Remembering Stanley Kunitz
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. “The Wellfleet Whale,” recently written, felt to me also a link—solid, conductive, and thrilling—to the great chain of poets. Of this moment in concerns, language, and temper, a work of profound ecological awareness and of a compassion not lessened by unflinching observation, the lines also reached back to the Anglo-Saxon poets of the whale-roads. Over the next two decades I had several chances to hear Stanley read again, and to speak with him just enough to convey my gratitude for his work. His presence offered an abiding instruction in how a poet might hope to live as well as write. At the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2002, he still charged the stage with a velocity and eagerness confounding any preconceptions about a poet well into his 90s.
A week and a half ago, May 7, I received a phone call from Genine Lentine, Stanley’s remarkable assistant. We had never met, but a few months before, she had mailed me an inscribed copy of The Wild Braid, along with a note of her own. I sent my new book in return. Now, Genine told me on the phone, they were reading After aloud together. Reading aloud had become a central pleasure for Stanley in the past year, she said, as their earlier discussions about particular poems had become more and more distilled into the pure pleasure of words spoken and heard. In Stanley’s pacing and intonation, she told me, you could hear his understanding actively unfold; it was quite amazing and moving to hear. Would I like it if she recorded a poem for me? I would.
May 13, Saturday, I received the e-mailed audio-file, along with a note saying that while Wednesday—the day “Against Certainty” was recorded—had been a good day, “astonishingly clear,” she now sent the poem in great uncertainty. Wednesday evening Stanley had started running a fever, and he was now on oxygen, slipping in and out of sleep. I listened. The voice was the one I had long known, warmly familiar, the syllables clear and fully rounded despite a certain slowing, an increase of pauses. There were a few places I had to pay close attention, but nothing was changed, in the words. Yet for me it felt also as if this reading, done at this time, in this way, brought the poem into a realm I hadn’t quite known was there. “Against Certainty" was not written with the idea that it might be a poem holding open the door at the end of a life; now, I realized, it could never be anything else in my mind. As if its passage through Stanley’s consciousness made of him a second author, as a few, great artists are able to make whatever they look at their own, by their way of looking.
The next morning, Stanley’s death. Even in the few days since, I have heard other stories. It seems that many have had the sense of receiving from Stanley some last gift, felt as blessing or revelation. Generosity to others ran so deep in the currents of his life, how could it not be so? Even a meteor showers out sparks before disappearance.
It is an implausible privilege, for which I thank Genine Lentine, to be able to make this recording available to others.
There is something out in the dark that wants to correct us.
Each time I think “this,” it answers “that.”
Answers hard, in the heart-grammar’s strictness.
If I then say “that,” it too is taken away.
Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity.
When the cat waits in the path-hedge,
no cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.
I would like to enter the silence portion as she does.
To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,
one shadow fully at ease inside another.
Award-winning poet, essayist, and translator Jane Hirshfield is the author of several collections of verse, including The Beauty (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award; Come, Thief (2011); After (2006); shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize; and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), a finalist for the National Book Critics...