Conversations with Stanley Kunitz

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Perhaps it's time to question whether the conversion of poetry into an academic discipline is an altogether benign process. 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. 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.

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:. 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. 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 ":. Wunderlich: Many of the poets you loved—your early influences— Herbert , Donne , Blake , Hopkins —I think of as essentially religious poets. What is your relationship to religion?

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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. I don't think he was one of the group because he was too mature for that, but he may have suggested or may have known the young painters who went there. He's head of the Art Department at Purdue. Tony's an interesting painter actually. He was closer to Franz than I think to Mark, but he knew Mark quite well. I was wondering if you knew what the relationship between the two men was. And her feeling about Ad and I think her comparison of the two is what led him to say that.

I don't think they were great buddies, but they certainly knew each other. Whether it was an intimate relation or not I couldn't really say. I doubt that it was.

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Of course, Ad was a sort of gadfly in the whole art world and had a wicked tongue and wrote some pretty biting pieces about the art world. So that I think that was the provocation. I don't think up to then he had been, but it was that he was coming into his black period. Weren't there any other composers either classical or modern or jazz that you know that he responded to? Did you actually see any of the drawings Rothko attempted? It was not anything that we discussed in any detail. It was one of those projects that you're sitting around and you talk about and have a drink and you talk about some more, but it came to nothing.

One was being an abstract landscapist. I was wondering if he had ever discussed critics' emphasis on color relationships.

Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz

Color was his main statement. I was wondering if he had ever discussed how he felt about being labeled as a colorist. He did to a degree think of himself as a colorist, but color to him was more than pigment. It had for him emotive correspondences that were essential to an understanding of his work.


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KUNITZ: Yes, that is generally true, and that's why he so much liked Goldwater's piece on him because that was the thrust of what he was saying. KUNITZ: Well, he was always railing [laughter] so that it's pretty hard to separate one rail from another, but his general attitude was that the whole art, gallery, museum and critical world stank.

What I forgot to ask was were there any other purposes or activities of the Foundation that Rothko had in mind, to your knowledge? You see, that's one of the bones of contention about the whole endowment of the Foundation, was whether he had another intention which the court finally decided in favor of. But if that was in his mind it was certainly not expressed to his closest friends.

And in our last interview you talked about them and gave me the sense that they were actually installed in the restaurant. Other sources seemed to be confused. One other source I have [says] the pictures were never actually delivered to the restaurant. Can you recall if you either saw them -. KUNITZ: I never saw them installed, but my recollection is that that was what made him so angry was - whether it was a proposed installation or whether it was an actual installation I don't know - he felt they were being treated as a commercial adjunct and would disappear, be used as a tool, and would not be visible as paintings.

2014 National Champion Anita Norman (TN) recites "The Layers" by Stanley Kunitz

Otherwise I don't know why he would have been so angry. But it seems to me that's a historical fact that could easily be verified. Johnny Meyers would know about that aspect of it. He made so many mistakes in the fact part. It's just so easy to. And then he had a program in mind. He seemed to say that his painting wasn't personal.


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  8. The same way T. Eliot claimed that poetry was not personal, but now that we know the facts of his life we know that there was direct association between let us say what was happening to him and the time he was writing " The Wasteland " and the way the poem evolved itself. It is inconceivable there could be a complete separation between the man that suffers and the mind that creates.

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    It was so obvious that he was in a depressed state at the time of that [turning]. I commented on what the painting said to me, and he didn't dispute it. KUNITZ: I said that these paintings seem to me - I forget my exact words, but in effect - bleak and despondent, as compared to the glowing canvases of the earlier period.

    And he did not refute it. I think that Rothko had a problem with the word "personal" because he seemed to think that it might maybe contradict the word "universal," which is probably what he wanted. Of course, he did, as I recall, propose at one point when we were talking a theory of the black embracing all colors and being capable of all sorts of nuances so that it wasn't a monolithic color.

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