Embracing Stanley Kunitz
My obsession with the poetry and life of Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) is well-documented (Judy’s Journal 2005 October). Even before my involvement with his boyhood home in Worcester, Massachusetts, he was one of my favorite poets. In the early 1990’s when I was asked to deliver the keynote speech at the Kappa Delta Pi induction ceremony at Fitchburg State College, I chose to end my advice to future teachers with his poem, “The Layers.” Why? Its lines encourage us to live life armed with the acceptance and fluidity necessary for success and survival. I believe “The Layers” to be Kunitz’s signature poem.
This month, I am honored to have been chosen as the fifth poet in the annual Gregory Stockmal Reading. It was created in memory of the late Greg Stockmal who, with his wife, Carol, had a close friendship with Kunitz that spanned 20 years. Sponsored by the Worcester County Poetry Association and a local university, readings have been given by Cleopatra Mathis, Stephen Cramer, Michael True and Kathleen Spivack. They all knew Stanley Kunitz personally, and two poets were mentored by him. Why was I asked? My thought is because of the volunteer work I have done at his boyhood home (Judy’s Journal 2011 April).
I did not have a personal relationship with Kunitz. Once at a book signing, I stood in line wondering what I could say to The Great One. He had read “The Wellfleet Whale,” so when my turn came I said, “I love the whales, too.” However lame that sounded, it made him touch my elbow and look up at me. That’s it: the sum total of my contact with Stanley Kunitz. To tell the truth, I do not think that I deserve the honor of being the Gregory Stockmal Reading poet. But there you have it: I will be reading at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 24th at Worcester State University’s Student Center Fallon Room, .
How have I prepared for this? My April 2013 Judy’s Journal was an unexpected boon. As this month drew closer, I reread it. Since I did not know Kunitz personally, the main theme and play list became the most challenging part. Then, during a long solitary car trip, the idea finally hit: What did I have in common with a much-honored poet, who was twice named the Poet Laureate of the United States? My poems!
It is said that poets are stuck on two subjects: love and death. I drove along, thinking about Kunitz‘s poems. “Don’t be obvious. Which poems might not be read repeatedly? Suddenly, I remembered “The Unquiet Ones.” I also have a poem about the loss of my mother: “Green as Limes.” Hey! “Anniversary” is about my relationship with my husband and “Touch Me” is about his wife, Elise Asher. It felt as if I were having a poetic dialogue with Stanley Kunitz. His poems called to me and I responded with mine. “The Wellfleet Whale”? I realized that I even have a poem about whales: “Presence”! Coming up with these titles was the most intoxication I could handle behind the wheel of my car.
Over the weeks, more poem pairs kept coming to me. Eleven pairs = twenty-two poems! The most enviable problem became that of choosing which to read during the 45 minutes or less allotted to me (and Stanley).
For publicity purposes, I needed to create a title for the evening. “A Dialogue with Stanley Kunitz”? No, that might make people expect a séance. A cheeky idea popped into my head: “Embracing Stanley Kunitz.” Why not? While “embrace” means to wrap one’s arms lovingly around another, it also means to gladly accept and seize something, such as…another poet’s work! I embrace you, Stanley Kunitz!