Stanley Kunitz, the Gardener and the Poet
by Ted Wojtasik
I just finished reading The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine. The cover photo, however, most impressed me because it managed to recall a strong visual image I have of Stanley Kunitz standing in his Provincetown seafront garden—a consciously remembered image. I lived in Provincetown for the summer in 1989 where I wrote the first draft of what would become my second novel.
And I lived, really, just a five-minute walk from his house on Commercial Street. I was living in a cabin-like structure with a bathroom, a kitchen, and one other large room that functioned for everything else. That summer was a season of walking and bicycling, and I would often walk by or bike by Stanley Kunitz’s house and, usually, I would stop to admire his handsome garden.
The garden shifted ever so slightly week to week. The garden itself is deep and long because the house is set far back. I would guess it would be about half the length of a basketball court and perhaps just as wide. This was not just a small plot of land—this was the entire front yard filled with brick terraces, walkways of crushed seashells, trees, shrubs, hedges, and flowers. The rich odor of the sea and the pungent aroma of flowers produced a pleasant scent. On a few occasions I saw Stanley Kunitz himself working in his garden: sometimes far away near his house and sometimes close to the white picket fence that lined the front of his property.
At Columbia University, where I was enrolled as a graduate student, I had attended his retirement party in the fall of 1985. He had taught at the University for 22 years in the writing program for The School of the Arts. Although retired, he still maintained close ties to the MFA program as a lecturer and as a friend. I had also briefly studied with him. The writing program each semester offered a one-point class to study with a guest lecturer who turned out to be Stanley Kunitz for the spring semester of 1986. I immediately enrolled in his class.
The course entailed four three-hours-long classes over a two-week period. What he taught was part writing workshop and part lecture. We wrote poems, he talked, we read poems from Edmund Waller to Wallace Stevens, and he discussed them.
Stanley Kunitz was 81 years old that spring. He had a slight figure, dressed in a light brown jacket with black leather elbows. He had prominent, piercing dark brown eyes. His head was bald but for wisps of gray hair on the sides with solid white sideburns and a steel-gray mustache and steel-gray eyebrows. He had rather large hands and rather large ears. I noticed, also, that often he would look off at the corner of the room or up at the ceiling when speaking as though he were searching for the words or the phrase or the image in the air. There was a distinct lull to his voice and, for some reason, he reminded me of an owl. One of the most moving prose pieces in this new collection for me is “Mansfield Center, Connecticut: Owls in the Attic.”
One basic theme that he addressed in class was the absence of the father. He said, “The quest for the father implies the absence of the father.” He claimed that most poets are forever trying against the odds to recapture their innocence—it is one of the secrets of survival. He also said that Franz Kafka wanted to collect all his work under the title How to Escape from Father. In terms of writing poetry, he said that an American poet has two primary tasks: 1) create the person who will write the poem (character building or what John Keats called “soul-banking”) and 2) create the idea of the audience that will read the poem. He talked some about the corruption of language and that the world is one web, one continuous tissue and if you tear that tissue the entire tissue shudders—this idea is clearly expressed in The Wild Braid. He spoke about the lyric and said that one of his favorite lyrics is “The Lily and the Rose,” a poem written by an anonymous poet from the 15th or 16th centuries. He thought the lyrical voice needed to be rediscovered. He spoke about the line as an object and that it must be perceived as both object and process. A poet “needs to know the weight and the measure of a line.” Let the poem speak for itself. And, finally, he said, “The ending of a poem must be both a door and a window: closed and open at the same time.”
Because I had studied with him and I was a graduate of Columbia’s MFA program, I had some type of connection to him. On one occasion, when he was working near the fence, I called to him, and he called back and walked over. (If I didn’t have any type of connection to him, then I would never have called out.)
I knew he couldn’t possibly know who I was, so I explained that I had taken his course at Columbia and so on. He was pleasant and sociable. Then I let him get back to work in his garden. Ever since then, I would wave to him, but that was the only time we ever talked.
One afternoon I was walking by and saw Stanley Kunitz near his house with his hands held behind his back, leaning forward, and staring into a pail. I stopped. I watched him. Minutes passed and he did not move. I made the conscious decision to remember this moment to imprint it in my memory.
I wondered what he was looking at. Was it dirt or some plant or some small creature? Then I thought the pail could be empty. If so, then this great, gentle, giving man was lost in meditation or thought or the creation of a poem. I watched him a minute or more and then continued my walk. That was the last time I ever saw him. The cover photograph of Stanley Kunitz in his garden forcefully recalled this mental image I have of him. And I could not be more grateful or more humbled to have that memory of Stanley Kunitz as part of my life history.
In many ways, Stanley Kunitz was a poem, and like the ending of a poem his death was both a closed door and an open window.
Bio: Ted Wojtasik is the author of two novels, No Strange Fire and Collage, and many short stories published in various literary journals, such as Cold Mountain Review, New Delta Review, and Cairn. His first novel received a Silver Angel Award from Excellence in Media and a gold-starred review and “Editors’ Choice” in Booklist in 1996. His second novel was one of five finalists for the Lambda Literary Award in 2004. He served on the Literature Panel for the National Endowment of the Arts in 2003. His short story “Scars and Frost” received honorable mention in O. Henry Festival Stories 2000, a short story competition, sponsored by Greensboro College in North Carolina. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in 20th-century American literature from the University of South Carolina.