financial support and they've evolved into important centers, each doing their particular thing which is different from what anybody else is doing.

You knew that we needed some platform to speak from. You knew we needed institutions as well as spirit and that must have taken a lot of your time.

When I was young I felt very deeply the lack of any help, of any support from an older generation. There was no contact. One was especially in a small city in New England at that point. There was no one even to talk with except one or two teachers who encouraged me. And I vowed in any case that if I ever had the opportunity to help younger poets I would make that an important part of my life. And when I speak of the tribe in the layers I mean all those young persons whom I have been associated with through the years.

Your legacy is beyond the page.

In the course of the year memory has come to my aid when ever I have felt that I have needed some new fresh water from the well. That's fresh water within the self that is waiting, waiting to be drunk ? and there are times when one blocks out so much of one's experience, experience that might enrich one. But I have found that in my later years I keep going back to my very sources and that each time that I have encountered something that I have forgotten or that has been lying fallow all this time, I feel renewed by that contact again. In this poem I've written quiet recently I go back to 1910, the year when Haley's Comet visited Worchester, Massachusetts. And I'll start without any further comment because I think as everybody knows Haley's comment is a rare occurrence; it returns every 76 years.

That direct address where you give your street address at the end is the part where that poem turns a corner and it is, and you know your heart just flips inside of you where you hear that poem. That is a masterwork. Your style, who said he writes in a language that even cats and dogs can understand. Was that Robert Lowell a long time ago? Early on you said that you wrote in a very classic style as a young poet of your time would. And you were compared to metaphysical poets even. Would you want to remark on what that means?

At the time I was writing my early poems I was very much influenced by the metaphysical poets of the 17th century who wrote in an intricate style and were concerned with philosophical and religious questions and I naturally adopted some of style of the poets like George Hurber and John Donne who were of considerable influence early in the century actually and in each age I think one reflects what is happening around you in the environment of the arts. The general style has an impact out of the moment that cannot be resisted is one is sensitive at all to language and I feel that the changes, the clarification of my style, the simplification of the language, the effort to dig as deep as I can into the sources of the poem instead of embroider the surface.

Your themes have not changed over the years.

The themes have always been the same I think.


And that's rather mystifying, even to me.

We'll hear another now.

I'd like to read a poem that originates in my garden on Cape Cod, my garden in Provincetown. It's a garden I made out of a sand dune. There wasn't even a blade of grass growing on it and I started it in 1962 and I had to build terraces to contain the sand from drifting. That was the first year I worked in that garden and then I gradually brought seaweed from the beach and dug it into the soil with compost and anything that I could find that would enrich the soil, peat moss I used too and it gradually evolved into a wonderfully lush fountain of plants and trees. It is to me one of the great satisfactions of my life and when I am in Provincetown I spend a good part of the day working in that garden and I feel it has renewed me and given me strength to preserve. This poem is call The Round, but which I mean the way it is designed. The only way you can see the whole garden is to walk around it and return to the point of your start in this journey. Of course The Round also has some musical significance too.

And you give us new life each day. I would like to just point out the work you have done globally and that is that you have translated many of the Russian poets. And I was wondering what fired that love for that group of poets at that time in your life. You've done a lot of amazing work, making that poetry available to us. What drew you to the Russians?

First of all, my heritage. My mother came to this country in 1895 at the age of 24. When she landed on these shores from her native Lithuania which is part of the East European orbit, she didn't know a word of English. When she landed in New York she worked in the sweatshops of New York and she wrote in a memoirs that she work at in her last years, she died at the age of 86, she wrote in a memoirs, that the landing came on her 24th birthday. She said but it was my 24th birthday but my real birthday began, the day of my birth I consider is the day I landed in this country.



What was her maiden name?

Her maiden name was Jasbon. Yetta Helen Jasbon. And the name has a meaning. Her ancestors came from Spain. They fled Spain during the Inquisition and when they traveled across Europe when they were asked as they tried to find a place to live, when they were asked who they were, where they came from, they answered Jasbon, aye Spain and that became their name.

We need a program on that.


Just on that. We are at the Library of Congress and we are rounding the bend. And Stanley is going to give us a final poem.

I think of this as a love poem. It began in a furious storm on Cape Cod and to me it marked the beginning of the end of summer. It was late August when this storm occurred. And it's a disturbing time for me. I remembered a poem that I had written 40 years before and the poem started, hinging on that line that came to me. The poem is called Touch Me.

Stanley Kunitz who said 'the only music is time, the only dance is love.'

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She has authored 13 books and 21 plays. She produces "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" for public radio.