Stanley consented to read on camera, and graced us with strong readings of “The Portrait,” “Halley’s Comet” and the opening of “The Testing Tree.” When he finished, he said, “That house still has a strong hold on us both.” He also remarked, “I feel so close to my childhood right now.”
I had been thinking about Stanley walking through his garden, back in Provincetown, how he’d stand with complete attention looking, just looking, at a swath of pink Japanese anemones or the darkish bark of a cypress.
I first heard Stanley Kunitz read at San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center. At 78, and already our great elder, he read in what felt like the voice of a time before microphones, when amplification came from the body alone, and perhaps from the soul.
At a poetry festival, someone once asked Stanley about his relationship to Nature. “I am Nature,” he retorted—not unkindly.
Suffused with gratitude for the privilege of working with Stanley over these six years, my mind has been crowding with all I’d like to honor in him: his intrepid grace, his profound quality of attention, his extraordinary capacity to listen, his curiosity, his talent for renewal, his sense of play, on and on. Where to start?
Poetry is immortal and Stanley Kunitz, after a century plus almost one, was almost as well.
I met him in the fall of 1969, when I became his student at Columbia University; I’ve known him these almost forty years as mentor and friend and fellow practitioner. I can’t reminisce about Stanley Kunitz the person as presence—I have too many memories there and not enough eloquence of anecdote. I urge anyone who can to search out films he’s appeared in—in order to experience his astounding quiet and lucid presence and the way he recites with incantatory power.
For all his strict maintenance of himself, what he loved most was wildness, the pure gifts of some unnameable indescribable God, whose force he experienced in what he took to be manifestations in poetry and his garden and the sweetest aspects of human beings.
Although he was understanding of people’s desire to make him into a wise man because of his age, that particular night he seemed a little scornful of the impulse: there was even a hint of half-malicious joy in shrugging off his age as anything other than an impersonal fact.
As we wandered the nursery, he’d call out a name. “Now I’d like to find some . . . lobelia.” I would look out at the acre of plants in pots, clueless. Stanley would notice the blank look on my face and describe the shape of the leaf, the structure of the flower, whether annual or perennial, and I would set out to find one and bring it to him.