Profiling poet Stanley Kunitz
BILL MOYERS: He lived through most of the twentieth century. Born in 1905, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, he has devoted his life to poetry and poets. Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Founder of Poet's House in New York City, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in his 50s and the National Book Award at 90, he is now writing his way into the new millennium. I'm Bill Moyers. Join me for the Sounds of Poetry with the Poet's Poet, Stanley Kunitz.
Funding for this program is provided by the Herb Alpert Foundation and by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Corporate Funding is provided by Mutual of America, building America's future through pension and retirement plans, encouraging dialogue and discussion, the spirit of America, Mutual of America.
[Montage of poets voices]
STANLEY KUNITZ: This is a poem I wrote on the occasion of man's first landing on the moon, the flight of Apollo, July 20th, 1969. I wrote it in the days right before the landing. And I imagined what it would be like to be an astronaut performing that mission. And the strange thing is that after I saw it on T.V. it seemed to me that I had no reason to change any of the materials of this poem, any of the images. I had anticipated what it would feel like, and I felt that I had been there.
"The Flight of Apollo"
Earth was my home, but even there I was a stranger
This mineral crust. I walk like a swimmer.
What titanic bombardments in those old astral wars!
I know what I know: I shall never escape from strangeness
or complete my journey.
Think of me as nostalgic, afraid, exalted. I am your man on
the moon, a speck of megalomania, restless for the leap
toward island universes pulsing beyond where the
constellations set. Infinite space overwhelms the human
heart, but in the middle of nowhere life inexorably calls to
life. Forward my mail to Mars.
What news from the Great Spiral Nebula in Andromeda
and the Magellanic Clouds?
I was a stranger on earth.
Stepping on the moon, I begin
the gay pilgrimage to new
in foreign galaxies.
Heat. Cold. Craters of silence.
The sea of Tranquility
rolling on the shores of entropy.
the intelligence of the stars.
BILL MOYERS: You have lived through the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Cold War — I mean, you've been there all along this century.
STANLEY KUNITZ: It seems too long and so much. So much history. One has a sense of having — and that's my feeling about the poet — what his purpose on Earth is, what motivates him is that he is a stranger journeying through the land. History is all about him. Events are happening, the world is changing. And the poet is there to be a witness of what is going on. To speak out of his heart and out of his conscience.
The dark events in Washington these days and the dark news emanating from the capital made me think of the dark — even darker days of the Watergate hearings, and the ultimate resignation of President Nixon. There's an epigraph to this poem, I'll read it to you. A Lincoln exhibit on view in the great hall makes the sixteenth president of the United States, born 167 years ago, seem very real. Displayed are the contents of his pockets the night he was assassinated, a miniature portrait never before exhibited, and two great documents from the library's collections: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. This is from the Library of Congress information bulletin, February 1976.
"The Lincoln Relics"
In the Great Hall of the Library,
as in a glass aquarium,
Abe Lincoln is swimming around,
dressed to the nines
in his stove pipe hat
and swallowtail coat,
propelled by sudden little kicks
of his gunboat shoes.
His billowing pockets hang
inside out, he is swimming
around, lighter at each turn,
giddy with loss,
while his memory sifts
to the sticky floor.
He is slipping away from us
into his legend and his fame,
having relinquished, piece by piece,
what he carried next to his skin,
what brought to his angular stride,
partook of his man-smell, shared the intimacy of his needs.
in this Imperial City,
awash in gossip and power,
where marble eats marble
and your office has been defiled,
I saw the piranhas darting
between the rose-veined columns,
avid to strip the flesh
from the Republic's bones.
Has no one told you
how the slow blood leaks
from your secret wound?
To be old and to be young
again, inglorious private
in the kitchens of the war
that winter of blackout,
walking by the Potomac
in melancholy khaki,
searching for the prairie star,
westward scanning the horizon
for its eloquent and magnanimous light,
yearning to be a touched by its fire:
to be touched again, with the years
swirling at my feet, faces
blowing in the wind
around me, where I stand, withered, in the Great Hall.
I was deeply involved in the sense of disaster that — of damage to the State that prevailed in Washington during the Watergate hearings — during that whole episode. And I was moved by the Lincoln relics exhibit, which gave us a sense of a president who had been so eloquent, so magnanimous, so giving to the American people.
The word I spoke in anger
weighs less than a parsley seed,
but a road runs through it
that leads to my grave,
that bought-and-paid-for lot
on a salt-sprayed hill in Truro
where the scrub pines
overlook the bay.
Half-way, I'm dead enough,
strayed from my own nature
and my fierce hold on life.
If I could cry, I'd cry,
but I'm too old to be
with whom should I quarrel
except in the hiss of love,
that harsh, irregular flame?
BILL MOYERS: I wonder what are the images that have been key to your work, to your poetry, to your self?
STANLEY KUNITZ: These are pivotal to call them — pivotal images because they constitute a cluster, they belong to each other, they hang together within one — and they are the secret of the life. They are the self. The image of the self is created out of that cluster, of often traumatic images, the worst things that ever happened to you, the things that one couldn't drive out of memory, the things that kept you from sleeping, the images of the beautiful things in your life, the natural world, love, those great friendships, the great poems you love, the music you love to hear. All these are part of that constellation, and it is this that feeds one. It is this that keeps one fighting for existence itself, because one can't bear to leave them. I say in one of my poems that ends with these lines, "he loved the Earth so much he wanted to stay forever."
BILL MOYERS: Do you?
STANLEY KUNITZ: Yes.
"Vita Nuova." It is the poem in which I dedicate myself to a life in poetry.
I abdicate my daily self that bled,
As others breathe, for porridge it might sup.
Henceforth apocalypse will get my bread
For me. I bit my tongue and gnawed my lip,
But now the visor of my name is up.
Now I will peel that vision from my brain
Of numbers wrangling in a common place
And I will go unburdened on the quiet lane
Of my eternal kind, till shadowless
With inner light I wear my father's face.
Moon of the soul, accompany me now.
Shine on the colosseums of my sense,
Be in the tabernacles of my brow.
My dark will make reflecting from your stones,
The single beam of all my life intense.
This is a poem that celebrates among other things my garden on Cape Cod. It's called "The Round."
Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.
So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
STANLEY KUNITZ: The remarkable thing that I feel is that despite the aging of the body — despite those aches and pains and all the rest, what happens to one in — at this stage of a life — the spirit remains young. It's the same spirit I remember living with during my childhood.
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave mustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
"Passing through." This is the poem I wrote for my wife Elise on my 79th birthday.
Nobody in the widow's household
ever celebrated anniversaries.
In the secrecy of my room
I would not admit I cared
that my friends were giving parties
Before I left town for school,
my birthday went up in smoke
in a fire at City Hall that gutted
the Department of Vital Statistics.
If it weren't for a census report
of a five-year-old White Male
sharing my mother's address
at the Green Street Tenement in Worcester
I'd have no documentary proof
that I exist. You are the first,
my dear, to bully me
into these festive occasions.
Sometimes, you say, I wear
an abstracted look that drives you
up the wall, as though it signified
distress or disaffection.
Don't take it so to heart.
Maybe I enjoy not-being as much
as being who I am. Maybe
it's time for me to practice
growing old. The way I look
at it, I'm passing through a phase:
gradually I'm changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours;
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.
BILL MOYERS: In one of your poems you write "And I'm not who I was, though some principle of being abides from which I struggle not to stray." Well, what is that principle of being — that essential Kunitz that still abides?
STANLEY KUNITZ: I go back to a phrase in one of Keats' letters. Friends — he said — he wrote — am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination. What else is there to add?
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.