My Call to Stanley Kunitz

Yesterday, Stanley Kunitz was possibly the only 99-year-old former U.S. poet laureate with a listed phone number. That’s no longer true. He turned 100 today. I tried the number to see if it is really his. If someone had picked up, I was going to say “happy birthday” or “sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number” if my nerve failed me. But there was no answer. From the centenary stories I’ve seen, he spends his summers in Massashusetts.

Well, happy birthday, anyway. Honestly, I don’t know his work well and don’t think I’d ever read any of it before I heard him read a poem called “The Layers” when he was interviewed on the “NewsHour” a few years ago. What got my attention was how forceful this man of 95 sounded:

Q.: … You’ve said that a poem is present even before it’s written down.

Kunitz: Yes. I think a poem lies submerged in the depths of one’s being. It’s an amalgamation of images, often the key images out of a life. I think there are certain episodes in the life that really form a constellation, and that’s the germinal point of the poems. The poems, when they come with an incident from the immediate present, latch on to those images that are deep in one’s whole sensibility, and when that happens, everything starts firing at once.

Q.: And how have you kept in touch with that? How have you stayed so intellectually and physically vital all these years? You’ve been… you have a poem in this book that goes back to 1914. … How have you done that?

Kunitz: Because I haven’t dared to forget. I think it’s important for one’s survival to keep the richness of the life always there to be tapped. One doesn’t live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you became conscious.

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