By David Remnick
WE ARE uncomfortable with poets and their obsessions.
They live in an obscure corner of the national consciousness, practicing an ancient craft as pertinent to modern life, it seems, as the thatching of roofs and the door-to- door sale of ice. A poet is someone to quote in Memorial Day speeches, in newspaper columns, at any occasion demanding a form of discourse at once elevated and authoritative. Poetry is something to recite as schoolchildren, study as students and ignore as working adults.
Sometimes a poet comes to the White House for lunch, which is very nice. The poet combs his hair, wears a tie and shakes hands with the president. Sometimes the visit is more regal and memorable. But when Stanley Jasspon Kunitz turns 80 this summer, expect no great celebration, no keys to the national treasure trove.
One of the "little" magazines may note his birthday with a note or an essay -- nothing grand. There is a tradition for this national quietude. We name shopping centers and highway pissoirs for Walt Whitman (and Joyce Kilmer) but there is still no holiday to honor Whitman, our founding poet, and his progeny.
Of course, this is just as Kunitz and most other poets would have it. The "poetry problem," if we can call it that, is not in the lack of national proclamations and invitations, but in the simple lack of readers, the lack of interest, the queer view we have of poets and poetry.
Kunitz asks in an essay, "When will the publishing fraternity realize that poetry is the source, the seminal impulse, of all literature, the circumfluent air that gives all the arts of an epoch their weather?"
Kunitz, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was called "one of the masters" by Robert Lowell, certainly knows that publishers are not the main problem. Publishers know full well they will never make a profit from poetry and they issue books of poems in much the same spirit as huge industries contribute to the Community Chest -- out of a sense of duty, tradition and nervous karma. But the books are published.
No, Kunitz is even glad that poems, unlike novels, paintings and plays, have not become a commodity. Without the lure of a "best-seller" a poet has one choice: write the best he can. Kunitz writes in "the voice of the solitary/ Who makes others feel less alone."
The unfortunate fact is that in a country of 237 million, a new book of poems that sells even a few thousand copies is a rarity. That is not universally the case. Latin America awaits the next volume from Pablo Neruda, volumes of Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko sell in the hundreds of thousands in the Soviet Union.
The truth is that the world of contemporary American poetry is largely an insular one. There are no polls available, but most poets are read by an audience of students, fellow poets and precious few others who incorporate poetry into their lives as they do a day in the woods, a meal with friends and other pleasures of life. Whitman was a newspaper reporter in Brooklyn, Wallace Stevens a bank executive in Connecticut, Williams a doctor in New Jersey, Eliot a publisher in London. Why not an audience from equally various walks of life?
Poets honor and hone man's most remarkable and renewable invention, that of language. Newspapers, advertising, magazines, our own limp conversations all amount to a slurry of everyday language. The best of our poets take the same tool we use to order groceries or sell a can of Burma Shave to delight, stun, bewitch. They sharpen the instrument of language, they transform it.
Poetry can be about a lot of things -- just about anything, really. But one thing it's always about is language. Its effects are dramatic but sometimes imperceptible -- wind over water. Poetry does not begin the war or end it. As W.H. Auden wrote, "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper." Poetry is a "a way of happening, a mouth." A poem speaks to its readers in ways that a leaflet never can. It becomes a lasting voice, a whisper in the ear, changing the reader as surely as food nourishes the starved.
Perhaps there is minimal interest in poetry in America because our age lacks dominant figures, someone like Whitman, Stevens, Williams or Eliot to seize us and define our times in a resounding, confident voice. But to dismiss contemporary poetry is to overemphasize personality and ignore the work itself.
Kunitz writes, "As society becomes more and more democratized, the genius of the race is dispersed among larger and larger numbers. A dilution occurs, so that perhaps now there are 20 poets who together are the equivalent of Milton. There is, however, no Milton. Maybe we're inching back to some sort of chorus of poets, as in certain primitive societies, where everybody composes songs. No great poets, but still, now and then, great poems."
The lucky among us have had a friend or a teacher to point out the scattered jewels of contemporary American poetry. One could easily start with a few of Kunitz's own: "The Lincoln Relics," "Father and Son," "Journal For My Daughter."
Of a generation that includes John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Charles Olson and Randall Jarrell, Stanley Kunitz is one of only a few survivors. Robert Penn Warren, who also celebrates his 80th birthday this year, is another. "One way for a poet to find an audience," Kunitz said 22 years ago, "is to live long enough. I seriously recommend that."
It's hard to imagine a biography of Stanley Kunitz: no madness, suicide or public scandal to titillate us, no radical political obsessions to rattle us. His father was a dress manufacturer who killed himself before Kunitz was born. He began writing poems seriously in college and never stopped. It's as simple, and as mysterious, as that. He has worked as an editor, a teacher, writing verse in the quiet hours of the night.
Now he is 80 and still "not done with my book of transformations." Awards, grants, degrees and decrees from the White House are fine, but, there is really only one way to honor Stanley Kunitz and his vast and various tribe of poets: to read them.