Stanley Kunitz 2001

Stanley Kunitz

I want first of all to congratulate the winners of the Whiting Awards this evening.  The awards, through the years, have proved their distinction, aside from their generosity, by giving support and encouragement to some of the outstanding writers in this country, and I do not doubt that this evening’s group of winners will prove to be among the outstanding writers of this country in the years to come.

I don’t want to offer anything in the way of practical criticism, or practical suggestions to the writers this evening.  Instead, I have thought about the world we live in and the role of the writer, especially in a time of crisis and great uncertainty. 

Incidentally, before I proceed any further, though my references are largely from the world of poetry, I have no prejudice against fiction writers, and in fact have been as greatly influenced by my reading of contemporary fiction as by my reading of the poets.  Among my first, greatest influences were James Joyce and Franz Kafka, but those are only two that I isolate from the rest.

The mind lives by its contradictions, and the poetic imagination must oppose any form of oppression, including the oppression of the mind by a single idea.  Petty bureaucrats, party hacks, all those who have failed, in Chekhov’s phrase, “to squeeze the serf out of their veins,” can be counted on to do the oppressor’s dirty work for him. 

In a revolutionary period, the activists are understandably disappointed in artists who do not overtly serve their movement.  The Irish fighters for freedom condemned Yeats for his failure to give them his unqualified support, not realizing that it was he who would immortalize their names and their cause: “I write it out in verse, MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse / Now and in time to be / Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”

I can recall how vehemently the theologians of the left denounced American writers in the thirties who refrained from producing agitprop tracts.  Those who were most abusive were the very ones who later felt that they had been betrayed by their dogma.  Some of them turned eventually into reactionary scolds.  The Weathermen of the sixties, idealists most of them, intoxicated by their faith in the holiness of violence, were in their turn incapable of grasping that a society bereft of the graces and values that the arts perpetuate would not be a society worth inheriting.

I think of the poet as the representative free man of our time.  I can say that of the writer in general.  Since the Industrial Revolution, anyone who works for himself and alone has become a rarity.  The writer is more different from others than ever because of his immediate whole and solitary relation to his work in the midst of a society where men labor in packs or gangs and are productive only in bits and pieces.

The modern crisis in poetry is older than most of us think.  It goes back in time to a pair of related phenomena: the triumph of reason and of the Industrial Revolution.  With the Enlightenment, when rationalism became king, the church could no longer offer itself as a chalice into which to pour the wine of transcendence.  Art divined itself as a substitute for religion, whereby men could satisfy their old need to belong to eternity as well as to time.

The Industrial Revolution threatened people by proposing to turn them into wage slaves, which indeed it did.  It threatened the natural universe, that broad perspective of images, by polluting the landscape, by defiling Eden.  Into the gardens of the West crept Satan in the form of the wily entrepreneur.  This is what the English poets, at the dawn of the 19th Century, were trying to say, with varying degrees of awareness, of what it was that alarmed them. 

“We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon,” cried Wordsworth.  Blake, whose voice gets clearer every year, cursed the dark Satanic mills and promised not to cease from mental fight until we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.  In Victorian England, when the battle was all but lost, the Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who still clung to his faith that nature is never spent, there lives the dearest freshness, deep down things, protested for an audience not yet born.  “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod, / And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

The poet knows that his roots, the roots of being, strike deep into the biosphere, that the entire living creation is sacred to him, that whoever cuts him off from his source withers him, that whoever despoils, defoliates, hates, kills, is his enemy.  In Blake’s lacerating words, “Each outcry of the hunted hare, a fiber from the brain doth tear.”  Coleridge felt man’s humanity so strongly that he risked blemishing his masterpiece by appending to it a moral tag.  “He prayeth well who loveth well both man and bird and beast.”

The frontier where man must defend his life, the principle of life itself, is at the very edge of creation, for existence and nonexistence are scarcely distinguishable, where we confront the anonymous and minimal among the plankton and protozoa.  Man will perish unless he learns that the web of the universe is a continuous tissue.  Touch it at any point, and the whole web shudders. 

The arts, like that web, comprise a far-flung network, a psychic membrane, along whose filaments communication is almost instantaneous.  All arts, all artists, are somehow connected.  Cezanne paints a new picture in his studio in Aix.  Overnight, through the rest of France, thousands of paintings begin to fall off the walls, and all at once, poets waking look out of their windows at a landscape that they had never seen before.

One of them, the inventor of the color of vowels, announces “Il faut être absolument moderne,” one must be absolutely modern.  It keeps happening, all the time.

The poet knows that revolutions of sensibility are not won at the barricades.  He also knows that there is no way in which he can escape history, even if he should want to.  Stephen Dedalus’s arrogant cry, “non serviam,” will not serve, still echoes in his ear, flattering his conviction that genius does not stoop to causes. 

At the same time, he realizes that the hour is late now, and that some refusals are no longer permitted him, lest he wither at the heart.  The writer’s function, said Camus, in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, is not without arduous duties.  “By definition he cannot serve those who make history; he must save those who are subject to it.”  To whom can one pledge one’s allegiance, except to the victims? 

A generation ago, it was possible, though I still find it hardly credible, to be both a reactionary and a poet, even a major poet.  Yeats adored the aristocracy.  Eliot was a snob and sometimes worse.  Stevens, in some of his letters, sounds like a proto-Bircher, and we all know the sad truth about Pound.  But I do not go to them for their politics.  And besides, if I try hard enough, I can rationalize their defections.

These were the last voices of an elitist society, though Pound’s case was complicated by an odd infusion of populism.  The fruits of progress dismayed them.  They saw a world cheapened and brutalized, so they fought, each in his own way, to preserve a kind of life that was sweeter and nobler to them than the new barbarism that threatened to engulf them. 

If poetry teaches us anything about our feelings, it must be that we can have several feelings about the same thing at the same time.  These feelings are not necessarily compatible, and if we try to solidify them into a certainty, they become other feelings.  When I think of Ezra Pound, I do not try to ignore the shameful fugue of his fascism and anti-Semitism.  But I also remember his generosity to other poets, the wide range of his sympathy and intelligence, his lovely gift for friendship, his seminal influence, and above all, those poems of his, defying an age that demanded an image of its accelerated grimace. 

“There died a myriad, / And of the best, among them, / For an old bitch gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilization. / Charm, smiling at the good mouth, / Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid, / For two gross of broken statues, / For a few thousand battered books.”

I value that man in the act of writing that poem.  In a politicized world, the labels we pin on people, communist or fascist, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, are thought to betoken constant and irrevocable values of paramount significance. 

Most of us believe that the shape of the future will be determined politically.  When priorities are discussed, it is usually assumed that art is somehow less relevant than politics, though both are structures concerned with the quality of life.  Politics for the short term, art for the long. 

Among poets, the exultation of the innocence springs from their kinship with the natural life force.  A patch of bluebells brought Hopkins news of god.  The effort of a plant cutting to sprout led Roethke to exclaim, “What saint strained so much, / Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?”

Pasternak’s dear friend, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, said of him, “He anticipated Adam and was still living in the fourth day of creation.”  Even the revolution, she noted, entered his consciousness, like everything in his life, through nature.  In the summer of 1917, he kept in step with it.  He listened.  What was he listening for?  For whatever the roots could tell him of life, of hope, of rebirth. As Anna Akhmatova wrote in a poem about him, “It means he is tiptoeing over pine needles so as not to startle the light sleep of space.”  And the last stanza of her tribute begins, “He has been rewarded by a kind of eternal childhood.”

Among modern American poets, I think of William Carlos Williams as belonging to that blessed category.  Who else had enough love and life and buoyancy in him to write, “He has on / an old light grey Fedora / She a black beret / He a dirty sweater / She an old blue coat / that fits her tight / Grey flapping pants / Red skirt and / broken down black pumps / Fat Lost Ambling / nowhere through / the upper town they kick / their way through / heaps of / fallen maple leaves / still green — and / crisp as dollar bills / Nothing to do. Hot cha!”

Of Pasternak and Williams, it can be said that they did more than merely care about their art.  They cared about others.  If they were ruthless on occasion in friendship or love, they were consistently more ruthless with themselves.  For these reasons, their work gives off a special kind of radiance.

To preserve that shining innocence, that irrepressible élan, and yet to know, to comprehend the existence of evil, to be the steady vessel of our rage against it, how many are great enough for such a task?  No bolder challenge confronts the modern artist than to stay healthy in a sick world. 

Humanity these days in the view of the late Claude Lévi Strauss, recalls the behavior of maggots in a sack of flour.  When the populations of these worms increases, he observed, even before they meet, before they become conscious of one another, they secrete certain toxins that kill at a distance.  That is, they poison the flour they are in, and they die.  And he presents the ominous drama inside that self-contaminated bag of maggots as a metaphor for the human predicament.

The other night, I dreamed of thousands of little white powdery envelopes drifting down from a heavy black cloud.  How shall we respond?  How can we respond to such a faceless assault?

I think in response of Anna Akhmatova, who faced incessant persecution and calumny in her lifetime during the worst years of the Stalin terror, those years in which Stalin’s kommisar of internal affairs, Nikolai Ezhov, was given carte blanche to arrest and even kill anyone who was suspected of not adoring the head of state.  And eventually, the persecution extended to her family.  Her son Lev was arrested.  His fate was uncertain.  She joined the long lines before the prison gates in Leningrad. 

And this is how she describes what happened there.  This is the beginning of her grand poem that laments for the victims of the Stalin terror.  The first lines constitute what she called instead of a preface, and here is what she wrote.  “In the terrible years of the Ezhov terror, I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad.  One day, somebody in the crowd identified me.  Standing behind me was a woman with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before.  Now, she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper—everybody whispered there—‘Can you describe this?’  And I said, ‘I can.’  Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”


Stanley Kunitz published his first book of poetry, Intellectual Things, in 1930. Selected Poems 1928-1958 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and a late volume of new and selected poems, Passing Through, received the National Book Award in 1995.  W.W. Norton published The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz in 2000, the year he was named Poet Laureate of the United States. Kunitz’s work has been recognized as an influence on other major poets of his generation, including Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, and W.H. Auden, and as both influence and inspiration to succeeding generations.  Indeed, Kunitz was deeply committed to fostering community among artists, and was a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Poets House in New York City. Together with his wife, the painter Elise Asher, he split his time between New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts. He died at the age of 100 in 2006.