Conversation: Stanley Kunitz

October 26, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz speaks with Elizabeth Farnsworth.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a lifetime in poetry. Elizabeth Farnsworth reports. ( Applause )

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stanley Kunitz took up his duties as poet laureate October 12 with a reading of his poems at the Library of Congress.

STANLEY KUNITZ: “Lamplighter.” 1914. “What I remember most was not the incident at Sarajevo but the first flying steam kettle puffing round the bend.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kunitz was nine years old when World War I broke out. He was already working, lighting gas lamps on the roads around Worcester, Massachusetts.

STANLEY KUNITZ: “I stood on the rim of the buggy wheel and raised my enchanted wand with its tip of orange flame.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That flame seemed a metaphor for the light Kunitz has cast ever since in poems which span the century. On this evening he read deeply personal works, including one about his father’s suicide.

STANELY KUNITZ: “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.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he read works about World War II, the landing of the men on the Moon, and Haley’s Comet, which Kunitz has seen twice. He is the author of 12 volumes of poetry, including “The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz,” which came out this fall. He has received the Pulitzer and Bollingen poetry prizes, a national medal of arts, and a national book award. He taught at Columbia and other universities, and was poetry consultant to the library of congress before, in the mid- 1970s. He has been a farmer, and still, at age 95, cultivates a large garden at his summer home in Provincetown, on Cape Cod. He lives about half the year in New York City. I spoke to Stanley Kunitz at the library of congress.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congratulations on your new job. You’ve had this job before. Why did you take it at this stage of your life?

STANELY KUNITZ, Poet Laureate: In the first place, I was terribly surprised that I was asked. And then I felt it really is a great honor, and then I was told that regardless of my age, I was qualified for the job, and I was happy to hear that. And then I was told that I would not have to spend a great deal of time traveling or performing, and I felt good about that. And then I felt that it was something that I could do… have an impact in the reception of poetry.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said, actually, once, that you felt you were predestined to become a poet. What do you mean by that?

STANELY KUNITZ: My family, fortunately, had an extensive library, and that was a rare phenomenon in those days. One of the prized volumes in that library was an unabridged dictionary. And I used to sit in that green Morris chair and open the heavy dictionary on my lap, and find a new word every day. It was a big word, a word like” eleemosynary” or “phantasmagoria” — some word that, on the tongue, sounded great to me, and I would go out into the fields and I would shout those words, because it was so important that they sounded so great to me. And then eventually I began incorporating them into verses, into poems. But certainly my thought in the… in the beginning was that there was so much joy playing with language that I couldn’t consider living without it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read a poem for us, please?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tell us little about it before you read.

STANELY KUNITZ: This is a poem I wrote in the ’70s, after I had lost several members of my family– my mother, my two older sisters– after I had lost, as well, several of my dearest friends in the arts. And it was a time when I felt I was ready for a change. I was ready to gather my strengths again and move in a new direction. And this poem came out of that, and I feel is central to my own work and my own life. It’s called “The Layers.” “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: ‘Live in the layers, not on the litter.’ Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: “Live in the layers, not in the litter.”

STANELY KUNITZ: I must tell you how I got those lines. They came to me in a dream. In the middle of the night, I’d had this dream of a voice out of a cloud, and this is what the voice spoke to me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Does that happen very often?

STANELY KUNITZ: Dreams have given me many of my poems, yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What else gives you a poem? You’ve said that a poem is present even before it’s written down.

STANELY KUNITZ: Yes. I think a poem lies submerged in the depths of one’s being. It’s an amalgamation of images, often the key images out of a life. I think there are certain episodes in the life that really form a constellation, and that’s the germinal point of the poems. The poems, when they come with an incident from the immediate present, latch on to those images that are deep in one’s whole sensibility, and when that happens, everything starts firing at once.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how have you kept in touch with that? How have you stayed so intellectually and physically vital all these years? You’ve been… you have a poem in this book that goes back to 1914.

STANELY KUNITZ: That’s right, mm-hmm.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How have you done that?

STANELY KUNITZ: Because I haven’t dared to forget. I think it’s important for one’s survival to keep the richness of the life always there to be tapped. One doesn’t live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you became conscious.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The last poem in Kunitz’s collected works is “Touch Me,” a love poem for his wife. He read its closing lines about crickets trilling underfoot during a late summer storm in his garden.

STANELY KUNITZ: “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 windowpanes and the house timbers creak. Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stanley Kunitz, thank you very much for being with us.

STANELY KUNITZ: And thank you.