Openhearted: Stanley Kunitz and Mark Wunderlich in Conversation
Mark Wunderlich: I'd like to begin with our location and ask you how you became a resident of Provincetown. What was it that drew you here?
Stanley Kunitz: From my early years, when I experienced a certain loneliness at the thought of becoming a poet in this culture, I have been driven to search for a community in which I could feel at home. There are other factors involved in addition to the need for companionship. In general, I've found that I am more at peace with myself when I'm in daily contact with the natural world, either in the country or by the sea, than in an urban situation. In the thirties, during the Great Depression, I acquired a run-down farm of more than a hundred acres, near Storrs, Connecticut, where the state university is now located. The sprawling old house had no heat or electricity or running water, but I managed to make it livable for the brief course of my first marriage. One of my sources of consolation was in the ritual of ploughing the fields with a yoke of white oxen. Afterward, I lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, until I was drafted for service in World War II.
Provincetown I came to more or less by accident through my marriage to the painter Elise Asher, who had rented a studio on the beach, smack in the middle of town. That's where we spent our first summer together, in 1957. Five years later we took possession of this property in the West End, where I terraced our hillside plot of sand facing the bay and began to invent a garden that continues to this day to occupy me as a work of imagination still in progress. "Stanley's Folly" is Elise's name for it. Provincetown, I might add, is a place where one is permitted to indulge in one's follies.
Wunderlich: What led you to found the Fine Arts Work Center?
Kunitz: It wasn't a solo operation by any means. I was one of a group of what you might call "concerned citizens" and friends of the arts who met irregularly in the mid-sixties to consider how to restore the town's historic prestige as a vanguard arts community. It was obvious that the older generation of artists was dying out and that the venturesome young were leaving, one by one, for what they perceived to be greener and more golden shores. As a departing painter of the New York School explained to me, "There's no place like Provincetown, but at a certain point, if you intend to make it, the Hamptons are where you have to be."
I find it almost incredible now that out of those chaotic and argumentative sessions, inspired by a slump in the local economy, the concept of the Fine Arts Work Center should have evolved. We are still the only long-term residency program of its kind. Our commitment is to the discovery and nurture of exceptionally gifted artists and writers at that emerging stage when they are ready to work and live, in the company of their peers, outside the academic environment. Louise Glück, Susan Mitchell, Denis Johnson, and Yusef Komunyakaa, to name only a few, are representative of the writers who came here when they were unknown. We look for original talent and a diversity of backgrounds. It's a real gamble, for we have only the signs of early promise to guide us in our choice of applicants; but as the record of almost thirty years shows, we've been extraordinarily astute, or maybe only lucky.
Wunderlich: Over the years you've been responsible for blessing so many younger poets, and for initiating them into the world of contemporary poetry. I'm curious to hear what that relationship to younger poets means to you, and also, I'd like to know who blessed you? Did someone initiate you as a young poet?
Kunitz: I felt very isolated as a young person, the son of immigrants, growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, early in the century. In that period there was no possibility of conversation or even contact with older poets. In fact, I didn't know another soul with whom I could share my interests. Eventually, after my Harvard years, I gravitated to New York, the magnet city of the arts, where I found an editorial job and began to send out my poems. Among the first periodicals to publish me were Poetry, The Dial, The Nation, The New Republic, and Commonweal, but I was too busy and too shy to make friends easily, so I still felt like an outsider.
My life changed when, soon after its opening, Yaddo invited me to be a guest, much to my surprise. In that small summer group—there were only eight or nine of us—I was the child among elders. That was my entry, really, into the world of arts and letters. My first collection, Intellectual Things, was accepted by Doubleday, Doran shortly after. When it appeared in 1930, I was twenty-five. I made a vow then, many times renewed, never to forget how much the gift of friendship and encouragement had meant to me in my youth. As for my companionship with younger poets, I feel that I'm the one who's blessed in that relationship. Even if I wanted to sport with other poets of my age, where on earth would I find them? Besides, "nonagenarian" is such an ugly word! I like to think that all the true poets—young and old, even the dead ones—are contemporaries.
Wunderlich: You said the greatest challenge that you faced was being in isolation. What do you think is the greatest challenge facing young writers today?
Kunitz: As a result of the proliferation of creative writing programs, summer conferences, and workshops, not to speak of the unprecedented availability of poets of established reputation as teachers of their craft, young writers need no longer feel neglected or isolated. I doubt whether any civilization has ever produced so many qualified poets as ours. That's something to boast about. Nevertheless, the general leveling of quality, what I have referred to as the democratization of genius, suggests to me that despite our advantages we are not living in a golden age of poetry, but at best a silver age. Perhaps it's time to question whether the conversion of poetry into an academic discipline is an altogether benign process.
Wunderlich: I think people often associate you with the organizations you helped found and shape—the Work Center, the MFA program at Columbia University, Poets House. How did your experience at Harvard shape your concept of the organizations you helped found?
Kunitz: At Harvard in my time, with its 2 percent quota for Jews and its general air of condescension to ethnic minorities and scholarship students, one had a definite sense of social stratification. Both the Work Center and Poets House are emblematic of the society I yearned for: idealistic, openhearted, and free.
Wunderlich: That brings us to an interesting point. I'm curious to hear what you think about the poet's relationship to the political. Recently Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal of Arts, citing her disappointment with the government that has, she feels, turned its back on the disenfranchised of the country, and also pointing to the hypocrisy of a country that wants to bestow a medal on a poet with one hand, while doing away with funding for artists with the other. What do you make of the poet's relationship to the political?
Kunitz: I must confess it's somewhat awkward for me to respond to the questions you raise. In 1993, the first year of President Clinton's administration, I accepted the National Medal of Arts from his hands at the White House. If I had felt any qualms about doing so, they would have been allayed by the presence of William Styron and Arthur Miller, the two other literary recipients, both of them unimpeachable representatives of the liberal conscience. The president's recent intention to honor Adrienne Rich confirms for me that he remains a friend of the arts and a defender of free speech. Although I am fully aware of Bill Clinton's flaws, I fail to see how he can be held responsible for the trashing of the NEA by Jesse Helms, Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the Republican Congress. Blame them! This government of ours, we need to remind ourselves, is not a monolithic institution. All power does not flow from the top. Since I've thought a good deal about this subject, I'd like to add some further reflections:
- To live as a poet in this culture is the aesthetic equivalent of a major political statement.
- Beware of manifestos: they are the death of poetry.
- A poet is a citizen, like any other. One of the obligations of citizenship is participation in the political process.
When you accept an award for your poems, you do not imply that you endorse every action or belief of the donor: you accept it not for yourself alone, for ego gratification, but in the name of poetry and of the civilization inspired by the arts.
Wunderlich: In the debate concerning the survival of the National Endowment for the Arts, the charge of indecency turns out to be a major topic. How do you explain the persistence of so much controversy about the arts in our society?
Kunitz: The lingering influence of our Puritan tradition has led to an almost pathological native suspicion of the arts. To this day, in the political arena, the most successful conservative strategy is to wave the flag; attack immigrants, radicals, and intellectuals; and denounce indecent and subversive art in order to preserve the virtue of the average American family. A substantial portion of the American population seems not to know or care that the perpetuation of a free art in a free society depends on the prerogative to offend certain sensibilities.
Wunderlich: What is the role of poetry in our culture? We have so many media we can choose from—film, video, performance, etc. What does poetry have to offer the human spirit this late in the millennium? Why poetry?
Kunitz: Poetry is the medium of choice for giving our most hidden self a voice—the voice behind the mask that all of us wear. Poetry says, "You are not alone in the world: all your fears, anxieties, hopes, despairs are the common property of the race." In a way, poetry is the most private of all the arts, and yet it is public, too, a form of social bonding. It gains its power from the chaos at its source, the untold secrets of the self. The power is in the mystery of the word.
Wunderlich: What is the relationship of the self to your poetry? You spoke earlier about the mask. Is writing your attempt to penetrate the mask, and are you more successful at that now than you may have perceived yourself earlier? Is it easier now?
Kunitz: Yeats said that if you wear a mask long enough, it will become your face. That's the danger, of course. The hope is to do away with the need for the mask, to create a persona that grows with you, that is not fixed in one period in time. The evolving biological self is also an evolving spiritual self. I can see that the persona of my early poems is far different from the persona of my later poems, because I am different. And yet there is a continuity, a strain of selfhood, that runs from the beginning of the life to the end. As I put it in the opening lines of "The Layers":
I have walked through many lives,
Some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
Kunitz: I do not subscribe to any organized religion, yet I think of myself as a religious person, and that's independent of any kind of faith or practice, or belief in God. While I was still in college I fastened on the phrase "the holiness of the heart's affections" in one of Keats’s letters, and it has stayed with me ever since. To me, that's religion. "I am certain of nothing," he wrote, "but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination." Though I am in no danger of conversion, the poets you mention as early influences—Herbert, Donne, Blake, Hopkins—still speak to me and light the way.
Wunderlich: You once described a poet's collected poems as his "book of changes." What changes does your work now contain?
Kunitz: It's hard to speak about one's self while still in process. Certainly through the years I've tried to simplify the surface of my poems. I've tried to write more intimately than I did, in a more conversational tone. I have fewer conflicts, perhaps; yet the ones that remain are central to my existence. Since I came to realize, in my middle years, that I was occupying two worlds at once, that of my living and that of my dying, my poems have tended to hover between them. More recently I expressed a desire to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare, "so transparent that one can look through and see the world." That's pretty much what I still feel. I recognize that there is a great area of unknowing within me. I try to reach into that chaos of the inner life, to touch those words and images that will help me face the ultimate reality. Such existential concerns tend to make me rather impatient with the particulars of the day. At the same time I am aware that it is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self. There is a transportation, to and fro, between these two worlds. The moment that flow stops, one stops being a poet.