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Mind Over Matter

A conversation between Stanley Kunitz and his assistant, Genine Lentine.

GL: Stanley?

SK: Yes.

GL: Do you believe in mind over matter?


SK: You should ask it the other way, "Do you believe in matter over mind?" and then you’d have to say no.

[ laughter. ]

GL: I can hardly even think about that! I ask because of the way you just scrambled up those stairs, as if you just said, “Well, it doesn’t matter that I don’t have my walking stick.” So much of what you do seems to be the result of just deciding you can do it.

SK: That’s right.

GL: We stop short of our potential so often.

SK: True enough. True enough.

GL: What is it in you that enables you to short circuit that sense of “I can’t do it.”

SK: I don’t know but that’s been a principle all my life to do what I can and more. And it’s amazing that if you believe in that there’s almost nothing that stands in your way except your own restrictiveness.

GL: It’s so much about what we think we can do, and that’s always much less than what we can really do. One of the ways I think of my job is that everyday we have some heretofore impossible task in front of us, and then we do it. Every day I wonder, “What impossible thing are we going to do today?”

SK: That’s a good question.

GL: It’s only a construct, only poverty of mind that defines a task as impossible anyway. It’s just maybe that it hasn’t been done yet.

SK: Well, you know there are situations when you can’t do it, that’s all there is to it, and you have to be realistic up to a certain point.

GL: Yes. It’s foolhardy not to be.

SK: But it goes the other way too. You can do more than you think you can. You can stretch your strength to a point where you . . . you can walk up this path without a cane. If I had a cane I would use it, but without it I feel perfectly able.

GL: Do you think that’s how evolution proceeds? One creature decides, Hey! I’m going to try to eat that shiny blue thing over there, or one member of the herd is able to reach the more plentiful leaves in the upper branches, then gradually, the species starts to have a longer neck.

Do you think the poet is in some way an advance scout for spiritual evolution?

SK: In a way, yes. I cannot think of any other vocation that demands as much of you as the poem does in terms of confronting life and death and everything else.

There’s a bug there.

GL: I know. It’s just sleeping. That’s a nice looking beetle.

SK: Oh, beautiful. [laughs]

GL: It’s got such a great sheen. I like how sticky their legs are too. They’re very effective.

What does the poem demand of you? What were you going to say?

SK: What does the stickiness of the legs do for the beetle?

GL: It allows it to hold onto the leaf.

SK: Prey.

GL: Oh, prey, I was just thinking it allows it to travel where it needs to travel, but probably holding onto its prey is another feature.

Could we talk more about what the poem demands of you?

SK: Everything you can give. In a way, the concept of the poem is boundless. It wants everything you have to give, and then more. That’s its nature.

GL: How does it tell you what it wants?

SK: Well, you have to become the spokesperson for the poem. For poetry itself. You have to demand of yourself a kind of power, understanding, perfection that is beyond your daily self.

GL: What if you were to bring that into your daily life?

SK: You would become impossible.


GL: I wonder about that distinction you’re making. The poem both expands—it can receive whatever you give it—but it also pushes back and what I love is that feeling where there’s infinite room, but it’s also resisting me. And it’s at that place of resistance where that effort at articulation, where the heat, where the friction takes place, that impulse to try to resolve that feeling. It’s like when you compared it to a cat scratching its nails on a tree, it’s that feeling. Trying to get language to strike a likeness to your inner state. Language provides both the resistance and the opportunity.

SK: Very true.

GL: and it’s always falling short, but it’s also providing you with these incredible gifts too, these coincidences of form, unimagined concentrations or suspensions of meaning.

I was trying to see what bird that was that was under the yew hedge, but it flew away.

SK: Not a mocking bird?

GL: No.

SK: A catbird.

GL: Yes. I bet it was a catbird. Do they feed on the ground?

SK: That’s the primary occupant of the garden.

GL: I love the call of the catbird.

SK: And you feel it never gets discouraged. It keeps calling.

GL: You talk a lot about testing yourself. Do you think the poem is the ultimate testing ground?

SK: For a poet, yes. [laughs]

GL: I mean for you.

SK: mm hmm.

[pause] It’s so much a testing ground that often, I think, among the poets I know, it is capable affecting one’s capacity to deal with the dailiness of life, because it’s the dailiness that is the enemy of the poem.

GL: That’s so paradoxical though because the day provides the . . .

SK: it gives you material, it gives you a circumstance, but if the poem emerges as daily let’s say as a menu, then it’s a negative impact.

GL: I remember reading in Galway’s book, Walking Down the Stairs, that Rilke wouldn’t go to his daughter’s wedding because he thought he’d be better off staying home . . .

SK: . . . and writing a poem, mm hmm. I don’t think poems should be treated as though they were a substitute for life.

GL: It doesn’t seem like any self-respecting poem would want to be treated that way, because the poem advocates for life.

Have you been feeling like your daily life recently has been inimical to poems?

SK: Well I think any daily life tends to become routine. One doesn’t expect revelation out of daily life.

GL: Isn’t that when revelation comes though?

SK: Surprisingly enough it’s the feeding ground. It’s where the materials of the poem are found, but revelation is not really consistent with dailiness. It has a miraculous aspect to it, and it is not to be encountered in every experience of the day, and especially the routine experiences

GL: Intuitively that feels to me just the kind of place where revelation happens; you’re doing the dishes and your mind reaches a state of equanimity in the task

SK: and then you drop the dish and it shatters

GL: and it was a worthy sacrifice.

Photos Marnie Crawford Samuelson



Mind Over Matter


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