Remembering Stanley Kunitz
I’d been thinking about Stanley often before the news of his passing came. Just this spring my partner and I bought a house in the woods on Fire Island, a long skinny strip of barrier beach and dunes along the southern shore of Long Island. It’s the first time I ever bought a house that came with a garden; in the past I’ve made them myself, pretty much from scratch. Not only will this new place be the largest of my gardens, but it will be the first one where somebody else actually spent time planning, considering, selecting, and placing. “Every garden,” the literary critic Robert Harbison wrote, “is a replica.” Of what, exactly, varies: other gardens, a once-loved place, an idea of paradise, a standard of beauty? Thus it’s a little disorienting, trying to understand what lies behind someone else’s sense of a garden, trying to read backward, as it were, from the array of green stuff in front of you back to a determining template of order.
Thus 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. And how he’d narrate the garden, if you asked, showing the dank place he called the gate of hell, where Persephone entered the underworld, and the beautiful terraces of lavender, and the evergreens at the cardinal points, between two of them a shining slice of harbor. But you didn’t really need the tour; what Stanley intended was clear in the design itself. The garden’s order was immediately visible. This was a space that was entirely known, studied, internalized; Stanley had memorized every inch of it, over 30 years, and was alert to any bit of change.
Change—that’s also why I was thinking about Stanley. I’d left behind a place I used to love and leapt into another; I entered into a relationship with a new grove of trees, an unfamiliar sky, an air thick with birdsong and clusters of leaves threaded by sudden flashes of wings. Stanley would have wholeheartedly approved this project. He was a person who, if he did not exactly love change, had learned to welcome it, to stand in the shifting winds with a continuous alert curiosity about whatever might come next. I think this is the secret not of his temporal longevity but of a different sort of youthfulness,
which was his amazing capacity to renew his poetry. Stanley produced his best poems late in life, the work for which he will be remembered: poems marked by emotional openness, a kind of nakedness. I don’t know how he did that, becoming more vulnerable, more emotionally present. But I think the garden had something to do with it.
Here’s a story I heard from Scott McVay, the former president of the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. Stanley, who had come to Chautauqua to read at the age of 98, was interviewed on a local radio show. The interviewer had a list of prepared questions he was determined to ask, including this: “Mr. Kunitz, if you could be present at any three events in history, what would they be?”
Stanley said, “The creation.”
As if there were any point in continuing from there, the interviewer went on. “And what other two events?”
“Tomorrow,” Stanley said, “and tomorrow.”
Those seem the support-beams of a gardener’s faith: beginning and ongoingness. Nothing to do with endings.
Since the publication of his first volume of verse, Turtle, Swan, in 1987, Mark Doty has been recognized as one of the most accomplished poets in America. Hailed for his elegant, intelligent verse, Doty has often been compared to James Merrill, Walt Whitman and C.P. Cavafy. His syntactically complex and...