Stanley had a marvelous sense of humor. He loved to gossip, and he even liked to tell the occasional bawdy story. He knew how to entertain a listener and answered questions with generosity and frankness, even when those questions were naive. (Once, in an interview, I asked him why he spent so much time with younger poets. He pointed out, jokingly, that if he wanted to spend time with his peers, it would have to be at the library, as his peers were all dead.)
Some years ago, I was asked to escort Stanley to an event in New York’s Hudson Valley. He was to give a reading and a lecture, and we would be gone for three days. I had never spent more than a few hours with Stanley, and on this trip we were to travel together and share a guest house for two nights. I was terribly nervous about the trip. Would we run out of things to talk about? Would he find me dull? What if something happened to him? Would the schedule be too demanding and exhaust him? In his mid-90s, Stanley was the oldest person I had ever known.
The morning of our trip was unusually hot for the Cape. With the temperature outside already in the 80s, I was sweating as I stood in Stanley’s kitchen and visited with his wife, Elise. “Now, which Mark are you?” she asked. “Wunderlich,” I told her. “Oh, yes. So many Marks, and all I have are question marks.” She laughed hilariously. When he was ready, I carried Stanley’s bag to the car. He kissed Elise goodbye, and she, still seated in the kitchen, reached up and held his face in her hands. “Goodbye, love. Goodbye.” She looked at me and said, “Please don’t break him.”
In the car I chattered nervously, asking him about the temperature, if he was comfortable, if he wanted a bottle of water. After a few minutes he reached over and patted my knee. “Don’t worry, Mark. We’ll be fine.”
Stanley gave an inspired reading. He had started writing about his friendship with the poet Theodore Roethke, and in his talk and reading, he read both his own poems and those of his friend. He made clear to his audience the tremendous love he felt for his friend, acknowledging his faults but highlighting the luminous quality of Roethke’s poems. It was a generous and honest undertaking. When he read, Stanley had a powerful presence. His voice cleared; he was wildly articulate, commanding. He would glance up from the podium, not looking at the audience exactly, but at some spot slightly above our heads. It occurred to me that his talk was meant less for the audience and more for Roethke himself.
That evening, there was a dinner at the home of our hosts. The house overlooked the valley and had a spectacular view of the cleft of two mountains, connected in the distance by the delicate fretwork of a railroad bridge across which trains would pass at timed intervals. There were waitstaff serving the dinner, and Stanley was seated at the head of the table. He was pleased to be done with his reading and was sipping a martini that our host had presented to him with a flourish. Stanley told stories, entertained the company, and enjoyed being feted. At a lull in the conversation, the person seated to my right asked me how long I’d been working as Stanley’s driver. I told the man that I didn’t work for Stanley, but was simply accompanying him on this trip. Stanley, who’d been quiet, spoke up. “Mark is not my driver. He is a poet and a friend.”
The next day, on our drive home, Stanley told more stories. He told about the kitten he found in the woods as a boy and how he took it home and raised it, and as it matured it became clear he’d adopted a bobcat. Bob, as he was called, escaped the house one day and walked down the main street of Worcester, where it fought and mortally wounded a dog before being shot by the sheriff. He told about his first job—riding his horse down the lane and lighting the gas lamps that lit the streets of Worcester. He also told of meeting D.H. Lawrence while living in France for the year. While on Interstate 95 through Connecticut, we decided to stop for lunch. Stanley suggested we find “a little clam shack, just off the road.” Looking around at the industrial debris and strip malls along the freeway, I thought that the last clam shack in the region had closed its doors the year people stopped wearing raccoon-fur coats and going to speakeasies.
As we drove farther north and Connecticut’s industrial corridor eased into shoreline and open fields, I saw a restaurant that might suit our needs. As we walked into the dining room, Stanley looked around the room and saw that the clientele was mostly geriatric. “I see you’ve brought me to the right place,” he joked. Later that afternoon, I dropped Stanley off at home. Elise was happy and relieved to have him back.
I am grateful for the time I could spend with Stanley Kunitz. Stanley was a generous soul. By teaching, by founding organizations, and by being a friend and mentor, he created a family of poets. Through him, more recent generations of poets were connected to the past. Stanley’s life spanned two centuries and came to an end, but the family “united in the spirit of the art,” as he once wrote, continues.