Can poetry ever die?
When an article appeared in Newsweek magazine with a heading “Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?” some time ago, there was a spirited response. A publisher I once worked for did not say so in so many words but would discreetly point out that it was becoming difficult to find buyers for a book of poems.
These thoughts came to my mind when I read the tributes paid to American Poet Stanley Kunitz who died on Sunday (May 14) at the age of 100. But can poetry ever die? Some may say that the appreciation of poetry requires sensitivity, and we live in harsh times. But the world has witnessed much harsher times, and the poet/poetry has not only survived but flourished.
Enough of my musings…Back to the moving tributes to Poet Stanley Kunitz. “More amazing than that unusually long life is that he was a productive, live artist for most of it. Indeed, he became poet laureate of the United States at 95,” stated one obituary.
The Washington Post wrote: “A high school class valedictorian, Mr. Kunitz won a scholarship to Harvard University. After graduating summa cum laude in 1926, he received a master’s degree in English the next year and wanted to stay on as a professorial assistant. He was told that Jews were unwelcome, lest they make white Anglo-Saxon students feel inferior.
“He took a reporting job on the Worcester Telegram and covered the execution of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In the newsroom, Mr. Kunitz earned the nickname ‘Sacco’ for his denunciations of the trial judge, Webster Thayer.
“In 1930, his first book, ‘Intellectual Things,’ was accepted by a young Doubleday editor named Ogden Nash who marked Mr. Kunitz for promise. Mr. Kunitz took the title from a William Blake line (‘For a tear is an intellectual thing’), and his homage to Blake, John Donne and other English metaphysical poets made him distinct from more-lyrical American contemporaries.
“A pacifist, and in his late thirties, he was drafted by the Army during World War II. He dug latrines on a mostly black base in North Carolina. Aghast that so many fellow soldiers couldn’t say why they were fighting, he rethought his politics and started a magazine to explain it all.
“In later years, he later voiced contempt for the Vietnam War, U.S. support for right-leaning juntas in Central America and the U.S.-led war against Iraq. ‘The poet can’t change anything,’ he said, ‘but the poet can demonstrate the power of the solitary conscience’.”
“Essentially,” he once said, “what I try to do is to help each person rediscover the poet within himself. I say ‘rediscover,’ because I am convinced that it is a universal human attribute to want to play with words, to beat out rhythms, to fashion images, to tell a story, to construct forms.”
He added: “The key is always in his possession: what prevents him from using it is mainly inertia, the stultification of the senses as a result of our one-sided educational conditioning and the fear of being made ridiculous or ashamed by the exposure of his feelings.”
He remained a passionate gardener, once saying, “It’s the way things are: death and life inextricably bound to each other. One of my feelings about working the land is that I am celebrating a ritual of death and resurrection. Every spring I feel that. I am never closer to the miraculous than when I am grubbing in the soil.”
Kunitz’s poetry has won praise from all circles as being profound and well written. Many believe his poetry’s symbolism is influenced significantly by the work of Carl Jung. Kunitz was an influence on many 20th century poets, including James Wright, Louise Gluck, and Carolyn Kizer.
His marriages to poet Helen Pearce and actress Eleanor Evans ended in divorce. His third wife, artist Elise Asher, died in 2004.
The obit in The Economist of London recalls: “Loneliness seemed engrained in him. Out of school, his childhood was spent by himself in the woods throwing stones at a tree (two hits, he would be a poet), or testing how far he could climb up a perpendicular cliff. Later in life he kept the usual poet’s habits, shut up by himself, writing in scrupulously neat longhand with no deletions. Every decade or so, a book of poems would appear. Very gradually, out of this slim oeuvre, a reputation grew and prizes came. In 2000, at the age of 95, he was made poet laureate of the United States.
“Yet the lonely, searching poet could also be almost gregarious. He loved teaching, at Bennington, Yale and elsewhere, persuading his students, he said once, that every one of them could be a poet. He set up two centres, in Provincetown and New York, where writers could live and work in company with other artists, discussing their explorations.
“As for his own endless travelling, each poem hinted at an end to it. ‘I have the sense’, he said, ‘of swimming underwater towards some kind of light and open air that will be saving.’ Or,
Becoming, never being, till
Becoming is a being still.”