Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how
That liquefaction of her clothes.
When the teacher asked the class to comment, nobody dared.
Then—as Kunitz recalls to hundreds of fans gathered beneath a tent at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, N.J.—he raised his hand. " 'That word liquefaction,'' I said to the teacher. 'It's wonderful in the poem.'
" 'Stanley,' he said, 'you are going to be a poet.' And I believed him." As well he should have. On Oct. 12, Kunitz was hailed at the Library of Congress as the nation's latest poet laureate, a signal honor all the more remarkable for the fact of his 95 years. "It was thrilling, and completely unexpected because of his age," says poet Gal-way Kinnell. "Stanley is not only a great poet but a presiding good spirit, beyond petty ambitions. He feels something for all different kinds of poetry being written today."
What does the poet laureate do? "Practically nothing—it's a largely honorary post," says exiting national bard Robert Pinsky. The job pays $35,000 a year and requires the designee to give a reading at the start of his one-year tenure and deliver an essay at the end. Kunitz says he does not expect to be as "kinetic" as Pinsky, a nimble 60. "But I won't be sedentary," he promises.
Kunitz, who divides his time between New York City and Province-town, Mass., believes poetry is enjoying a renaissance. "I see a new aliveness," he says, "with all the poetry slams, the cowboy poets, the feminist and gay poets, the experiments with rap. It's like the beginning of the 19th century, the Romantic movement, which started with street ballads."
A case in point is the Dodge Festival itself, which crawls with enthusiasts of every age and stripe: kids with cornrows and spiky green hair, card-carrying AARP types in Birkenstocks. Dressed in earth tones and blue boating sneakers, Kunitz—a small, fragile—looking man affectionately called Yoda by his former students—is the presiding genius. From a raised podium he tells the faithful that poetry, harking back to the beginning of the human adventure, "rises out of the swamps of the hindbrain." He tells them that he writes at night and will often brood for years over a poem before releasing it into the light of day. Then he reads a celebrated lyric titled "The Layers," written in his 80s, in which he speaks movingly about outliving many of the people he has loved ("the manic dust of my friends...bitterly stings my face") but of finding the strength to go on—of hearing a voice in the middle of his darkest night directing him to transform and transcend the pain, to live in the rich "layers" of his life, "not on the litter" of dead friends and broken dreams.
Kunitz's own life reads like a dream, a fable about the making of a poet. His mother, Yetta Jasspon, came to America in steerage from Lithuania in 1890. She was 24 and didn't know a word of English. "In a little memoir she later wrote for me," says Kunitz, "she said she went to "Worcester 'for my marriage,' which makes me think the marriage to my father was arranged." Yetta and Solomon Kunitz started a dress manufacturing business and had two children—Sarah and Sophia—before Stanley arrived on July 29, 1905. Six weeks before Kunitz's birth, his father committed suicide.
"My father was always a forbidden subject in our house," says Kunitz. "The story is he killed himself by drinking carbolic acid in a park"—a terrible, public death that must have been some kind of statement, the poet muses, perhaps about infidelity. In addition, his parents' business had failed. "I was born," he says, "into a bankrupt world."
In the declining mill town of Worcester there were seven hills, each featuring an ethnic group. The Kunitzes lived with other Jews on Providence Hill. Stanley played baseball and tennis, but like many artists grew up feeling different from other children. "If you had intelligence, you were supposed to become a doctor or lawyer," he says. "But language always fascinated me." He found refuge in books and writing—and in the natural world.
Once, around the age of 6 or 7, he brought home a kitten he found in the woods. It grew and grew and turned out to be a bobcat. "I used to ride on his back," Kunitz recalls with awe. "We didn't dare let him out." Years later, when Kunitz was at Harvard, his mother called with terrible news. "Bob had escaped," says Kunitz, "and stalked down to the center of town, where he encountered a shepherd dog. The police came and shot them both. That became part of my imaginary world."
Another part—much worse—was his father. The nightmares Kunitz had about this man he had never seen were so disturbing that he feared going to sleep. "I felt haunted by him," says Kunitz, "and I associated sleep with dying. I think it's why today I stay up all night writing." One day, in his early teens, Stanley found in an attic trunk a portrait of a man with deep brown eyes and a long mustache. When he showed it to his mother, she slapped him. "It was the only time my mother ever hit me," he says. "She never mentioned it afterward. Everything that happens to me goes into my poetry, but I couldn't write about this until I was 64."
Graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1926, Kunitz expected to be invited to stay on as a lecturer. But word came back, he says, that the Anglo-Saxon students would resent being taught English lit by a Jew. "I was devastated," he says. But the rejection turned out to be a stroke of luck. He was able to return to the country and farm. He worked for a time as a newspaper reporter, even as he wrote poetry, and in 1930 married poet Helen Pearce. With $500 down, he bought a 100-acre place in Storrs, Conn. "It had no heat, no electricity, no water," he says. "I spent three years making it habitable."
Kunitz's first book of poems, Intellectual Things, came out that same year. He brooded for 14 more years before publishing his next, Passport to the War (by which time he was divorced and married again to actress Eleanor Evans, with whom he has a daughter, Gretchen, 50, a physician in the San Francisco Bay area). If the first collection was filled with tragic verse written in a dense, academic style, the second was decidedly angry. People he loved (including both his sisters) had died too soon, and at 38 he had been dragged into World War II, branded a Red and detailed to cleaning latrines when he said he could not kill another human being. In the middle of the maelstrom he began to take on his father. "I think with the crisis of the war," he says, "I had to address the trauma of my childhood and resolve it."
The poems were raw, untethered ("Father!" I cried, "Return! You know/ the way. I'll wipe the mud-stains from your clothes"). And they became freer still and more accessible during the '50s, as Kunitz became friends with such abstract expressionist painters as Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. His third and current wife, Elise Asher, 88, herself a painter, remembers liking Stanley's poems before she ever met him. But, she says with a laugh, "I wasn't sure they were any good—because, unlike most modern poetry, I could understand them."
Through the '60s, '70s and '80s, Kunitz taught at places like Brandeis, the University of Washington and Columbia University. "I have a tribe," he says with evident pride about such former students and poets as the late James Wright, Louise Gluck and Marie Howe. Meanwhile, his own poetry has gotten only better. "I don't understand it," he says. "I look around at other elders and wonder, What was my secret?" He laughs at his longevity, saying, "I've had every affliction you can name." Then he ventures an explanation. "I'm curious. I'm active. I garden and I write and I drink martinis. And I love and I care for others. I have so many dear friends, well, I don't want to lose them. I want to see what they do next—and what I do next. I'm not done with my changes."