Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Stanley Kunitz, ready to add centenarian to his list of honors

It's exciting and life-affirming to see that the great American poet Stanley Kunitz is still alive and sharing his art and childhood memories with the world. His 100th birthday is this Friday, as I'm reminded by this NYT Op-Art sketch. When I was younger, I got the opportunity to speak with him for a summer assignment after one of his many accolades. I remember sitting on a bed in my family's rented beach house and nervously dialing the phone number to his summer home in Provincetown on one of those older landline models. To my amazement, the man himself picked up after a few rings.
I'd half expected a friend or colleague or assistant or even his wife -- the artist Elise Asher, who was still alive at the time, but died last year -- to pick up instead. Then I realized that the life of the poet -- even a "famous" poet like him -- is rarely one filled with entourages. And that's especially so, it seems, with Kunitz, who told me how he loves to tend his garden and told his latest interviewer how he loved to explore the "old Indian woods" where he grew up. Speaking later to one of his poetry students, I learned of a line that still sticks with me: "'A poem needs to rise at the end,' [Kunitz] told me once, in conference."
For a taste of Kunitz's poetry, I recommend Halley's Comet, which I think of as a still living window to 1910.

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