On Tuesday, December 5, 1995, I interviewed Stanley Kunitz in his spacious Greenwich Village apartment, crammed with books and plants and works of art. He had just returned from a reading in Cambridge, but had found time while on the train to write some answers to my questions and referred to these texts during the interview. In the spring of 1997 we had a follow-up discussion that led to a number of revisions and additions.
Stanley Kunitz was born in 1905 and has won many honors for his poetry, including the Pulitzer, Bollingen, and Lenore Marshall Prizes, and most recently the National Book Award for Passing Through — the Later Poems New and Selected. In 1993, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton at a White House ceremony.
Stanley, you have said to Bill Moyers that “poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world.” Can you elaborate, especially about what makes it such a life-enhancing activity?
The experience of love and the creative act are the supreme expressions of the life force. They do more than express it; they refresh and renew it and give it back, magnified.
What have you found the hardest thing about being a poet? You’re obviously saying that it’s extremely important and beneficial, but I’m sure there are hard things about it.
Being a poet is more or less easy, but writing poems is difficult.
Are you talking about the formal challenge, are you talking about finding just the right word?
Making it right, in sound and sense; making it whole and true.
Are you the person who determines that? Do you feel that you, finally, are the person who knows whether the poem works?
In the long run I do. I try very hard not to be self-deceived.
What is the most enjoyable thing about being a poet for you?
The knowledge that there is nothing else I would rather do or be.
Here we are, almost at the end of the twentieth-century with all these incredible technological changes, most significantly in the modes and process of communication. Is there any future for poetry in the new age?
The relevance of poetry is to the history of civilization, not to the progress of technology. Poets today can hope to do precisely what poets have always done, that is, tell the story of the human adventure, express what it feels like to be alive in this particular time, this particular place.
What does a poet need to know about craft, and are rhyme and meter still important enough to be part of a young poet’s training?
I am never satisfied that I know enough about craft. I am still learning. But I think that it’s important to stress that craft is not an end in itself, only a means. Only a means to gain control over language, to make it more sensitive to the modulations of one’s thoughts and feelings, to improve its precision so that one won’t have to tell lies.
You are someone who has written poetry of note both in traditional forms and in free verse. Do you think free verse can be taught, and is there anything coherent and plausible that one can say about writing free verse poetry?
In the first place, I don’t think free verse is free. It has rather indeterminate principles, but at the least it must connect and cohere and establish a defining rhythmic pulse. As to whether traditional form is still essential, all I can say, out of my own experience, is that my early discipline in metrics and rhyme has been invaluable to me, even though I no longer tend to write in strict metrical patterns and prefer subtler internal harmonies to the click of rhyme. Incidentally, there were no graduate writing programs in my youth. I learned my craft by studying the poets around and before me.
What do you think inspired you to be a poet, and as part of that, were there poets who made you want to write poetry?
When Henry James, toward the end of his life, reflected on his long creative voyage, he identified his point of embarkation as the port of his loneliness. That is true of most of the poets I know. “A poem is solitary and on its way,” said Paul Celan, the poet of the Holocaust. What sets it on its way is the search for a community.
Do you identify with any of your contemporaries in particular? Of course one thinks of Roethke and Lowell. Are there others?
I feel close to a whole tribe of poets, young and old, but in the act of writing a poem, I have always felt alone.
Do you have any favorite poems of your own? Which are they and why?
A new poem is always the one I feel closest to, if only for a while.
“The Wellfleet Whale” is different from most of your other poems. Was your writing process in that poem different from your usual procedure?
“The Wellfleet Whale” had a long gestation period. I knew from the beginning, in September 1966, when the whale foundered in Wellfleet Harbor, that it was a significant experience, and I experimented through the years with various ways of conveying what I saw and experienced. All of them were failures. During that interval, I had an opportunity on Cape Cod to study other beached whales, went out on sightseeing watches, and read whatever seemed to me even remotely pertinent, until I began to feel I was part of the civilization of the whale. Fifteen years after the event, I was able to pull it all together and write the poem.
You succeeded in converting all that information into a significant action. Can you comment on your guiding principle of organization?
In the end, I turned to Greek drama — specifically Sophoclean tragedy — to help me solve the problem of the poem’s architecture. Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena clarified for me the main structural elements in the development of the action, from agon to recognition scene. It’s a poem that wants to be read aloud, preferably in the open air. I guess I’m really thinking of an ancient amphitheater.
You have translated Russian poets. How did you come to the Russian poets?
I came rather naturally to them. After all, my parents were raised in Eastern Europe. My mother’s forebears, who were fugitives from Spain, wandered through central Europe until they settled in Lithuania at the time of the Inquisition. Despite this heritage, I never heard Russian or any foreign language spoken in our household during my childhood. My connection with the Russian poets dates from the early sixties, when Patricia Blake, then a correspondent for Time, and the Oxford scholar Max Hayward, the outstanding Slavist of that period, persuaded a number of friends and acquaintances to undertake translations of Andrei Voznesensky’s poems for an edition in English of his Antiworlds. This was the book that made Andrei famous in the Soviet Union and eventually everywhere else. There were six of us in that list of translators, and none of us, including Auden and Wilbur, knew a word of Russian, but we felt confident that we could rely on Max’s literal versions and, if needed, his interpretation of the text. I felt the same way a few years later, when Max and I collaborated on the poems of Akhmatova, an exceptionally important book for me.
Did the intimate contact with Akhmatova’s poems affect your own work?
I hope I learned something from Akhmatova about the management of an open style and the possibility of breaking down the barrier between the public and private poem. Perhaps I learned something more from the passion and humanity of her voice.
You recently won the National Book Award for poetry with the publication of Passing Through, the poems of your later years, including your newest work. Thirty-six years before, in 1959, you received the Pulitzer Prize. Did that earlier recognition have a significant impact on you and your career as a poet?
One doesn’t write poetry for prizes, but I have to admit that the Pulitzer Prize actually changed the course of my life. It gave me self-confidence at a time when I needed it sorely. The manuscript for my Selected Poems: 1928-1958 had been rejected by more publishers than I could bear to count before Atlantic accepted it. I had been through a bad period and I was tired of being called a “poet’s poet.” That sudden turn of the wheel did wonders for my morale.
Do you have any themes, concerns, subjects that matter a great deal to you and enter frequently into your work?
Actually, I never think about themes when I am writing my poems. In the usual course of events, my poems spring from the occasions of the day, something perceived as beautiful or terrible or true. When that perception attaches itself to language and rhythm, I know I am on my way, but not with any foreknowledge of my destination. Whenever I yield to the temptation to explicate one of my poems, I am astonished at all the secrets I find buried in the text. Poets are characterized less by their subject matter than by their tone of voice, their ground of feeling. When I was still at school, I picked up a volume of Keats’s letters and discovered the passage in which he spoke of “the holiness of the heart’s affections.” More than seventy years later, those words still light the way for me.
As I look around your apartment, I see many striking works of art, including several by your wife, Elise Asher. You have written about some of your artist friends. Would you comment on that relationship?
Like so many other poets, past and present, I have a feeling of kinship with painters and their art. During my youth in Worcester, my favorite haunts were the woods, the public library, and the local art museum, and it seemed almost inevitable that I should eventually marry into the world of painters. When that happened in the fifties in New York, I inherited Elise’s friends and soon felt very much a part of the emerging generation of Abstract Expressionist painters just as they were preparing to step into the limelight. They were wonderful company — lively, articulate, ambitious, hard-working, hard-drinking, gregarious, outrageous, and ready at any hour to argue about anything. Eventually, of course, success and fame and hypertension took their toll. I’m thinking, in particular, of Rothko, de Kooning, Guston, and Kline — all of them gone now. But in the early years, they seemed to embody Blake’s dictum that “energy is eternal delight,” and their élan struck me as irresistible and contagious. Painters, I think, have a special gift for friendship.
Have you done any artwork yourself?
I am never happier than when I am working with my hands. In Provincetown, where we spend a good portion of the year, my toolroom and garden compete for attention with my study. If there’s any odd job that needs to be done around the house, I treat it as a challenge. There was a period when I produced a number of collages and assemblages and wire sculptures, but that was when I could make a bit of free time available. These days I seem to be busier than ever.
Dante is a presence in your work. In “The Illumination,” you address his apparition as “my Master and my guide.” What is the source of your connection?
My conversation, so to speak, with Dante began very early. Thanks to my immigrant parents, our house in Worcester was the only one in the neighborhood, as far as I knew, that could boast of an extensive library. It was there that I first encountered the plays of Shakespeare, each in a separate volume, bound in red cloth, with a critical preface and an appendix of historical sources. Other well-thumbed books that I recall were complete sets of Tolstoy, Dickens, and Thackeray; the poems of Browning, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Whittier; a multi-volume set of classic histories, including Plutarch, Gibbon, Grote, and Prescott; the Century Dictionary, unabridged; Spinoza and Maimonides; and the Holy Bible, leather-bound, both Old and New Testaments, with red-ink passages and marginal glosses. But the book that enthralled me most in that library was a folio edition of Dante in Cary’s translation, with the Gustave Doré illustrations. Those visual images of Hell took possession of my imagination. I used to sit in that library with this enormous folio on my lap (I was twelve years old or so), terrified by that vision of the underworld. I had nightmares. So Dante was with me at a most impressionable stage. Later, at Harvard, I studied The Divine Comedy with C. H. Grandgent, the famous Dante scholar.
The poet Gregory Orr, who has written a book about you, says the suicide of your father shortly before you were born is the central fact of your imaginative life, “that from which all else flows.” Do you agree?
Certainly the most traumatic event through my formative years.
The poem “The Knot,” which I find mysterious, does that have symbolic associations for you, and how did you come to write it?
The poem’s origin is quite simple, nothing mysterious about it. Over a period of years, in our place on the Cape, I couldn’t help but notice a great swirling knot that kept bleeding through several layers of paint on the lintel of our bedroom door. And the more I studied it, the more I marveled at its persistence, as though it still had a buried life, a will to grow, to become branching pine again “out of the trauma of its lopping-off.” As I lay in bed, only half-awake, it did not seem far-fetched to imagine flying into its boughs.
Another deep, difficult poem, “The King of the River.” What kind of disintegration takes place within the narrator? “You would dare to be changed, / as you are changing now, / into the shape you dread / beyond the merely human.” Are you writing of madness there, or are you writing of some other kind of transforming experience?
“King of the River” deals primarily with the aging process. The Pacific Northwest salmon gets done with it in only a few weeks. For humans, death is the most definitive of a long series of gradual transformations. That thought adds to the complication of feelings when I say in a later poem, “The Layers”: “I am not done with my changes.”
Is “An Old Cracked Tune” in some way suggestive of Jewish alienation and suffering for you?
The very first line, “My name is Solomon Levi,” is borrowed from an ugly, anti-Semitic street song recollected from my college days. Coincidentally, Solomon was my father’s first name. According to what I have learned, he was a Levite, and so am I by inheritance descended from a tribe with a priestly function. Obviously, “An Old Cracked Tune” has some connection with my heritage. As for alienation and suffering, I believe that the people of the Diaspora carry the memory of exile in their blood. But don’t forget that the singer of this poem closes it with a dance.
You were obviously raised to be conscious of Judaism as a religion.
I was raised in a Jewish community in Worcester. In our household the emphasis was never on religious practice, but on the ethical tradition. And so it still remains for me.
A tough question: Do you consider yourself a Jewish poet?
My sense is that the noun “poet” does not require a qualifying adjective, either Jewish or American or modern.
Didn’t the Nazi death camps of World War II have a powerful effect on you?
Of course! Even Dante’s vision of Hell hadn’t prepared me for that monstrous reality.
It doesn’t seem to enter into your poetry directly.
It’s there, nevertheless, deep in the substratum of my poems. The one poem that seems to me great and terrible enough to evoke the smell of evil, the delirium, of the death camps is Celan’s “Todesfugue.” Only a survivor of the camps could have written it, one whose borrowed life ended in suicide. My most explicit approach to the genocidal horror of the Hitler years is my poem in honor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that true Christian, whose failed plot against the Führer led to his death by hanging — yes, in an extermination camp. I call it, “Around Pastor Bonhoeffer.”
How would you characterize your faith? Is it an artistic faith, is it a religious faith?
I am a non-believer, but with strong religious impulses and yearnings.
Has the Bible influenced your poetry?
The Bible—Jewish and Christian, as I’ve already indicated—was one of the first books that I studied, page after page.
Here’s a big question. How does one face death and can poetry help?
One lives and dies simultaneously. It happens bit by bit, every day. I have tried to report that dialogue. In my childhood I dreaded going to sleep, because I was terrified at the thought of losing consciousness. I am less fearful of death in my nineties than I was in my teens, for the natural cycle has its own reasons, even its own dark beauty. I consider myself lucky to have been given this life.
America doesn’t seem to listen to its poets. If America listened to its poets, what could it learn?
Our American culture has no poetry written into its origin. We inherited our poetry — mostly hymns and heroic couplets — from England, and we’ve tended, since the onset of the Industrial Age, to regard the medium itself as superfluous or frivolous, if not dangerous. Whitman clearly perceived that our myth, our great national myth, has to do with power, success, money; and he attempted to supersede it with a myth of Democracy and of himself as Democratic Man. And the truth is that he died unhappy, believing that he had failed, that his country had rejected him. We still need to understand that a nation that alienates itself from the creative imagination has already begun to wither.
You seem to agree with your mentor William Blake that the genius of the poetic imagination is the most important gift. What do you hope to still accomplish?
Oh, how do I know? I want to record whatever I feel most deeply. And I have plenty of unfinished business.
What is the most amazing thing about life?
Life itself is the most amazing thing in the universe!
What is the most amazing thing about your life?
Maybe it’s that here I am, at this age, still loving this life as I did from the very beginning, and wanting more.
And finally, while many of your poems have an elegiac tone, you have survived and lived a long, rich life. Have you found light within the darkness?
Love and poetry are lights enough.