Monday, May 15, 2006

Stanley Kunitz Passes On in His 100th Year

Noted American poet, former Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner Stanley Kunitz passed away at the ripe old age of 100.

From the MSNBC article:
His poems included tributes to nature and wildlife, such as “The Snakes of September,” the traumatic memories of “The Portrait,” in which he recalled his father’s suicide, and the spiritual journey of “The Long Boat,” with his wish “To be rocked by the Infinite!/as if it didn’t matter which way was home.”

His early work was more formal, more dependent on rhyme and meter, but he anticipated his own evolution with the poem “Change,” with its promise of “Becoming, never being.” Over time, his verse simplified, crystalized, with Kunitz once observing that he had learned to “strip the water out of my poems.”

In some ways, he maintained a quiet, contemplative life, working for hours at night on an old manual typewriter, and by day nurturing his beloved garden in Provincetown, Mass. But he also helped found two writing centers and was a self-described pacifist who was a conscientious objector in World War II, opposed the Vietnam War and criticized the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Shortly before his 100th birthday, “The Wild Braid” was published, featuring poems, photographs of Kunitz in his garden and his reflections on gardening, art and the end of life. “Death is absolutely essential for the survival of life itself on the planet,” he said, explaining his acceptance of mortality. “It would become full of old wrecks, dominating the population.”
Read the whole article here.

Kunitz was a unique poet, generally rejecting trends and following his own muse. In his later years, which lasted a good 25 years, he found more and more humor and that was reflected in his poems.

He never turned away a young poet asking for advice or assistance. Louise Gluck, Denis Johnson and Yusef Komunyakaa are among the writers he helped early in their careers.

Here are a couple of poems.

The Portrait

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 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.

The Long Boat

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking 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 mottoes
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 loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.
Stanley Kunitz at Poem Hunter.

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