Stanley Kunitz Changed My Life

Though I never met him, Stanley Kunitz changed my life.

As a tenderfoot in Ted Roethke’s verse writing class, I heard him mention Kunitz as a fine poet and trusted friend.

At that stage I barely knew Ogden Nash from a Nash Rambler.

Later, Roethke used a line from Kunitz to teach us the concept of the list, or catalog, a rhetoricall device that sets up a rhythmic pattern you can play against in next line. Whitman used lists. Kunitz was tighter in his use.

“He runs before the wise men. He
is moving on the hills like snow.
No gifts, no tears, no company he brings
but wind rise and waterflow.”
(from He, 1930)

After that lesson, I knew enough to look him up, and found these memorable lines (from Father and Son) :

“The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow.”

and these

“Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face. ”

I won’t say I understood those poems. But something transferred instantly: riveting image, mastery of metrics, emotional power.

Time passed, and I memorized his sweet ironic poem “The Waltzer in the House” (linked on this site). More gentle and witty than most of the poems he wrote before 1980, it kept me aware that he had that playful side, too.

I went back for more, and over the years, found myself turning to him whenever I needed to read some words served on a spear and cooked over an open fire. I was never disappointed. He set a standard impossible to ignore, in his fierceness and his music and his willingness to experiment with form. He rewards any effort given him, and gave us this motto:

He was also a remarkable gardener who honored the earth. But he would be worth remembering if he only gave us these words:

“The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.?

For more of his best: see The Layers; King of the River; Science of the Night, or his little book of essays, “Next-to-Last Things.”

guest article by Mike Robinson

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