On July 29th, John and I stood at Stanley Kunitz’s
wrought-iron gate, silently wishing him a happy 100th birthday
while he was inside his home celebrating quietly with his family
and closest friends. We were completely satisfied because a
week earlier, we had the privilege of attending a slightly more
official celebration that was held in the Stanley Kunitz Common
Room at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
The FAWC planned the event as a birthday celebration and book launch for The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden. Co-author Genine Lentine and photographer Marnie Crawford Samuelson were to be there, as well as Stanley, who “may say a word or two, and perhaps read one poem,” according to Executive Director Hunter O’Hanian. That was enough for us. We booked a bed and breakfast nearby.
During the past twenty years, we had heard Stanley read several times in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he was born and on Cape Cod, where he summers (or gardens) every year and takes a break from the heat of New York City. If you do not know his poetry, there is no way to convince you that he deserves his iconic status in the poetry community except to advise you to read The Collected Poems: Stanley Kunitz or Passing Through: The Later Poems (W.W. Norton). Then you might have some idea why we felt privileged to hear or even see him again.
John and I arrived early, sat in the front row, and watched as the room gradually fill with well-wishers. The summer heat and humidity were intense, and everyone moved as economically as possible. When Stanley walked in slowly with his daughter, Gretchen, and Genine and Marnie, there were five chairs in the front waiting for them. Frail and delicate, Stanley took advantage of one immediately.
He wore a long-sleeved yellow plaid shirt and slacks, white socks and black shoes. The chair next to him stayed poised during the next half hour, ready for each person who perched there for a moment to have a private word with him. A quiet and respectful rhythm was established without a word of direction. A sheet cake waited on a table nearby.
The evening got underway, but forgive me for not remembering much of what anyone said, except Stanley. In retrospect, he did not really say more than a few words of thanks at the beginning. But what happened next was astonishing, and quite unexpected. He began to read that one poem, while his daughter held the book for him. As he read, the years fell away. He was the Stanley of five, ten, twenty years ago. We applauded, grateful to the core, to hear his voice sing a familiar poem one more time.
“Another one, daddy?” He gestured yes. He read another. We applauded his growing strength and our good fortune. Soon, Genine took over holding the book, as Stanley reached for the book again as soon as the applause quieted. An invisible cue came from nowhere, and we stood to sing “Happy Birthday.” We finished it off with another long and heartfelt round of applause. Stanley waved his hand for us to sit down. He reached toward the book, like a chick straining out of his nest for food. He read and read. At one point, Gretchen said quietly, “Daddy, if you keep this up, we’ll be here for another hundred years.” Ah, the advantage of sitting close enough to be able to hear such a wonderful comment.
How long did he go on? I cannot say exactly, but we had the chance to sing “Happy Birthday” a second time. We sang, thinking it would give him a chance to wind down. Did he stop then? No, he read a few more poems before the cake was finally served. I think we sang again because we were grateful for the gift he had just given us, and we sang to send him off on his second hundred years.
For more about Stanley Kunitz, see the next issue of The Worcester Review, which is devoted to him and his work. A one year subscription and membership in the Worcester County Poetry Association (www.wcpa.homestead.com) is $25: WCPA, c/o Village Arts Gallery, 1 Ekman St., Worcester, Massachusetts 01607.
The theme of November’s journal will be a surprise to you and me. With that in mind, I look forward to writing it and sharing it with you. If you have any comments or questions about this or any journal entry in the past year, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to hear from you!