Time to consider the work of some elder poets who thrived or are presently thriving in their later years. For all those poets who died young of tuberculosis, alcoholism, drug abuse, or suicide, there are many who aged gracefully and expired of old age. William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Alfred Tennyson, George B. Shaw, Marianne Moore, and Robert Graves, for example, all met their end “ripe with time and full of years.” Among contemporary poets, Adrienne Rich, Phillip Levine, Maya Angelou, and Richard Wilbur are currently writing and publishing in their 80´s.
But perhaps the poet who best epitomizes this phenomenon of longevity is Stanley Kunitz, who had a long and illustrious career and was considered by many to be the most distinguished American poet at the time of his death in 2006 at the age of 100.
Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts to a dressmaker and his Lithuanian-Jewish wife. Shortly before his birth, his father committed suicide and Kunitz was raised by his mother and stepfather, who died when Kunitz was fourteen. Kunitz graduated summa cum laude in 1926 from Harvard College and earned a master's degree in English from Harvard the following year. His first book of poetry was published in 1930, and his second came out 14 years later while Kunitz was serving on the European front in World War II. Despite some difficulties with keeping his books in print and finding a publisher for his third collection, he eventually went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry as well as the National Book Award. Kunitz received many other honors, including a National Medal of Arts, the Bollingen Prize for a lifetime achievement in poetry, the Robert Frost Medal, and Harvard's Centennial Medal. He served two terms as Consultant on Poetry for the Library of Congress (a position which later became known as Poet Laureate), one term as Poet Laureate of the United States, and one term as the state poet of New York. He founded the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Poets House in New York City.
Although his poetry output was thought to be modest, Kunitz’ work is complex and enduring, and his influence on poets such as Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell was considerable. Let’s take a look at two of his poems. First, a poem about old age composed when he was still a young man, “I Dreamed That I was Old”:
I dreamed that I was old: in stale declension
Fallen from my prime, when company
Was mine, cat-nimbleness, and green invention,
Before time took my leafy hours away.
My wisdom, ripe with body’s ruin, found
Itself tart recompense for what was lost
In false exchange: since wisdom in the ground
Has no apocalypse or pentecost.
I wept for my youth, sweet passionate young thought,
And cozy women dead that by my side
Once lay: I wept with bitter longing, not
Remembering how in my youth I cried.
What I like best about this poem is that it relates a dream, the sort of dream where one wakes up with a greater appreciation for one’s wonderful life. The bitter-sweet tone, the nostalgia for youth that is not self-pitying, and the surprisingly fresh metaphors such as “cat-nimbleness, and green invention” are also very pleasing. I especially like the phrase “leafy hours” because it echoes one of my favorite Dylan Thomas’ poems, “Fern Hill” (“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs . . .”).
In a later poem called “Touch Me,” written when Kunitz was in his last years, he reminisces about the past with a sweet and clear-eyed longing:
Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
The depiction of old age in this poem glows warmly and radiates a sense of well being, an acceptance of time’s passing. The speaker (the poet) is full of tenderness and love, and he at first affirms and then seems ready to let go of the beautiful moments of his past, but not without one final flame of desire. Kunitz was as passionate about gardening as he was about poetry, and his love for the little miracles of nature is here too in the crickets and the willow branches, the life that will go on after his passing.
Causes Anthony Maulucci Supports
Greenpeace, Amnesty Inernational, American Cancer Society, Red Cross, Save the Children