Stanley Kunitz, the poet, died the other day. He was 100. I’m not sure I can hear so well above the general static of life and lesser news, but he seems to have passed with hardly a sound beyond standard obituary treatments. He was not a contestant on “Idol,” a singer on the wrong side of the law, a president of the United States, a ballplayer, a fallen corporate chieftain, the architect of a policy condoning torture, a movie actor or director, a NASCAR legend, a pioneer of the Motown sound, a pitchman, the winner of a million bucks, or a suspect in a sensational crime. Not that this is a lament for unsung poets. If some network put a prime-time poet drama or sitcom on the tube, I know where I’d be: Watching “24” and “Survivor” and reruns of “L&O.” I probably wouldn’t know or care much about the poet’s TV adventures. And the real-life poets? They’d still be unknown, mostly, their voices too soft to hear.
But what voices, what profound voices, full of rain, sun and sane consideration of our condition. I wasn’t aware of Kunitz until he was 95, when he published a new collections of poems. He got a flurry of attention in poet-friendly mass media: public radio and public television (for instance, “Fooling with Words,” with Bill Moyers). I believe that on one of his appearances, someone had him read a poem he’d written when Halley’s Comet crossed our sky for the second time in his lifetime:
Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street —
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.