From the Archive: Stanley Kunitz's 1971 Letter to Betty Kray
PostedFebruary 18, 2016
The kosher grape juice & the organic munch-bars are doing wonders for me! I count on a restoration of my old bounce before the pussy willows are out.
I’m not surprised at the Washington take-over of the poetry-in-the-schools project. I can just picture the large-scale mechanization of the Kochian formulas. Imagination beware!
The October conference may be a good idea, if it’s kept modest enough. But the Lord save us from a huge conclave of poets!
Let’s get together some time next month. I hope you’re feeling really ship-shape.
By the time he had written this letter, Kunitz was already a well-known Pulitzer Prize winner; he was awarded a Pulitzer in 1959 for his Selected Poems 1928–1958 (Little, Brown & Co.). He published his follow-up, The Testing-Tree (Little, Brown & Co., 1971), the same year as he wrote this letter, and his next book, The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 (Little, Brown & Co., 1979), would win the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
Here, Kunitz discusses education; at the time, the country was in the midst of the public school reform movement, which first began to gain momentum in the mid-1960s. In 1965, writers and educators joined together at a series of national conferences to figure out ways to transform the public school education system. Many agreed that the arts, such as poetry, could be a way to reach students outside of the traditional, book- and testing-based classroom model. In 1967, a group of writers including Kenneth Koch, June Jordan, Grace Paley, Muriel Rukeyser, and Anne Sexton helped shape the mission of the nonprofit Teachers & Writers Collaborative, with the aim of bringing writers into schools. Teachers & Writers Collaborative continues to work on its mission to bring writing into the classroom today.
Koch himself, part of the group of writers who were responsible for the early vision of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, was known as an influential teacher who, in 1968, began teaching poetry to students at P. S. 61 in New York City and, subsequently, wrote several books about his teaching experiences: Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (Chelsea House Publishers, 1970), Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children (Vintage Books, 1973), Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing (Vintage Books, 1982), and I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing to Old People and Making Your Own Days (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1997).
While this accounts for the “Kochian formulas” that Kunitz refers to in his letter, he also mentions the threat of “large-scale mechanization” of that method due to the “Washington take-over.” Kunitz is likely referring there to the adoption of the poets-in-the-schools (PITS) program by the National Endowment for the Arts, which began funding the programs all across the country. Though Kunitz exhibits his concern in the letter—either in earnest or in jest—today the poets-in-the-schools program, as well as the writers-in-the-schools (WITS) program, continues to provide teachers with imaginative ways to incorporate creative writing in the classroom.
Three years after he wrote this letter, Kunitz was named consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (which would be later be known as the U.S. poet laureateship), a position he held until 1976. He was later named to the position again, this time as the United States poet laureate, in 2000 to 2001. Kunitz also served as a Chancellor, a position to which he was elected in 1970 and would hold until 1996. Known for his important role in fostering the arts, by 1971 Kunitz had already helped found the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a few years later, he and Kray would team up to found Poets House.
Kunitz would continue to receive such honors as the Bollingen Prize, Harvard’s Centennial Medal, and the National Medal of the Arts throughout his lifetime—and perhaps the “kosher grape juice” and “organic munch-bars” he mentions in his letter worked as well as he had hoped, because Kunitz lived for a full century of reading and writing: He died on May 14, 2006, at the age of 100.