Remembering Stanley Kunitz

by Gregory Orr
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.

Relation is meaning. Poems are relationships of words that stand for relationships in the world. The words of the poem create those relationships, or dramatize the dynamics of them. Poetry is one of the most fundamental of meaning-making projects—story-telling that isn’t just the hero’s adventures and actions, but also his or her innerness. It thrives on intensity: “What do I want of my life? / More! More!” says Kunitz in “Journal for My Daughter.”

Kunitz brought poetry back to its basics: to lyric survival. How will the self live and love and believe? “O teach me how to work and keep me kind,” the speaker pleads in “Father and Son.” He modeled for many of us, for me at least, a poetry rooted in autobiography, but transfigured by imagination. The “I” that inhabits his poems is not trapped in the personal self, but is instead Emerson’s “representative man.” Or what Emily Dickinson said (she who began more poems with “I” than any other word)—“when I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” The protagonist of his poems both him and not-him, and always searching, always questing.

He had enormous, kind dignity. He made all of us who knew him believe in the dignity and worth of poetry because he embodied it. That, and a wry skepticism about most things. He’d start to write around midnight and keep on from there; he’d have a strong martini every afternoon (and you would, too, if you were visiting). He was always restless and seeking; (“And every stone on the road / precious to me)—haunted by losses, animated by passions. A slow poet (a book every fifteen years), he once told me he never wrote a poem unless it insisted on being written. That charged each one with an urgency and purpose.

He was eloquent on the purpose of poetry in the world. One of the poet’s real jobs—not to be turned over to critics or theorists: something we poets must do if we can. Write about the why of poetry: what it’s for, how it functions in our lives.

He lived to be a hundred. A hundred years before his birth, his beloved Keats and Blake were still alive. And Emily Dickinson and Whitman only a short time before he was born. Brothers and sisters. All that energy and giving! All that liveliness and living!
Originally Published: June 23, 2006


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 Gregory  Orr


The author of more than 10 collections of poetry and several volumes of essays, criticism, and memoir, Gregory Orr is a master of the short, personal lyric. His poetry has been widely anthologized and translated into at least 10 languages. Observes critic Hank Lazer, “From Burning the Empty Nests (1973) to the present, Orr gradually developed the ability to fuse his incredible skill at visual precision—the signature of his . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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