Stanley Kunitz on poetry and life

hello my name is Gregory or I'm your host today on the writing life and it's my pleasure to be talking here with Stanley Kunitz Stanley Kunitz is among the most honored of contemporary American poets his selected poems was given the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 and since then his honors have been too numerous to mention but I'll mention only the most recent the National Medal for the Arts which was awarded him by President Clinton this past October in addition mr. Kunitz is an essayist and a translator he's also one of the fabled teachers of poets in our time and it's in this capacity as a teacher that I first met Stanley 23 years ago at Columbia University Stanley it's a pleasure to be with you I'd like to think that we're different than we were then and that we're also the same yes I would agree with you that we are we're different but I also agree with you so we're the same I will remember that on those occasions when you were sitting in my class and I was asking you the questions now you're sitting in that chair and asking me and I hope I'll do as well as you did then well I'm sure you will this summer we were speaking on the phone and you mused about what human purpose poetry serves in our time now I've known you long enough to realize that a question of that magnitude and seriousness as an opening question is not too much and so I thought maybe I would ask you what per human purpose do you think poetry serves in our time the first thought that occurs to me is that poetry is most deeply concerned with telling us what it feels like to be alive alive at any given moment in fact if we go back historically we find that if we want to know how people felt how they lived how they responded to experience we have to turn to the poets of the past before there were poets we have no evidence of what it was like to be a human being on this earth and they were the first nice still are I think the most intimate relators of what it means to be a living person on this earth and then the other thought that occurs to me is that poetry in its own way is ultimately mythology the telling of the stories of the soul in its adventure on this earth that's simply saying in another form what I've already said but giving it a somewhat wider context and there's nothing else that quite serves that purpose in any of the arts or any other medium of communication I often think of your work as being visionary and when I think of that an early poem of yours comes to mind which seems to me almost Blake Ian in its authority and compression and that's the poem open the gates I wonder if you might read that for us the opening vision of this poem as I try to understand it later made me think of the plains of soda man Gomorrah out of the way out of the Bible and why I was entertaining that vision I cannot say but there I was and here's the poem opened the gates within the city of the burning cloud dragging my life behind me in a sack naked I prowl scourge by the black temptation of the blood grown proud here at the monumental door carved with the curious legend of my youth I brandish the great bone of my death beat once sir with and beat no more the hinges grown our russia forms shivers my name wrenched out of me i stand and what terrible threshold and I see the end and the beginning in each other's arms wonderful thank you when I was writing a book on your work a poem that became pivotal for me and has since fascinated me more and more is a poem called father and son which unless I'm mistaken was written and published around 1934 there isn't proximate approximately the reason I mentioned that date is because it seems to me and I've checked this with a number of scholars and people who accept challenges about poems that it's the first time in English where the poet has a dread where poet addresses his father where wherein the poet in the guise of addresses the father directly and that intrigued me because because it was as if you had discovered a new subject for poetry and it's a subject that in our psychological century and has engendered so many poems and I think your your poem began it but one thinks of of theatre Ricky's poems Lowell's Sylvia Plath's Berryman's all these poems seem to me in some sense to have been spawned by your poem and I wonder what your thoughts are about that and if you might also read that poem for us yeah well because I'm not sure that my poem spawned those others perhaps it was the climate of the age that made it possible for us to address our progenitors and in other ages that would have been taught indelicate mm-hmm and not suited to the high medium of poetry mm-hmm now in the suburbs and the falling light I followed him and now down sandy Road whiter than bone dust through the sweet curdle of heels where the plums dropped with their load of ripeness one by one mile after mile I followed with skimming feet after the secret master of my blood him steeped in the odor of ponds whose indomitable love kept me in Chains strode years stretched into bird raced through the sleeping country where I was young the silence unrolling before me as I came the night nailed like an orange to my brow how should I tell him my fable and the fears how Briggs the chasm and a casual tone saying the house the stucco one you built we lost sister married and went from home and nothing comes back it's strange from where she goes I lived in a hill that had too many rooms light we could make but not enough of warmth and when the light failed I climbed under the hill the papers are delivered every day I am alone and never shed a tear at the water's edge whether smothering friends lifted their arms father I cried returned you know the way I'll wipe the mud stains from your clothes no trace I promise will remain instruct your son whirling between two wars in the Gemara of your gentleness for I would be a child to those who mourn and brother to the foundlings of the field and friend of innocence and all bright eyes Oh teach me how to work and keep me kind among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me the white ignorant hollow of his face that's an extraordinary poem I know people are shocked by that ending I've always been still are it's a fierce and uncompromising ending it really is she remembers that I was a young man when I wrote that poem now I was rebelling against an older generation both torn with love and broken with the desire to escape from the past to make a new life mm-hmm and I think all that enters into the passion as you phrase it in them home mm-hmm and again the combination of dream and vision each of both again this is a poem that that opening sequence of the the road the moonlit Road and the father image preceding me down all that came out of a dream you know I know I know you've frequently spoken about a kind of a touchstone for your work which is the phrase to convert life into legend yes and I know that's related to mythology would you what you were calling myth earlier maybe could you speak a little about that yeah well the problem with the life is that it is so transient and in so many respects so mean meaningless against the great panorama of history and the cosmos itself we are such small creatures and one of the destinations of the poem all the aspirations of the poem is to make that life important to justify the existence to magnify what has happened to us so that it becomes for others emblematic or in the other term legendary mmm-hmm and yet one of the most fascinating turns in your work was in a later book the testing tree mm-hmm and I think again when we're speaking here about the quest for the Father which is a theme in your work the poem called the portrait where even as it aspires to the legendary and and something then goes beyond the transient of the individual life a poem like the portrait embeds itself even more than any of your other up until then in the details what you might have called and opened the gates the curious legend of my youth strange circumstances and animate that poem I wonder if you might read that one forth well this was the period let me say before I read that poem when I began to feel that ordinary experience was also wonderful and mysterious and it could be made how shall i phrase that huh it could be made resonant simply by being precise enough about the details and the reverberations of that experience within you Baudelaire speaks about that at one point he says that there are certain moments when experience when all the details of experience suddenly radiate meaning so that the entire scene becomes a symbol which for him is again that words I sometimes think that the work of the poet in our time is to make ordinary experience beautiful in the grand sense not made pretty sense you to feel mysterious and terrible as it all is my mother never forgave my father for killing himself especially at such an awkward time and in a public park that spring when I was waiting to be born she locked his name in her deepest cabinet and and would not let him out though I could hear him something when I came down from the attic with the pastel portrait in my hand of a long lips stranger with a brave mustache and deep brown level eyes she ripped into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard in my 64th year I can feel my cheek still burning as I can on my 88th year too and I've you know whenever I showed that poem to my students and I say to them can you remember that first experience of money just punishment when when your sense of self was and justice in the world was was violated and and and it it's such a vivid moment a moment that that still is palpable on the body because I've never felt that my mother was punishing me you know she was punishing him you know and I was a visible remnant as indeed the description of the portrait of a stranger with a brave mustache seems and deep brown level eyes seems to me a self-portrait as well a conscious portrait both perhaps if your father and that picture but also of you as as I knew you in your 70th year I guess was about when I met you mm-hmm and wonder if he might also read what I take to be a companion poem to that a poem that appears next to it in that volume the testing tree called an old crack tune perhaps I should say that during the period I was writing these poems the portrait and an old crack tune I was trying as I seek to work with deliberately domestic materials because I felt at the age of military heroes the famous adventurers that that was no longer with us that the heroism to celebrate belonged in the home in the workplace and that domestic heroism deserved as much attention from the poetic imagination and as the heroism in wars and in other such adventures so not that I rationalize it in that way this is my after thought about it and I was also concerned with the sense that the poet in our society is at best a marginal creature outside the mainstream and the primary American myth which pertains to success and power the poet in that sense remains marginal which does not mean that he is not concerned with central materials materials that should be central in a different age so that's some of the after thoughts about this poem cuz when I was writing it all I was concerned with was the little details that you do not think of in relation to their interpretation you know and if you did you would never write the poem right at all an old crack tune my name is Solomon Levi the desert is my home my mother's breast was thorny and father I had none the sands whispered be separate the stones taught me be hard I danced for the joy of surviving on the edge of the road all of those last lines important that's the marginal but I also hit an area of surviving as being something of people sometimes say to me yeah but Stanley's work is so fierce and grim and I say yes but there's the joy of surviving there's that exalting as I go and you say at one point in a another poem like that I'm thinking about shifting now to to another important aspect of your work in your life which is your relationship to the natural world and well we haven't discussed that no and it wouldn't be right if we didn't and I'm thinking also no not just of Annette her only part of me if you didn't discuss that well there's there's a little chance of capturing all of you and this time but what we'll do that's what we can do I'm thinking also of gardening and how important that's been to you and I've been among your your wonderful gardens a poem like snakes of September mmm I wonder if you might read that the the garden to me is a kind of allegory human experience and one of the things I love about gardening is that we reenact in that garden toiling grubbing in the soil year after year the whole story of death and resurrection the great rituals of the year and of human existence and it's all there and we are partners in it we are like God if we can imagine him involved in the creation and there is a kind of ecstasy about every inch of the gardening experience even including the weeding and the grubbing and the dirt to me all of it is is a wonderful and joyous experience you once said you'd rather garden than write a poem I certainly would any day well if it's an ecstatic experience that makes sense yeah the see how I add about the garden yeah this this garden of mine is built on five terraces on a Sandy Hill it was pure sand when I started it and I had a week I had to create the soil in it in order to plant anything it has become a real show garden now and it is luxurious and all sorts of creatures share the garden with me and my favorite creatures are the snakes the garden snakes they're all over the place they found a happy home and they know that I am a partner with them that I have no animosity or fear of them in fact they even permit me to to stroke them as I do in this poem they live in the Alberta spruces somehow they've found them very congenial habitats and each of my Alberta spruces contains families of snakes and in the noonday Sun especially towards the end of summer you know when the chill was coming on and the snakes are getting ready to hibernate they come out on the sides branches of the of the spruces and hang down and that's when they are most permissive about letting me show my friendship with them so this is the poem the snakes of September all summer I heard them rustling in the shrubbery outracing me from tier to tier in my garden of whisper among the viburnums a signal flash from the hedgerow a shadow pulsing in the barbary thicket now the the Nights Watch Hill and the annual spent I should have thought them gone in a torpor of blood slipped to the netherworld before the sickle Frost not so in the deceptive balm of noon as if defiant of the curse that spoiled another garden these to appear on show through a narrow slit in the dense green brocade of a North Country spruce dangling head entwined in a brazen love knot I put out my hand and Stroke the fine dry grit of their skins after all we are partners in this land co-signers of a covenant at my touch the wild braids of creation trembles the wild braids of creation trembles it's wonderful thank you we only have time for one more poem I wonder if you might read the Longboat Stanley the longboat goes back to a Viking legend of the already there ceremony of putting The Departed on a boat and sending it out to sea that was a formal burial ritual the longboat when his boat snapped loose from its moorings under the squeaking of the gulls he tried at first to wave to his dear ones on shore but in the rolling fog they had already lost their faces too tired even to choose between jumping and calling somehow he felt absolved and free of his burdens those mottos stamped on his name tag conscience ambition and all that caring he was content to lie down with the family ghosts in the slop of his cradle buffeted by the storm endlessly drifting peace peace to be rocked by the infinite as if it didn't matter which way was home as if he didn't know he the earth so much he wanted to stay forever Stanley thank you very very much for talking with us and I'd like to also thank you for joining us today on the writing life and I hope to see you again thank you

11 thoughts on “Stanley Kunitz on poetry and life

  1. The knowledge of this poet is one of the last gifts my late husband left me. Among his papers, I found a copy of "Touch Me," and I read it to him before he died. What a profound poet, what a great, hauntingly beautiful poem. Thanks for sharing these videos.

  2. How transient life is, yet the joy of being alive, even with losses we strive…. This poet, Stanley Kunitz, bought tears to my eyes…

  3. -''Open The Gates'' (4:45–5:45)

    ''Within the city of the burning cloud,
    Dragging my life behind me in a sack,
    Naked I prowl, scourged by the black
    Temptation of the blood grown proud.

    Here at the monumental door,
    Carved with the curious legend of my youth,
    I brandish the great bone of my death,
    Beat once therewith and beat no more.

    The hinges groan: a rush of forms
    Shivers my name, wrenched out of me.
    I stand on the terrible threshold, and I see
    The end and the beginning in each other's arms.''

  4. Thanks so much for watching. He was a wonderful presence; we were lucky enough to host him twice for readings, and he brought the house down each time.

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