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Stanley Kunitz

By Galway Kinnell

Stanley Kunitz, the youngest child of Lithuanian immigrants, was born on July 29, 1905, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the mill town which also spawned Charles Olson and Elizabeth Bishop. Stanley’s childhood, indeed his whole life, was haunted by the fact that six weeks before his birth, his father killed himself by swallowing carbolic acid.

The house where Stanley grew up had two saving things: an unabridged dictionary and proximity to open fields and woods. As a child he loved poetry, describing his taste as “indiscriminate.” A favorite was Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which he knew by heart and declaimed while walking in the woods.

He excelled at Harvard and would have stayed on to teach undergraduates, but Harvard told him: “Our Anglo-Saxon students would not appreciate being taught English literature by a Jew.” Thus was Stanley released from academia into the great world of poetry, where eventually he would win most of the honors an American poet may win.

In the early ’60s, he and his third wife, the painter Elise Asher, bought a house in Provincetown. The front yard, little more than a sand dune, before long became a legendary garden. He acknowledged the source of earthly beauty by facing his study directly at the compost heap.

Stanley co-founded both Poets House and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Yeats and Blake were his heroes. His friends were poets and painters: Roethke, Lowell, Rothko, Kline, and Motherwell. Unfathered himself, he had a genius for fathering others, and became the good father to every poet younger than he, which of course, eventually, was all poets.

In his youth, Stanley engaged himself in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial; in his early old age, he organized poets against the Vietnam War; in his very old age, when he stepped onto the stage at a reading of “Poems Not Fit for the White House,” the entire audience leapt to their feet and cheered and shouted.

As he grew older, he became younger. “My early poems,” he said, “were very intricate, dense and formal… written in conventional metrics and stanzaic patterns… As a young poet I looked for what Keats called ‘a fine excess,’ but as an old poet, I look for spareness and rigor…” On the road he now walked, he said, “Every stone is precious to me.” The sane intelligence of his late poems has helped to awaken poetry from the Faustian nightmare that the perfection of the work must be paid for by the ruined life and lives left behind. Stanley may be the only poet ever who continued to be productive into his tenth decade.

One morning in 2003, after an arduous reading the night before, Stanley woke with a sore back, and was taken to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s, where he sat for ten hours watching the Dante-esque parade of the ill and injured passing by. He at last got a bed, but his condition worsened, and he was put in a nursing home, where he stopped eating and could not sleep because of the continual all night cries of “Help me! Help me! Help me!” of one of his three roommates. At his own wish, Stanley was released so that he might die at home. Friends came from all over the country to say their goodbyes. On what seemed to be his last day, Genine Lentine, his literary assistant, a poet and gardener herself, held him in her arms almost all day, looking at him as if pouring into him her limitless vitality.

That night I read to him Blake’s Jerusalem. When I left, I kissed him goodbye and said, “Stanley, do you promise not to cease from Mental Fight?” “I promise,” he said. “Nor let your sword sleep in your hand?” “I promise.” When I came back the next morning, the first thing I saw was his empty bed in the living room, meaning to me that they had come and taken him away. But I took one more step into the room—and there he was, sitting up at a little table cheerfully eating breakfast. Into my mind came these lines from that poem of his childhood:

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
In the heart of the furnace roar;

Much to everyone’s wonderment, Stanley soon emerged with renewed energy and will to live, referring sometimes in conversation to “when I was in the other world.” Elise died in 2004, but Genine continued to work for Stanley, coming to him several times a week. Together they finished his last book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden. They read aloud from Moby-Dick, they sketched, they talked about poetry. They made plans for the garden.

One of the last times Bobbie and I saw Stanley, he was in his kitchen eating a tuna fish sandwich and a glass of milk. He seemed beyond cares, the way a solitary child often seems to be. He treated the sandwich with great delicacy and studied it with an unusual amount of interest before taking a bite. When he realized we were there beside him, he called out our names—what a beautiful lift and lilt that came to his voice when he greeted someone!—making one glad to be with him on Earth. He reached up and took each of us by the back of the neck and drew our heads down next to his and pressed our cheeks against his unshaved face.

Stanley Kunitz died on May 14, 2006, nine months past his 100th birthday. “I don’t pretend,” he once said, “to have resolved any of the existential conflicts within me. Maybe that’s why I’m still ticking.” We don’t know what it will be like for us now to live without him, for in truth, while Stanley was still ticking, we had always set our hearts by him.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9, 2006.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters