STANLEY KUNITZ, Poet: [reading] My name is Solomon Levi,
the desert is my home,
my mother's breast was thorny,
and Father I had none.

The sands whispered, Be separate,
the stones taught me, Be hard.
I dance, for the joy of surviving,
on the edge of the road.

That's called "An Old Cracked Tune," and you'll notice that he's very specific about where he does his dancing. It's on the edge of the road, not in the middle. I leave that for you to figure out.

BILL MOYERS [voice-over]: Stanley Kunitz is one of America's leading poets. For him, poetry is the telling of the stories of the soul. He's 84 years old, and has never forsaken the child he was. Eighty-four, and Stanley Kunitz still dances on the edge of the road.

New York City. Stanley Kunitz talks about writing poetry to high school students at the 92nd Street Y.

1st STUDENT: Was there any time in your writing career in which you were just frustrated and you couldn't write on, I mean, you wanted to give up? Was there anything that made you stop'?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Oh, it always happens.

1st STUDENT: I mean, how did you deal with it?

STANLEY KUNITZ: It happened yesterday. It happened last week. One dreams of perfection. One has a feeling that after all those years you've been writing all those poems, the next one is going to be easy. And let me tell you, it's harder than it ever was. The more you know about poetry, the harder it becomes to write it. And that's because you demand more of yourself.

2nd STUDENT: Are you ever satisfied?

STANLEY KUNITZ: The only moment of satisfaction is the moment when I finish on the typewriter and I pull out that page, and I read it, and it's four o'clock in the morning and I say, "How wonderful this is." And) go to bed happy. Then I read it in the morning, and I want to tear it up, and I stand over again. That's the story, the perpetual discontent of the artist. This is written into the laws of being one. You must never be too easily satisfied.

STANLEY KUNITZ: I think poetry is the most difficult, most solitary and most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world.

BILL MOYERS: What makes it such a struggle?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Words get tired. We use them. We abuse them. It's a utilitarian tool, to begin with, and we have to recreate it, to make it magical. This is not easy.

BILL MOYERS: You have to kill a lot of cliches, don't you?

STANLEY KUNITZ: You have to kill off all the top of one's head, remove it, and try to plunge deep into self, deep into memories, deep into the unconscious life. And then begin again, let the-out of that depth of self, bathe those words in this pristine water, so they come up fresh and sparkling.

BILL MOYERS: But it's not like diving off the board at a swimming pool. How do you plunge into that abyss of memory?

STANLEY KUNITZ: It isn't a formula. It's--but it is an act of meditation.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what are you meditating?

STANLEY KUNITZ: You don't choose the subject of meditation. It chooses you. You have to move into areas of the self that remain to be explored. Poetry wants to come out of your wilderness.

BILL MOYERS: Wilderness?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yes. It's born out of the chaos of the self, out of the part you don't know, your darkest Africa. That's what you have to keep exploring, so that something that you remember that had little meaning for you suddenly attaches to, let's say, an episode in your childhood. Something you'd forgotten. You tie those two together, and then you have the nexus of a poem.


My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
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
still burning.

BILL MOYERS: Your father committed suicide while you were in her womb.

STANLEY KUNITZ: When I was--well, he committed suicide approximately six weeks before I was born. The poem that I call "The Portrait" is a memory of when I would be about ten years old. And up in the attic was this trunk. In that trunk were the relics of my father. In my explorations of the attic, that's where I found the portrait of him. that when I brought down, my mother tore up. She slapped me, out of rage at him, and she wanted to expunge his memory. This was the last, incidentally, I've never seen a portrait of him, aside from that one. There is no other in existence. She destroyed every one.

BILL MOYERS: Did she ever talk about it?


BILL MOYERS: Did you ever ask about him?

STANLEY KUNITZ: She never would open her mouth about him. I tried.

BILL MOYERS:nut for a long time you wouldn't write about him.

STANLEY KUNITZ: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: Why is that?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Well, I had some of that same feeling. This was material too horrible. too grisly, for me to do anything with. It took me several years to cope with the image, and confront it and move on.

BILL MOYERS: Well, take this poem, which is one of my favorites of yours, "Three Floors," you remember that?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Oh, yes, mm-hmm. Yes. Mm-hmm. Oh, that's full of memories out of childhood, yes. "Three Floors."

Mother was a crack of light
and a gray eye peeping;
I made believe by breathing hard
that I was sleeping.

Sister's doughboy on last leave
had robbed me of her hand;
downstairs at intervals she played
Warum on the baby grand.

Under the roof a wardrobe trunk
whose lock a boy could pick
contained a red Masonic hat
and a walking stick.

Bolt upright in my bed that night
I saw my father flying
the wind was walking on my neck
the windowpanes we're crying.

BILL MOYERS: So certain images from childhood keep flashing out of the depths, keep claiming your attention.

STANLEY KUNITZ: There is a constellation of images that are uniquely yours, and there's a constant interplay between those key images that are at the center of your very being.

BILL MOYERS: Like a neutron that's constantly moving.

STANLEY KUNITZ: If you never discover them, the chances are that you may write entertaining, lovely but essentially superficial poems, in relation to the deepest pan of yourself, which remains to be explored.

BILL MOYERS: So some of these images that come from the depth are unremembered memories from childhood.

STANLEY KUNITZ: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: But aren't some--

STANLEY KUNITZ: See, what triggers them is something that has just occurred to you, that fastens onto that antique image. And of course, the deeper you move into your unconscious life, the wilder these ingredients are.

BILL MOYERS: Why is that?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Because they haven't been invaded by reason.

BILL MOYERS: And pragmatism.

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yeah. The ego hasn't got hold of them yet. Now, for the first time, they are confronted -it's this managerial self that says, "I want to possess you," and-"

BILL MOYERS: And "I want to govern you,"

STANLEY KUNITZ: -yeah, and these memories say, "No, we possess you. We are the-we are stronger than you are. "

BILL MOYERS: Do dreams play a roll! in the creating of poetry'!

STANLEY KUNITZ: Very much so in my case, particularly with my feeling about those images that belong in the unconscious. Dreams often deliver the images to me that become, then, the germ of the poem.

STANLEY KUNITZ: This poem came out of a dream in which I saw my mother and father on the country road. It's called "Quinnapoxet."

I was fishing in the abandoned reservoir
back in Quinnapoxet
where the snapping turtles cruised
and the bullheads swayed
in their bower of tree-stumps
sleek as eels and pigeon-fat.
One of them gashed my thumb
with a flick of his razor fin
when I yanked the barb
out of his gullet.
The sun hung its terrible coals
over Bureau's farm: I saw
the treetops seething.

They came suddenly into view
on the Indian road.
evenly stepping
past the apple orchard.
commingling with the dust they raised. their cloud of being.
against the dripping light
looming larger and bolder.
She was wearing a mourning bonnet
and a wrap of shining taffeta.
"Why don't you write?" she cried,
from the folds of her veil.
"We never hear from you." I had nothing to say to her,
but for him, who walked behind her,
in his dark worsted suit
with ,his face averted
as if to hide a scald deep in his other life,
I touched my forehead
with my swollen thumb
and splayed my fingers out-
in deaf-mute country,
the sign for father.

STANLEY KUNITZ: Everything in there came to me in a dream.

BILL MOYERS: In a dream?


BILL MOYERS: And the poem is-

STANLEY KUNITZ: Not the words, but all the images.

BILL MOYERS: -''they came suddenly into view on the Indian road, evenly stepping past the apple orchard, commingling"-

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yeah, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, that's what I saw. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: You saw these two people.


BILL MOYERS: 'She was wearing a mourning bonnet and a wrap of shining taffeta."


BILL MOYERS: "Why don't you write?" she cried from the folds of her veil." To you? She said that to you?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yes. She says that to me.

BILL MOYERS: "We never hear from you," she said. "I had nothing to say to her, but for him who walked" -and I think this is your father -"but for him who walked behind her"-

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yes, that's my father. That's my father, yes. MOVERS: -that's your father-"in his dark worsted suit."


BILL MOYERS: Burial suit?

STANLEY KUNITZ: That's the image, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: "In his dark worsted suit with his face averted, as if to hide a scald deep in his other life. "


BILL MOYERS: "I touched my forehead with my swollen thumb, and splayed my fingers out"-

STANLEY KUNITZ:Yeah, this is a gesture, yeah

BILL MOYERS: -"in deaf-mute country: the sign for father."


BILL MOYERS: A salute to father.


BILL MOYERS: A reconciliation with father?

STANLEY KUNITZ: -yeah, it's an act of recognition, yes, but no longer fearful. It's a gesture of-as if to say, we belong to each other.

BILL MOYERS: And you dreamed this?

STANLEY KUNITZ: I dreamed that whole dream, from beginning to end.

BILL MOYERS: Did you know that this-

STANLEY KUNITZ: I didn't know that, no.

BILL MOYERS: -how did you find that out?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Well, I began investigating. to see what it was I dreamed. And in a book of signs I found that sign, after I had dreamed it.

BILL MOYERS: And it means?

STANLEY KUNITZ: It's the most reverential of all the deaf-mute signs for father.

BILL MOYERS: The sign in the deaf-mute language of ultimate respect to your father.


BILL MOYERS: And you didn't know that, did you?

STANLEY KUNITZ: I didn't know that, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: So how do you interpret this dream of your father from which came this poem of recognition and, I would suggest, reconciliation?

STANLEY KUNITZ: It's a reconciliation, yes, it's a reconciliation. It's an embrace of a sort.

BILL MOYERS: You think there is special wisdom in dreams?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yes, because I think that you are gelling messages from your deepest self, and those messages are for you to interpret. They're telling you something that you need to know.

BILL MOYERS: The body is telling you.

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yes, yeah. But that's where the wisdom of poetry lies, is in the body.

BILL MOYERS: In what sense?

STANLEY KUNITZ: It's not an intellectual act. It is a wisdom that Comes out of experience itself, and out of the images of the life that are embedded in you.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me how to listen to my body.

STANLEY KUNITZ: You can', listen to your body from outside the body. You have to immerse yourself in the body. You have to become part of the whole innerness of yourself, rather than viewing it from outside. When you are down in that well. When you are at the very beginnings of yourself, in touch with those images that are really in control of your psyche, at that moment one has the perception of one's own self flowing, flowing, distilling itself. Re-distilling. Being reborn. All that action, that act of renewal which is like the way the cells themselves-you know, every seven years you have a completely new set of cells in your body. You are being renewed all the time, but you can't tell it from a vertical position. You have to be part of the process.

BILL MOYERS: You have to swim in those depths.

STANLEY KUNITZ: And you have to be part of your cellular universe. That's why poetry has this peculiar effect on people who really take it in, who are really immersed in it. It's that sensation that Emily Dickinson described. about the top of your head coming off, and that Housman referred to, when he said he felt his hairs bristle.

STANLEY KUNITZ: "The Round," so titled because of the configuration of this poem. It has its source in my garden, in Provincetown.

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. 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 , have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so , am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stink pile
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and, start to read aloud
the still-wet words' scribbled
on the blotted page:
"Light splashed ... "

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow,
when a new light begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

BILL MOYERS: {voice-over] Kunitz spends his summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the farthest reach of Cape Cod. There he writes his poems and tends his garden.

STANLEY KUNITZ: This garden was nothing but a barren hill, a dune, without even a blade of grass growing on it. I brought in seaweed and all sorts of materials to enrich the soil, and gradually the soil became very fertile, and almost anything will grow in it now. It's been really like creating a poem, a long poem. It is always in need of revision, and each year it's-I make little changes in it, something is wrong and then you-you have to be ruthless to be a gardener. You have to get rid of your failures and try something new, make a new arrangement, a new composition, a newer disposition of colors. That's the same way, really, in any work of art. No mailer how clearly you have in your mind the shape of your poem, for example, the actual writing is a mysterious process, and there's so much inflow from your unconscious, which is like nature in the garden, that the end product never quite matches the original design. The garden is also there to be seen by others. A wonderful thing about a garden is there's almost nobody who doesn't respond to its beauty, or understand it. And I can share it with friends who stop at the gate, and ooh and ah. And I must say, I get a great deal of pleasure from that, as long as they don't talk to me too long. It's a never-ending task, but it's wonderfully gratifying, and I think it's what keeps me young, is working at it, and that sense of renewal that comes every year as the garden is reborn. So am I, at the same time, as I work in it. Poetry, to begin with, is a solitary activity. There's a sense of being very much alone, and needing some response from the world to justify the travail of the life devoted to poetry. We are simply not a poetry-loving culture, and poetry is not inherent in the myths of American success and power. So the poet does feel, to a large degree, somehow neglected, not really wanted. The poet, I think, yearns for a sense of community.

BILL MOYERS: /voice-over} Twenty years ago, Kunitz was one of the founders of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, organized to nurture and support the emerging artists and writers. Today, on his 84th birthday, they honor him by dedicating a building in his name, the Stanley Kunitz Common Room.

STANLEY KUNITZ: /Provincetown} Standing here in this room, this common room, I don't feel at all uncommon. I rather enjoy the symbolism of having my name attached to a place called common. The truth is, when they stand naming buildings for you, you'd better watch out. It makes you suspicious that they don't expect you to be around much longer.

This poem is called "End of Summer."

An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.

I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.

Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.

Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their populations forth,
And the cruel wind blows.

STANLEY KUNITZ: That's a poem I wrote in the late '30s. I was living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania then, and I was out in the field. And I was hoeing, I was putting some old corn under, and you know, getting the field cleaned up. And suddenly I heard a clamor in the skies, a commotion, and when I looked up, there was a flock of wild geese coming down from the north. And they were honking, and there were wave after wave of them, and I stood in that field for a moment and suddenly, I felt that they had told me something. That whole story of migration, that whole story of the changing of the seasons, and all the myths that accompany those stories.

Maybe it was a signal for me. And at that moment, I made one of the most important decisions of my life, just in that instant, and I went into the house, I dropped my hoe, I went up into my study and I started to write this poem. It began as a poem about wild geese, but eventually the geese flew out of the poem.

BILL MOYERS: They disappeared.

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yeah, they disappeared. But I still think their wings are beating there. That's the rhythm of the poem, you see, for me. And what they told me is in that poem.

BILL MOYERS: And what was it?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Essentially it was a decision about migration, see, that's the point, that I had to move on. Had to change my life.

BILL MOYERS: And that's what the geese told you?

STANLEY KUNITZ:That's-yes. Mm-hmm.

BILL MOYERS: You begin with geese and end up with thoughts of mortality.

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yes. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

BILL MOYERS: How did geese lead you to mortality? To the meditation of mortality?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Well, that's their language. The association with migration, the sense of that bird flight across the firmament there, and their strange calling, their honking, the mystery of where are they going. Well, where was I going? That was what I was asking myself.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you change the opening? Do you remember the first one?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Oh, yes. The original version of the poem, the first lines were "The agitation of the air, the perturbation of the light, admonished me the unloved year would turn on its hinge that night." I made a simple change, but it makes all the difference, with reference to the music. Instead of that cluttering of the lines with the "the" sound, the definite panicle, I changed it to "a"; a perturbation of the light, an agitation of the air, a perturbation of the light, admonished me the unloved year would turn on its hinge that night." Those lines are fluid, like the flight of the birds, whereas that little change from the "the" to the "a" sound makes all the difference in the music of those lines.

BILL MOYERS: Now, how did that come to you? Did you speak the lines?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yeah. I always speak the lines. I don't really write my poems, I say my poems. If they sound right to my ear, then I'm ready to go on. But if they don't sound right, then I know something's wrong. That's the infallible test, is the ear, not the mind.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you use the word perturbation instead of a more commonplace word like commotion or disturbance or flurry?

STANLEY KUNITZ: That's a hard question. But it's the rhythm of it, and the repetition of the sounds in it. Per-tur-ba-tion, per-tur-you know, it's like flapping wings...A perturbation of the light." See, that's more like wings than if I said "a flurry of wings," which has a much heavier sound. But I want something light and buoyant.

BILL MOYERS: You're not a poet, you're a composer, of music, of rhapsody.

STANLEY KUNITZ: It isn't a reasoned choice of words. It has to do with your physical response. When you say your poem, you respond to it physically, just as you wrote it physically. And your ear is as good an indication as you can have. It's the best test as you can have as to the validity of what you've written.

BILL MOYERS: You make me think of something else in this regard. You said that you heard the geese and you looked up, and you responded instantly with a decision. Now, that couldn't have been an intellectual decision. It had to he a physical decision. Your body said something to you, which was triggered by-

STANLEY KUNITZ: Mm-hmm. Of course, in ancient times, don't forget, the geese were used for divination. The bird-the flights of geese was one of the principles of divination, actually.

BILL MOYERS: So this was a divine messenger.

STANLEY KUNITZ: It was a divine message. I choose so to think.

BILL MOYERS: Do you sometimes think you're carrying on a conversation with ancestors you never knew?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Poetry is always trying not only to get in touch with your most primal self, but with the whole history of the race. And through all the chain of genes, through all the myths that survive, and that we have to keep rediscovering, and reapplying to ourselves, to our contemporary condition, that's part of that communication that you're speaking about. And poetry is a means of feeling that solitary as you are, in the act of writing the poem you are in touch with the whole chain of being.

BILL MOYERS: You use the word myths. Myths are stories of the soul, so poetry is a literature of the spirit, is it not?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Essentially, and at its best, yes. That's what it is. It is telling stories about the state of the soul. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? That's exactly what the poet is always asking, and the poems that he writes are an effort to respond.

STANLEY KUNITZ: "The Long Boat."

When his boat snapped loose
from its moorings, under
the squeaking of the gulfs,
he tried at first to wave to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his nametag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! peace! To be rocked by the infinite!
As if it didn't matter
which way was home;
as if he didn't know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

STANLEY KUNITZ: The great stories have been with us from the beginning of the human race, and every tribe, every civilization has fabricated its own stories. One requires those myths in order to cope with the terrible assaults of existence. They are the-they help us to have the strength to feel that we can endure. And that the race will endure. And every new telling of the great myths of birth and death, in the end, give us clues to understanding ourselves, and fortify us. And they enter into the tradition through a new telling.

BILL MOYERS: A new poem.


BILL MOYERS: A new story.

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yeah. Heraclitus says "mortals and immortals living in each otherís death, dying in each other's life," yeah, that's it.

BILL MOYERS: And these in some way are the memories of the body, because, as you've said before, the human beings were gathering experience in their bodies long before they had language.


BILL MOYERS: And these stories were somehow-the experience is that they remember in their bodies.

STANLEY KUNITZ: And it isn't absurd to believe that the whole genetic code holds memories of the ancient world, that is passed on from generation to generation.

BILL MOYERS: So poetry is a form of body language.


BILL MOYERS: Body language.

STANLEY KUNITZ: Body language, yes. Mm-hmm.


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.
exulting somewhat.
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
directed me:
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.

STANLEY KUNITZ: As long as civilization endures, in any form, wherever on this planet, poetry, I think, will be one of the sustaining elements. And perhaps at a more central role than it seems to have now, given the nature of our society.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean, Stanley?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Well, I think we're passing through a historic time when the human race has moved to a large extent from the spiritual sources that give humanity its credence and its value. And I'm not talking about organized religion. I'm talking about the faith in humanity itself, in its powers and its capacity to do what needs to be done for the salvation of the planet.

When we see what happens to this planet, when see this whole century of wars, the atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion and in the name of patriotism, obviously we've gone off the track. And I do think that if we are to move on towards a society in which we can feel pride in our humanity, in which we share the benefits of all the beauty of this planet, then I think we will have to return to some of the values that poetry itself is the instrument of communication of.

BILL MOYERS: But you don't use your poetry to advance political interests?

STANLEY KUNITZ: No, I think poetry resents being used as a tool. But that doesnít poetry resents communicating any message. But the poet is not the poem. The poet has to have passionate beliefs about the nature of society, politically, economically, all the rest of it. And if he believes deeply enough in himself, his words, even though they do not offer statements about his beliefs, will communicate some of the charge that is in him about these phenomena.

BILL MOYERS: A passion for the word reveals a passion for life.

STANLEY KUNITZ: Keats says, in one of his letters, he says, "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart's affection and the truth of imagination."

STANLEY KUNITZ: {92nd Street Y/ Read the poets. Read both the poets of the tradition and the contemporary poets. Get some sense of not only the sacred word of the tradition, but the living word that persists in our own lime. It's a continuum. And the living word will become sacred someday, too.

3rd STUDENT: Have you ever tried to make your poetry more appealing? Do you find yourself doing that, in order to appeal more to the reader?

STANLEY KUNITZ: The ideal is not even to care whether there is an audience. The first task of the poet is to create the person who will write those poems. What you try to do with your life is transform it and in poetry, the transformation of the life means that what you are concerned with is making a legend out of your life. And one's whole year-all the years you spend in writing your poem are years in which you are constructing that legend about yourself, which is not confession and which is not autobiography. And if you create that legend about yourself, which is meaningful both to yourself and to others, people want to read what you have to say, because we're hungry for those secret truths about experience which nobody else gives us, except through the:: medium of art.

STANLEY KUNITZ: In the beginning of one's life. in one's early stages, one has infinite choices. One doesn't know what one is going to become. You might become a scientist, you might become an explorer, you might become a farmer, you might become a poet, who knows? But you make a choice, or the choice is made for you. Every time you make a choice, you reduce exponentially the number of choices that are left to you, and there is finally the facing of the fact that the only choice that matters is living and dying, that that's the one important, unresolved act of a life. This simplifies all the operations of one's mind, because this becomes, then, the center, the axis on which all your thoughts revolve. And then one is through with so many of the hang-ups, the complexities, the anxieties of one's youth. So there is a need, I think, to deal with essences. Gradually I'm changing to a word. That's the new manifestation of the self. One has become one's language; one has become one's poetry.

BILL MOYERS: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made flesh.

STANLEY KUNITZ: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: And in the end was the flesh, and the flesh was made Word?

STANLEY KUNITZ: Yeah, mm-hmm.

BILL MOYERS: The poet yields to the poem?


BILL MOYERS: That's a form of immortality, is it not?

STANLEY KUNITZ: One would like to think so. Maybe somebody, some day in the future, will still want to look at those poems, and will have an inkling of what happened during that process of making, will get some sense of what the poet felt when he said to himself, "This is what it means to be alive."

STANLEY KUNITZ: [Provincetown] wrote this poem entitled "Passing Through" just a few years ago. On my birthday, as this is my birthday. And I wrote it for my wife, Elise. Certainly these are the happiest years for me. It begins with a memory of childhood.

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 given 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 I for a census report
of a five-year-old white male
sharing my mother's address
at the Greene 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.

Dancing on the Edge of the Road

October 13, 1989

A profile of the dean of American poetry, Stanley Kunitz.

Born in 1905, Stanley Kunitz was an integral part of the poetry community until his death in 2006. He published poetry over an eight-decade span, starting with Intellectual Things in 1930 and ending with The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on A Century in the Garden in 2006.

His list of honors included the National Medal of Arts, a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In this 1989 episode of The Power of the Word, Kunitz tells Bill, “Poetry is a solitary activity. There’s a sense of being very much alone, and needing some response from the world to justify the travail of the life devoted to poetry. We are simply not a poetry-loving culture, and poetry is not inherent in the myths of American success and power. So the poet does feel, to a large degree, somehow neglected. Not really wanted. The poet, I think, yearns for community.”

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