Stanley Kunitz, A Surrogate Father of Poets

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.

"He gave me some confidence there."

Kinnell and his wife used to give an annual Kunitz birthday party. A "very sociable person," Kunitz loved to sit in the middle of the table with 10 or 12 other poets and "talk to his equals, as he thought of us -- though we didn't really think that way."

"He was so beloved," said Lee Briccetti, the executive director of Poets House, a New York City archive and meeting place for poets that Kunitz helped found. Briccetti spoke yesterday of Kunitz's empathy for young artists and of his desire to build the kind of community around poetry he felt he'd lacked in his own youth.

She also recalled the poet's fondness for martinis. She once asked him for a glass of cranberry juice instead, but Kunitz returned with "an elegant martini beaker filled with olives. 'My dear,' he said, 'I have my reputation to uphold.' "

Greg Orr, another former Kunitz student who now teaches at the University of Virginia, recalled a recent visit that evoked Kunitz's undying passion for language. Orr was visiting him in Provincetown, Mass., and the old poet's current caregiver was asking his guests to each read three pages from "Moby-Dick" aloud.

Kunitz took his turn as well. "He read Melville's ornate, rhetorical sentences beautifully," Orr said. "Language always brought him alive again. He would just wrap his voice around the sentences in a kind of rapture."

Which is what poetry is, Orr added: "It's the rapture of rhythmical language."

"God bless the poet who lives 100 years," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. But Kunitz almost didn't make it that far.

In 2003, when it appeared that he was on his deathbed, his friends gathered to say goodbye. Orr drove up from Virginia. Kinnell, Rudman and Briccetti were among many others who came.

People read Kunitz's favorite poetry aloud. Kinnell read some Yeats ("I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree") and some William Blake -- who he thinks may have been Kunitz's favorite poet -- including Blake's "Jerusalem."

I will not cease from mental fight , he read. As he left, he asked Kunitz if he remembered the line. Kunitz said he did.

"Will you?" Kinnell asked him.

"I will not cease from mental fight," Kunitz replied. The next morning, Kinnell came to his apartment expecting to find him gone. Instead, he found his friend eating breakfast.

"Our thinking," Orr said yesterday, "was that he had so much fun at his farewell party that he didn't want to leave."

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