Stanley Kunitz, A Surrogate Father of Poets

Kunitz was named U.S. poet laureate in 2000.
Kunitz was named U.S. poet laureate in 2000. (By Tina Fineberg -- Associated Press)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Stanley Kunitz was a poet who touched lives -- and not just through his own work.

Kunitz, who died Sunday in his Manhattan home at the age of 100, was one of the most celebrated poets of more than one generation: He began writing in the 1920s and survived to be named U.S. poet laureate in 2000.

Paul Nemser remembers how Kunitz remade his world. A poet and translator who is a partner at the Boston law firm Goodwin Procter, he studied with Kunitz at Columbia in the early 1970s. "People always ask how I got to be a lawyer," Nemser said yesterday. The answer is: He trusted Stanley Kunitz.

As an eager but debt-burdened young poet supporting himself as a bookstore clerk, Nemser sought out his teacher one day, explained his situation and asked what he should do. Kunitz "looked up into the sky," Nemser recalled, then looked down and said, "the law." He added, "You love poetry so much that you will never give it up."

Three decades of law and poetry, for Nemser, have proved him correct.

Others who knew Kunitz recalled him yesterday with emotion, admiration and deep gratitude.

Mark Rudman, a poet who also studied with Kunitz at Columbia, recalled that Kunitz might read a poem and say: "Well, it's an artful construction." Painful, perhaps, but it was "the best Geiger counter or lie detector" a poet could have.

One of the reasons he wanted to work with Kunitz, Rudman said, was the older man's reputation for doing, for contemporaries like Theodore Roethke, "what Pound did for Eliot" -- in other words, improve a fellow poet's work with bold, unflinching editing. Rudman told a story about bringing Kunitz a long poem he'd written.

"Stanley took the 15 pages or whatever it was," Rudman said, "and shuffled them around like a croupier." After about six minutes, he said: "There's your poem."

How could he do that?

"I've done a lot of editing, so I learn to take in things globally," Kunitz explained.

He was "a kind of surrogate father to a lot of poets younger than he," said Galway Kinnell, who counted himself among that number when the two first met in New York in the late 1950s. Kunitz would invite him to sit in on his Columbia classes, Kinnell recalled, and "the students asked me questions as if I were a real poet and not simply an aspiring poet.

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