Volume 76, Number 3 | June 7 - 13, 2006


Stanley Kunitz receiving the Literary Lion medal at the New York Public Library.

In his poetry or garden, Kunitz cultivated renewal

By Esther Harriott

In November 1995, the poet Stanley Kunitz, who died on May 13 at the age of 100, read from his work at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y.

A short, slight man, Kunitz stood behind the lectern and, in his distinctive incantatory style, read a selection of poems that, he said, represented significant periods in his life. When he finished, the audience in the packed hall gave him a standing ovation. Kunitz remained at the lectern for a few minutes, his face serious and composed as he looked out at the cheering crowd. Then he waved and walked briskly off the stage. The woman next to me burst into tears, and seemed taken aback to find herself so moved. But it was impossible not to be moved, both by the beauty of the poetry and by the sight of this small, magisterial figure, alone on the large stage, unfolding a lifetime in his poems.

It was the first of many celebrations in honor of Kunitz’s 90th birthday year, which culminated in his winning the 1995 National Book Award for “Passing Through: New and Selected Later Poems.” Sometimes awards given to writers late in life are for lifetime achievement rather than for the specific late work. Not so in Kunitz’s case. “Passing Through,” which contains poems written from his mid-60s through his 80s, shows a poet at the height of his powers.

I had met Kunitz five years earlier, when I interviewed him for a book I was planning to write about writers over 80. I arrived at his apartment in Greenwich Village at 5:30 p.m., his usual hour for seeing visitors, and a smiling Kunitz greeted me at the door. He was alone — his wife, the painter Elise Ascher, was at her studio — but he performed the role of host with impressive efficiency and ease, ushering me into the living room and helping me to set up my tape recorder before going to the kitchen to fix drinks. His voice on the phone, alert but reedy, had sounded old. But seeing him in person, it was hard to believe that this wiry, quick-moving man would turn 85 in three months.

The apartment was in a modern 10-story building but, inside, it felt like a comfortably old-fashioned home — except for the art. Sitting in the living room, I was surrounded by paintings of leading abstract expressionists — Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko — who were Kunitz’s close friends. At one end of the living room was a balcony that Kunitz had converted into a greenhouse for his plants. I knew that he did his serious gardening in Provincetown, Mass., where Kunitz and his wife lived for six months every year, and where he cultivated his famous garden.

Kunitz returned with our drinks and settled into a chair at my right. Throughout the interview, he stared straight ahead as he concentrated on my questions, then answered them in precise, carefully composed sentences. With his aquiline nose, small chin, bald head and intent but soft gaze, Kunitz looked like a benevolent eagle.

I began by asking him about the gains and losses of age. He had found more rewards in old age than he ever expected, Kunitz said, among them the blessings of love and friendship that he never dreamed would last so long. And he took pride in having triumphed over the “difficulties and disasters” of his earlier years: a childhood haunted by the “mysterious absence” of his father, who had committed suicide a few months before Kunitz was born in Worcester, Mass.; the shattering of his hopes for an academic career when, after graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1926, he was rejected as a teaching assistant (and told that the students might resent being taught English by a Jew); and years of obscurity and neglect before he received critical recognition.

But those years, Kunitz said, turned out to be the most seminal period of his creative life because it was “a time of testing, self-questioning and self-renewal.” Self-renewal was the overarching theme of Kunitz’s work and life, and at its source were his twin passions: writing poems and tending his garden.

I finally got to see the garden in the summer of 1996, a few days after Kunitz’s 91st birthday. Composed of five tiers of varying widths, the garden extended in a sinuous curve from the front gate back to the clapboard house. The brick tiers had been Kunitz’s solution to the problem of creating a garden on the property’s steep sand dunes 30 years earlier. But they were also the organizing principle of his creation. He planted each tier in a different pattern and color scheme, each complementing the others, so that the whole formed an intricate, harmonious design.

A few years before, a hurricane had stripped the garden bare. All that remained were the sand dunes. “It looked like a desert,” Kunitz said afterward. But he potted as many plants as he could save and brought them into the house, and when the storm was over, he replanted them outside. By the time he left for New York in late October, new shoots were already coming up. “The garden will grow again,” he had assured me. “I’m going to redo it when I go back there in the spring, and this time I’ll do it just the way I want it.”

Now, as I watched Kunitz clamber up and down the five tiers of his garden (like five stanzas, he said), looking like an ancient, ageless wood sprite, I thought of the closing lines of his poem “The Round,” which joyfully recounts his daily routine of gardening and writing poems: “I can scarcely wait till tomorrow/ when a new life begins for me,/ as it does each day,/ as it does each day.”

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